Tag Archives: Made for Television

Last Stand at Saber River

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 16, 2015

Last Stand at Saber River—Tom Selleck, Suzy Amis, Keith Carradine, David Carradine, Tracey Needham, David Dukes, Rachel Duncan, Haley Joel Osment, Harry Carey, Jr., Lumi Cavazos (Made for television, 1997; Dir:  Dick Lowry)

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A story from Elmore Leonard is usually a good starting point for a western.  (See, for example, The Tall T, 3:10 to Yuma [original and remake], Hombre, Valdez Is Coming and Joe Kidd.)  In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot appeared in a series of westerns that were initially shown on Ted Turner’s TNT television station, with higher production values than normally seen in that medium.  Often they were based on stories from the heyday of westerns in the 1950s and 1960s by such masters as Leonard and Louis L’Amour, but also on classics by writers like Jack Schaefer (Monte Walsh).  Tom Selleck not only starred, but often took a production role in getting the movie made, as was the case with this Leonard story from the 1950s.

In early 1865 Paul Cable (Tom Selleck; we seldom hear him called anything but “Cable”) is returning from the Civil War, where he has spent four years riding with Confederate cavalry commander Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.  There are multiple references to Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864, where Forrest and his men committed an atrocity by gunning down more than 300 Union prisoners, most of them black soldiers.  Burned out on the war, Cable just wants to pick up his wife and children in Texas and move back to their ranch in Arizona Territory.  Cable’s wife Martha (Suzy Amis) has spent the interim as a schoolteacher and gunsmith, working with her gunsmith father (Harry Carey, Jr. in his final acting role).  It’s not easy to put the Cable family back together again.  Martha is still traumatized by the death of baby Mary three years ago, by not understanding why (and resenting that) Cable went to fight, by seeing that he’s changed while he’s been away (more willing to kill if necessary) and by being uprooted again.  Frictions in the Cable marriage are one of the basic two conflicts that flow through the story.

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The Cables (Haley Joel Osment, Suzy Amis and Tom Selleck) try to sort things out, now that Paul Cable is home from the war.

The other involves the Kidstons, a family consisting of two brothers Vern (Keith Carradine) and Duane (David Carradine) and Duane’s free-thinking daughter Lorraine (Tracey Needham).  They’re Union sympathizers (Duane had been kicked out of the Union army) who have come to dominate the area while the Cables have been gone.  When the Cables approach their own ranch house, they find it occupied by Kidston men and prostitutes; Martha shoots down two of them when they threaten Cable, and she is appalled that she did it.

Cable is jumped by two brothers of one of the deceased men; he kills one and captures the other, but eventually lets him go.  He takes his family to the general store, where Edward Janroe (David Dukes), a Confederate veteran himself, promises protection for them.  Returning to his cabin, Cable finds Lorraine Kidston there, claiming to have been thrown from her horse.  She makes it obvious he can have a dalliance with her; it is less obvious whether the attraction is real, or she’s just making mischief.  Cable politely resists in any event.

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Daughter of a gunsmith, Martha Cable (Suzy Amis) can both make and shoot guns.

[Spoilers follow.]  As news of the end of the war reaches Arizona Territory, Janroe, who has been smuggling British Enfield rifles across the border with Mexico and then sending them east to the Confederate army, volunteers to take the news to Cable.  But Janroe seems to have become unhinged by this development.  Cable is out working, and in his absence Janroe trashes the Cable cabin.  He then stops by the Kidston ranch, and shoots Duane twice, with no witnesses.  Vern Kidston thinks it’s obvious that Cable did it.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) negotiates with storekeeper Edward Janroe (David Dukes).

