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From English accents to the meaning of "Cohort," Riders in the Sky take on 'Gladiator'

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

It is High Noon in Reno, Nevada. The sky is smeared with a gravy-gray gloom, and the midday air is growing chill in anticipation of an oncoming storm. Cooling my heels, I wait beside the box-office of a big downtown movie theater. Across the street is John Ascuaga's Nugget Casino, where a massive light-studded marquee is gleefully flashing the words "Riders in the Sky! Performing Tonight!"

I check my watch, and continue my surveillance of the Nugget. From beneath the marquee a door finally opens, and out strides Woody Paul, the "King of the Cowboy Fiddlers." Seeing me waiting, he hurries over. A mild-mannered MIT graduate and one-time plasma physicist, Woody Paul traded his test tubes for a cowboy fiddle 25 years ago, hitting the trail with the very same band whose name is now blinking 50 feet above his head.

Riders in the Sky, a quartet of singing cowboys who park their ponies in Nashville, are in Reno for a series of concerts at the Nugget. With a high energy act that combines roping, yodeling, and home-on-the-range harmonizing, the Riders (ridersinthesky.com) dress and sing in the grand tradition of Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey--with an added dash of cowboy camp and innuendo a la Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles. After thirty-plus albums, two T.V. shows, a long-running NPR radio program, and almost 5000 performances, the Riders in the Sky are currently enjoying a happy boost in popularity, due in part to Woody's Roundup, the kitschy Randy Newman song they sing in Toy Story 2. Last week, in fact, they completed work on a new CD, to be released in September by Walt Disney. The recording will feature a passel of new Rider's songs "suggested by" the Toy Story characters, none of whom remotely resembles the blood-drenched macho men in Ridley Scott's Gladiator, the film I am about to see with Riders in the Sky.

Woody ambles up to collect his movie ticket, and we step out of the windy gloom into the theater, where the other Riders--stand-up bass-player Too Slim, guitar-strumming head-yodeler Ranger Doug ("The idol of American youth"), and master accordionist Joey the Cow Polka King--are already waiting.

"Howdy!" they all say.

"I watch a lot of movies," drawls Woody Paul, taking his seat. "We're always travelin' so I see videos in the RV. I buy 'em for two dollars at truck stops along the way. You can buy some pretty good movies at truck stops. I just watched Citizen Ruth last week. That was great.

"Been a long time since I saw a good gladiator film, though."

Starring Russell Crowe as wronged Roman general Maximus, Gladiator is a veritable pageant of blood, death and betrayal. After Maximus, faithful follower of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, is betrayed by Aurelius' evil son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the general is sold into slavery and eventually is forced into service as a gladiator. He broods. He fights. He dreams of freedom. Eventually, he is brought to Rome, where he faces off against his old enemy Commodus.

The cowboys loved it. More or less.

"It kind of bothered me to see a Roman with an English accent," says Woody, gobbling oysters after the show. "All the Romans sounded like Rex Harrison."

Heads nod around the table.

"On the other hand," Ranger Doug points out, "if they'd spoken in Latin, it would have been impossible for people to understand."

"Only historians and old Roman Catholics would have known what was going on," agrees Too Slim, aggressively buttering a 10-inch bread stick.

"I want to know why we didn't see more animal fights," says Woody.

"I want to know who really did succeed Marcus Aurelius," says Ranger Doug, "and why didn't he have a better barber?"

"What I want to know is if Commodus inspired the commode," asks Joey.

"You know, if we were all Romans," Ranger Doug decides, "Joey would have to be called Squeezius Maximus."

"Slim would be Thumpus Continuous," says Joey.

"And Ranger Doug would be Yodellus," Too Slim suggests.

"Or Twangus Out-of-tunus," Ranger Doug adds.

What about Woody?

"Fiddilus," offers Ranger Doug. "Or just Woodimus Paullus."

Woodimus Paullus. The Emperor of the Cowboy fiddlers.

"I like that," shrugs Woody.

Turning to Slim, Ranger Doug remarks, "I'm sure you noticed the correct use of the word 'cohort'?"

"Sure did. I was thrilled for you," Slim grins, explaining, "Ranger Doug can't stomach misuse of the word 'cohort.'"

"You might call him a cohort-phobe," adds Joey.

"You see," says Doug, "according to Webster's, a cohort was a group of Roman soldiers numbering 480 men or more. Ten cohorts formed one legion. But frequently, people come up to me for autographs after a show, and they'll say, 'Hey, where are your cohorts?'

"Cohorts? Cohorts? Sorry, but there aren't that many of them."

Just when it seems as if the conversation will never turn serious, Too Slim offers an interesting theory.

"The theme at the heart of Gladiator is really an old western theme," he says. "Maximus is like the Sheriff, a dangerous man with a pure spirit, thrust into the corruption of Rome or Tombstone, Arizona, with the thought that maybe he'll have a positive impact, that his uncompromised integrity will be a flash-point for the moral development and enhancement of the whole town, or for that matter, of the whole entire race. That's a powerful theme within Western Civilization, a powerful religious theme, a powerful theme in movies and literature. It strikes really deep and makes you sit up in your chair."

Once again, heads nod all around the table.

"I'll tell you how much I liked this movie," concludes Woodimus Paullus. "I'll say it right now: Someday I will go to a truck stop and pay as much as three dollars--make that three dollars and a half--and then I'll watch it all over again."

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From the May 25-31, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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