The 1,000-year-old man: The remarkable story of author Max Evans

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The Big Chief Bar looked like a cyclone had hit it, and Max Evans was responsible. That’s why he was in jail in Raton.

So was his friend, an ex-jockey, and the jockey’s monkey, both of whom shared the cell next to Evans. It was really the monkey who started the bar brawl that night way back in the late 1940s, while Evans, his new buddy, and the buddy’s pet primate were all having a friendly drink. (In those days, monkeys were allowed in Raton bars.) Then the spunky simian sprang onto a nearby table, where a couple of would-be society matrons and their big bruiser boyfriends sat. The liquor bottles toppled over, someone got whiskey on their nice white dress, the two angry suitors began cussing out the monkey and, well, Evans had to step in, all for the honor of a monkey. Fists started swinging and furniture went flying. Evans and his pals got a night of free board in the local jail. The next day, Evans returned to the Big Chief Bar and paid for the damages.

Now a thousand years old, the Albuquerque resident and writer can write off such carefree and youthful indiscretions as part of the price he paid to have adventures. “We called them wrecks,” Evans said of the many tussles he has taken part in. “And the great mystery in the sky does not allow you to have all that fun unless you have some wrecks.”

At ninety-two, author Max Evans has had his share of wrecks. But he said he hasn’t had that many for a man who is a thousand years old, as he insists he is. A new documentary about his life, Ol’ Max Evans: The First Thousand Years, seems to bear that claim out. Made by Lorene Mills, Paul Barnes, and David Leach, the film paints a lively portrait of its title character, a man who worked as a cowboy, rancher, soldier, miner, con man, painter, mystic, and writer. He is also a seeker and a survivor. The monkey business didn’t kill him. Neither did the bottle, D-Day, bad reviews, a busted bank account, or the various men who bested him in windswept barrooms or dusty desert streets. He’s written about 30 published works (he tries to count them up, but can’t quite get the sum right), seen two film adaptations come out of two of those works, rubbed shoulders with the Hollywood likes of Sam Peckinpah and Fess Parker, and earned a number of literary awards.

The Santa Fe Independent Film Festival will honor him with a screening of Ol’ Max Evans on Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Center for Contemporary Arts. “I’m humbled and honored, but I don’t deserve a film like this,” Evans said during a recent interview held in one of his favorite Albuquerque eateries, a business that offers discounts to veterans and has plenty of friendly waitresses who like to flirt with Evans. “Good God, who really deserves a film made of their life? Maybe Jesus. Or George Washington.”

After recently seeing a rough cut of the film, Evans said it made him relive a lot of embarrassing situations that he flung himself into wholeheartedly in order to live life to its fullest and figure out what the “Great Mystery in the Sky,” as he calls it, is all about. “How could I have been stupid enough to try all that nonsense?” he said, chuckling over the memories the film brought back.

Mills, Barnes, and Leach used historical photos, archival film footage, clips from the two movies made from Evans’ novels — The Rounders(1965), directed by Burt Kennedy and starring Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda, and The Hi-Lo Country (1998), directed by Stephen Frears and starring Woody Harrelson and Billy Crudup — and interviews with people who know, love, and somehow tolerate Evans in the documentary. Those talking heads include his biographer, Slim Randles, and the infamous treasure-hiding Forrest Fenn.

The film traces Evans’ roots from the small ranching town of Ropes, Texas — so named because the cowboys couldn’t afford fencing for corrals, so they tied a bunch of ropes together to keep the horses in — to his journey to New Mexico as an adolescent. There he fell in love with the northeastern part of the state, which he dubbed “The Hi Lo Country.” He also fell in love with horses, with the writing of Balzac, and with life itself. He got off to a good start with a ranch and a wife and a lot of hope. When World War II stepped in, he found himself playing the part of an out-of-place cowboy at the D-Day invasion of Normandy. He has never enjoyed talking about that part of his life, but the blood, guts, urine, and excrement of it all can be found in one of his best works, his 1993 novel Bluefeather Fellini. He just wanted to survive that terrible summer of 1944. And he did not want to kill anyone — even someone wearing an enemy uniform, he says in the film: “I just had to.”