When Kidston and his men besiege Cable at his cabin, he’s rescued by Martha taking out yet another of their gunmen.  Cable and Vern Kidston finally talk and figure out that Janroe didn’t give Cable the news, and that if he was out that way he might have been the one to shoot Duane. Heading for the Janroe store, they find that Janroe has (a) abducted Cable’s daughter Clare (Rachel Duncan), (b) shot Luz (Lumi Cavazos), his Hispanic mistress, when she tried to stop it, and (c) taken his stock of rifles to the Mexican bandits along the border.  Cable and Vern head out in pursuit.  The rescue involves an extended chase, Vern shooting Janroe, Cable rescuing his daughter from a runaway wagon, and finally Cable fighting off the bandits and taking a wound himself.  Back at the Cable cabin, indications are that there will be peace with the remaining Kidstons and perhaps between Cable and Martha.

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Cable (Tom Selleck) is pinned down in the rocks by superior numbers.

Selleck was usually good in these high-quality made-for-television westerns, almost single-handedly bringing back the big hat that was more or less authentic to the time of the story.  (Perhaps the best example of a Selleck hat is in Quigley Down Under, which was not made for television.)  Both Suzy Amis (near the end of her acting career at only 35) and Tracey Needham have strong female roles well-integrated with the story (unusual for a western); Amis’ character is both harder-edged and more sympathetic.  David Dukes makes an effective fanatical one-armed villain.  Rachel Duncan and Haley Joel Osment as the Cable children are unusually effective, too. The Carradine brothers most famously starred together in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980) as two of the Younger brothers, but you can also see them together in The Outsider (2002), another made-for-television western.

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Keith Carradine as the more sensible Kidston brother Vern; and David Carradine as Duane.

Dick Lowry was a long-time television director, who also worked with Selleck on one of his Jesse Stone police procedurals in 2011.  This was shot in New Mexico, around Santa Fe, in color at 96 minutes.

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Getting Married in Buffalo Jump

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 6, 2015

Getting Married In Buffalo Jump—Wendy Crewson, Paul Gross, Marion Gilsenan, Victoria Snow, Kyra Harper (Made for television, 1990; Dir: Eric Till)

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This Canadian television production is a modern romance set in ranching country in Alberta–a variation on the old theme of The Arranged Marriage.  You can tell where it’s going from the title (Buffalo Jump being the fictional town around which this is all going on), but it takes the entire 137 minutes to get there.  So the question is not what will happen, but how it will happen, given the disparate personalities involved.

Sophie Ware (Wendy Crewson) has returned to Buffalo Jump fifteen years after graduating from high school there. She spent those years going to college in eastern Canada and working as a piano act in lounges in Toronto.  Now her father has died, leaving her his ranch.  She’s determined to keep it despite her Scottish mother’s continual insistence that she sell it, and she needs some one to help her with it.  On the recommendation of Mrs. Bresnyachuk, she hires the woman’s son Alex (Paul Gross), whom she sort of knew in high school.

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Alex Bresnyachuk (Paul Gross) is good at ranching, but not so good at talking.

Unlike Sophie, Alex is good on a ranch, persuading her to run more practical cattle instead of the horses her romantic sensibility is drawn to.  He’s taciturn, seldom communicating much about his feelings.  And he’s more traditional about male-female relationships than the cosmopolitan Sophie.  After Sophie breaks a date with the local principal/math teacher to go out with Alex instead, he makes her a business proposition:  she brings the ranch, he brings the working expertise, and they marry to continue the operation.  This is not really how she’d envisioned this particular life event happening, and she rejects the notion … at first.

Sophie: “All right, Alex, how about we simply court in the traditional, time-honored fashion? Okay, we have a quick bout of nude wrestling, followed by confessions of doubt, leading to mutual rejection and if by some miracle we find it’s true love, we’ll cry, say we’re sorry and then wrestle some more.  I’m not marrying a man I don’t know, Alex.”

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Sophie Ware (Wendy Crewson) and Alex (Paul Gross) get to know each other in a scene that is not exactly typical of the movie.