His combat experiences shaped his postwar persona, and he returned to America a changed man. His head was full of shrapnel and one of his inner ears was torn apart. “All of us who survived — who weren’t killed — came back, and we were all kind of crazy for a while,” he said. “People were always respectful and condoned a lot of nonsense from us. They put up with a lot of crap.”

After the war, he tried to acclimate to a different West from the one he had left, as the film makes clear. Progress, in the form of the pick-up truck, had galloped into the ranching business, and the big outfits had staked their claims while Evans was fighting overseas. By the end of the ’40s, Evans found himself edged out of the ranching business. He was broke and out of work. It wouldn’t be the first time.

He came back not wanting to kill anymore, not even the dreaded coyotes he once hunted because they preyed on livestock. Evans developed an affinity and respect for animals, often making them the main characters of his stories, including his short story “Under the One-Eyed Sky,” a haunting tale of survival about a mama cow, still recovering from having just given birth, who struggles to keep her calf alive as a determined coyote stalks them across the prairie.

Most of Evans’ stories are set in the West, but don’t call him a Western writer. He says he writes about people, about places, about tradition, and about conflict. “He is a cowboy and he is a writer, but I don’t think he’s a cowboy writer,” New Mexico journalist Ollie Reed says in the film.

Success came late, around 1960, with Evans’ first novel, The Rounders, about a couple of carefree cowpokes who try without success to tame a spirited horse named Ol’ Fooler. MGM bought the film rights and launched an ambitious effort to have famed director William Wellman helm it with Fess Parker and Evans playing the leads (Evans didn’t want the part though Wellman wanted him, while Parker didn’t want Evans, so it all fell apart). Then Burt Kennedy nabbed the story and turned into a gentle comedy of frustration. The picture was a sleeper hit and turned a tidy profit, and Evans found himself going to Hollywood to write screenplays under the table and hobnob with legendary director Sam Peckinpah, who tried without success to get a film version of Evans’ 1961 novel The Hi-Lo Countrymade for years. British director Stephen Frears would eventually get that job done, with the help of producer Martin Scorsese, in the late 1990s.

“Peckinpah was probably the craziest person I knew in the movie business,” Evans said. “I think he was crazy on purpose. He liked to throw people off balance, and pulling some kind of stunt is a good way to put people off balance. But crazy people are a lot of fun. Sam was a lot of fun.” Evans kept writing and painting and eventually moved from the Hi-Lo Country to Taos, and later to Albuquerque, with his second wife, Pat. He has lived in the Duke City for 50 years, and so far the city hasn’t kicked him out.

Mills said she started interviewing Evans back in the 1990s because she loves his writing. “It’s plain-speak written in this beautiful hand, an unvarnished view of the world, but beautifully presented,” she said. Actor and writer Peter Coyote narrates the documentary, while actor Sam Elliott — who appeared in the film version of The Hi-Lo Country — reads excerpts from Evans’ work throughout the film.

Evans can spin a yarn, and one senses that some of his details may be exaggerated now and then, to put it kindly. But his storytelling spirit is infectious: Several of the on-camera interview subjects in the film tell stories about Max Evans with the same sort of abandon as he does, truth be damned. Evans himself, talking in the film about an old cowboy he knew, says of the man’s penchant for storytelling, “I don’t know whether these stories were true or not — but they were good!”

Seeing the film, one realizes none of that matters, and that Max Evans did not, as he likes to boast, experience a life of adventure. He was the adventure, and he’s outlived most of those who weathered the storms he likely created over the years. He has no regrets now, he said. “You can’t. It’s all done. It’s useless to look back and say that I’d change anything. It’s all over.

“I’ve done something every single day of my entire life, and that’s a lot of days.” 

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