Alex had dropped out of high school and had come back to finish (in three months) at 22, after working for an oil company.  His family’s farm/ranch is crowded, with four men (his father and two brothers in addition to Alex) in one house, he says.  Sophie learns that Alex left town when he fathered a child with his Indian girl friend Annie Moore.  Sophie finds Annie (Kyra Harper) in a bar, and Annie is initially both tough and hostile.  But they bond over some drinks and start to develop a relationship.  And Sophie accepts Alex’s business proposition, although there are indications on both sides that something besides business is going on.

Annie (about Alex, after discussing his shortcomings as a high school boyfriend):  “He sure is one beautiful man, though.”
Sophie:  “Between you and me, he makes the backs of my knees sweat.”

Meanwhile Sophie’s mom Irene (Marion Gilsenan) invites Sophie’s friend Eleanor (Victoria Snow), a high-powered realtor, for a visit.  Sophie and Eleanor have a good time, although Sophie still wants to keep the ranch.  Eleanor seeks out Alex, and has a conversation with him in which he says nothing.  Afterward, he tells Sophie, “I liked her.”

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Alex and Sophie on the marriage tractor.

The final hurdle is Alex’s parents, the Bresnyachuks, who, in Old World style (they’re Ukrainian), want to negotiate a marriage settlement.  Sophie is deeply offended that they expect her to buy Alex, in effect, with title to half the land.  Alex tries to woo her back with a horse, but ends up giving it to his 13-year-old son Benny, whom he’s never really met before.  Strangely enough, Sophie takes that as a good sign.  The marriage happens, and they drive off into the sunset on a tractor.

As you might guess from this description, a lot depends on how good the two leads are, and they are very good indeed.  This is better than the synopsis sounds, with some crisp and feisty dialogue, although not much of it by Alex (Paul Gross), who is an excellent actor (Gunless, Slings and Arrows) in addition to being good-looking.  This is fairly accurate in its portrayal of family dynamics, the inability of one generation to talk to another, and the temperaments of some people in cattle country, particularly men.  Wendy Crewson, best known as Pres. Harrison Ford’s wife in Air Force One, is very good as Sophie.  Things are wrapped up rather expeditiously at the end, particularly Alex’s new relationship with his son Benny.  But for light romantic fare, you could do a lot worse.  This is a sleeper that should have received more attention.

Shot in and around the towns of Cowley, Lundbeck and Pincher Creek, Alberta; the scenery and surrounding country form a significant part of the ride.  The sound track includes three songs by Canadian country singer K.D. Lang.  Based on a novel by Susan Haley.

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Historical note:  A buffalo jump is a site where Indians, before they had horses, drove buffalo herds over a cliff to collect their meat and hides (not a particularly efficient way to hunt).  One of the best-known buffalo jumps in North America is in southern Alberta, called Head-Smashed-In, used by the Blackfeet.

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In Pursuit of Honor

Nicholas Chennault ~ December 3, 2014

In Pursuit of Honor—Don Johnson, Craig Sheffer, Rod Steiger, Gabrielle Anwar, Bob Gunton, John Dennis Johnston, James B. Sikking (Made for Television, 1995; Dir: Ken Olin)

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This is a cavalry movie but an unusual one, in the sense that it is set in the 1930s and deals with the death of the cavalry as the army moved from horses to more mechanized forms of equipment.  As it did so, the move affected cavalry veterans who had spent their careers (and perhaps lives) in partnership with horses.  This is one of those films “based on a true story,” which usually means there’s a strong element of fiction to it.  Here, it’s almost all fictional.

Some of these cavalry veterans are part of the unit under the command of Major John Hardesty (Bob Gunton), given the responsibility in 1932 to deal with Hoover’s Bonus Marchers in Washington, D.C.  Many of these marchers were veterans of World War I, who had set up an encampment for the homeless to draw attention to their plight in the midst of the Great Depression.  Under orders from Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur (James Sikking), Hardesty’s cavalry approaches them with drawn sabers to sweep them from the encampment.  [This part about using cavalry against the Bonus Marchers at MacArthur’s orders is factual.]  Several long-time cavalrymen, including Sgt. John Libbey (Don Johnson) and Sgt. Thomas Mulcahey (John Dennis Johnston) return to their barracks rather than participate in such an action against their fellow veterans, and are thereafter exiled to a remote Texas base.

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Top Sergeant John Libbey (Don Johnson) and Lt. Marshall Buxton (Craig Sheffer).

Cut to two years later in Texas, where young Jessica Stuart (Gabrielle Anwar), on her way to the army base commanded by her father, Col. Owen Stuart, almost drives over a young man in the middle of a sandstorm.  He turns out to be Lt. Marshall Buxton (Craig Sheffer), a West Point graduate and son of a former cavalry general, who is in disgrace for punching a superior officer who was mistreating a horse.  Stuart is retiring to Tucson, Arizona, and is being replaced by now-Col. Hardesty.  Hardesty has orders from MacArthur to modernize the unit, which involves getting rid of 500 cavalry mounts.  Specifically, Lt. Buxton is in charge of the men ordered to drive the horses into northern Mexico, where machine gun emplacements and riflemen are set up to slaughter the horses.

After the first hundred horses are driven into a pit and gunned down, Buxton rebels.  Supported by Libbey, Mulcahey and two other long-time cavalry sergeants, they disobey orders and drive the horses north into Arizona–stealing them, in effect, as well as disobeying orders.  Buxton rides to Tucson, where he gets maps and support from the Stuarts.  Jessica Stuart is a reporter, but no U.S. newspaper will tell the story of this incident.  She uses her contacts with a British publication to get the story out.  Col. Stuart, now retired, goes to Washington to try to get MacArthur to change his orders.

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Sgt. Mulcahey (John Dennis Johnston) makes a break for it.

The cavalrymen take their herd of the remaining 400 horses northward into the White Mountains to try to figure out what to do with them.  Their half-baked plan is to take them to Montana onto Indian lands near the Canadian border, where the army can’t go.  Meanwhile, Hardesty pursues with two units:  a mechanized column that has to stick to actual roads, and a horse-mounted unit that Buxton and his group have to keep avoiding.

Stuart hasn’t much luck even getting to see MacArthur.  He is mostly shown working with a map that delineates the progress of the horses as they move northward, pursued by Hardesty.  Buxton is inexperienced, but he is supported by the sergeants, especially Libbey, often referred to as “top,” as in top sergeant.  Although they maintain their military organization, it is clear that everything is done by consent, and they all buy in.

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Buxton (Craig Sheffer, left) and his sergeants try to figure how to get into Canada.

[Spoilers follow.]  Finally in Montana, they are accidentally discovered by Hardesty’s cavalry.  That unit has orders to shoot to kill, and Mulcahey gets a bullet in the back as he tries to escape. The sergeant of the cavalry unit stops them to bury Mulcahey with full field honors, to the consternation of the officer who had shot him.  It becomes obvious the fleeing horses won’t make it to Indian land without being cut off, and Buxton and his herd head for Canada instead.  At the border they encounter (a) the pursuing cavalry with artillery, with their orders to shoot to kill, (b) Hardesty and his mechanized unit, accompanied by Jessica Stuart, and (c) a unit of Canadian Mounties facing them across the border.  As they make a final sprint for the border, the cavalry unit arranges artillery to fire at them, but the sergeant makes sure the artillery fires high and wide.  Hardesty divulges that he has tried to get MacArthur to change his orders, to no effect.  He receives word that Pres. Franklin Roosevelt has pardoned Buxton and his men.  As Buxton and his remaining sergeants cross the border, the Mounties seem to accept them.  Libbey goes on the the Klondike, and Buxton says he’s going back to face court martial, and perhaps Jessica Stuart.

Craig Sheffer (A River Runs Through It, The Desperate Trail) is decent as Lt. Buxton, but the performance that makes this work is Don Johnson as Sgt. John Libbey, hard-bitten, flinty, tough and motivated by his notions of military and personal honor.  John Dennis Johnston is very good as Sgt. Mulcahey as well.  Bob Gunton makes Col. Hardesty seem like an officious military bureaucrat with no heart, until the very end.  Rod Steiger’s Col. Owen Stuart has an unexplained faux-Irish accent, and Gabrielle Anwer seems too young for the independent reporter she’s supposed to be.  She is not yet the actress she will become later in her career.  Douglas MacArthur and the order-following leader of the pursuing cavalry are the villains, to the extent there are villains.

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Artillery sets up to blast the horses as they near the Canadian border.

This is better than one would expect, but it’s not perfect.  The pursuit from the White Mountains of Arizona to Montana seems like it takes place in one day, although it would have taken weeks.  The filmmakers needed to find a more effective way to depict the sheer length and effort of such a drive northward.  Sheffer’s Buxton sometimes seems confused (as a real young lieutenant would have been) but strangely confident at other times.  Still, it’s worth watching, although it raises questions about the factual background.  Filmed in color in Australia, at 111 minutes.

If the names of the sergeants seem familiar, it’s because they often show up in John Ford cavalry movies (Fort Apache, etc.).  For another western featuring young officers (Jason Patric and Matt Damon) balancing honor against an inflexible military structure, see Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993).

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The Virginian (2000)

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 10, 2014

The Virginian—Bill Pullman, Diane Lane, Harris Yulin, John Savage, Colm Feore, Dennis Weaver, Gary Farmer (Made for television, 2000; Dir: Bill Pullman)

The fact that The Virginian is one of the oldest of western stories reminds us of how recent the history of the west is.  Owen Wister’s 1902 novel was the first western bestseller, and it has been made as a movie several times, most recently in 2014.  The best one is generally thought to be the 1929 early sound version with Gary Cooper as the Virginian, which can be very difficult to find now, since it has never been made available on DVD.  This 2000 made-for-television version is at least the second best on film; it may be the best.

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Like some of the older western stories that have been remade multiple times from the early days of movies, the story in many of the versions of The Virginian has not aged well.  Modern viewers may have trouble understanding the motivations of the characters and sometimes even the dialogue.  This effort, directed by its star, Bill Pullman, is a mostly successful attempt to update the characters in terms of making them intelligible to modern viewers while retaining the flavor of a bygone era in the dialogue and interactions of the characters.  It is one of the classic western tales: an easterner goes west, leaves civilization and must learn new ways.  In this case, the easterner is schoolmarm Molly Stark (Diane Lane) from Bennington, Vermont, who comes to Medicine Bow in Wyoming Territory in 1885.

Arriving in Medicine Bow, Molly is taken to the remote ranch of Judge Henry (Harris Yulin in long hair).  When the wagon she’s riding in has problems, she’s rescued by the Virginian (Bill Pullman), one of Judge Henry’s riders.  He appears to be taken with her and is more direct about his interest than a well-brought-up easterner would be.  Judge Henry and other ranchers are having trouble with rustlers who seem to have some connection with rancher Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).  When the Judge promotes the Virginian to be his foreman, Trampas (Colm Feore) quits rather than work for the Virginian, and the Virginian’s good friend Steve (John Savage) unexpectedly leaves as well.  While rounding up horses, the badly outnumbered Virginian has to shoot it out with several rustlers and is gravely wounded.  He lies bleeding on the ground, where Molly eventually finds him by following his horse Monty, and she nurses him back to health.  They grow closer in the process.

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As soon as the Virginian can ride, he is called upon to lead a band of riders against the rustlers.  They capture two of them, one of whom is the Virginian’s friend Steve and, according to the code of their time and place, must hang the two.  Molly is horrified to learn of the Virginian’s role in this, but they talk it out and continue with their plans to marry.  On the day of the wedding, a rider (James Drury, who played the Virginian in the 1960s television series) delivers a message that Trampas has killed two federal officers who were trying to deal with the rustlers and is now waiting for the Virginian in the Medicine Bow saloon.  Molly insists that the Virginian not go, but a man’s gotta do … well, you know.  As later stories would put it (John Wayne in Stagecoach, Randolph Scott in The Tall T), some things a man can’t ride around.

The Virginian rides into Medicine Bow, and we can see men, presumably with guns, on top of two or three buildings.  Leaving his own men outside, he walks straight in, leaving it up to Trampas.  Facing off, they agree to have the piano player play the Battle Hymn of the Republic and both draw when he comes to the phrase “His truth is marching on.”  The result should surprise no one, but it’s effective.  The Virginian grabs Sam Balaam, who’s behind it all, and forces him to call off the men stationed on the buildings.  The Judge’s wife tells the Virginian that Molly has gone back to Vermont, not on to Oregon as she has threatened for most of the movie.  In the closing scene, the Virginian, hat and all, appears in Bennington, Vermont, and there is an appropriate, if belated, rapprochement between him and Molly.  Presumably they live happily ever after.  In Wyoming Territory.  (Note that in the final scene, just before the credits, Molly appears to be riding the Virginian’s horse Monty, while he rides another horse, and we know how he feels about Monty.  So his commitment to Molly must be pretty high, too.)

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Bill Pullman is good with the Virginian’s little hesitances in speech and old-fashioned dialogue.  Unlike other versions of the story, he is not already Judge Henry’s foreman, previously having come to be held in high regard, and his experiences with a gun are limited.  Diane Lane is decent, if occasionally a little stiff, as Molly Stark; but she’s better than the wooden Barbara Britton, who played Molly in the 1946 version with Joel McCrea.  Colm Feore makes a little more intelligible Trampas’ antipathy for the Virginian.  Partly it’s pride and personal dislike of the Virginian, and partly it’s goading from Sam Balaam.  John Savage is not as warm and friendly as Steve is usually portrayed. Harris Yulin is remote and not terribly avuncular as Judge Henry.  Dennis Weaver does well as the weaselly Sam Balaam.

The production design is good, particularly Molly Stark’s riding hat.  While the film does not always flow entirely smoothly, there are a lot of good small touches, too.  The saloon in Medicine Bow has a bobcat and a peregrine falcon as live parts of the decor.  As the Virginian strides toward the saloon with his life in turmoil, his future in doubt and his relationship with Molly perhaps gone forever, he nevertheless notes Balaam’s men with rifles on the roofs of surrounding buildings.  When he gets closer, he thinks he sees Steve around one corner nod and smile in approval for what he’s doing, although he knows Steve is dead.  The use of the Battle Hymn of the Republic as the device for timing the draw works well.

As has become common for westerns over the last couple of decades, this was filmed in Alberta, with good cinematography and frequent shots from above, giving a flavor of the remoteness and wildness of the land.  Since Molly Stark’s school house and cabin are remote even from from Judge Henry’s ranch, it’s surprising that she might not have found herself to be in danger in such a wild and lawless country.  In all, this is worth watching, a worthy update of a western story that some might consider old-fashioned.  It even has a high degree of re-watchability.  Perhaps we can hope for equally worthy updates of Whispering Smith or The Spoilers.  In color, at 95 minutes.

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After dealing with Trampas, the Virginian (Bill Pullman) negotiates with Sam Balaam (Dennis Weaver).

For Bill Pullman in another western, he has a brief role as Ed Masterson (Bat’s brother) in Wyatt Earp.  Diane Lane, of course, had a prominent role in Lonesome Dove.  Gary Farmer, who plays the heavy cowboy Buster, was Johnny Depp’s Indian guide Nobody in Dead Man.  For another decent TNT production of an older western story, see Ed Harris and Amy Madigan in Zane Grey’s story Riders of the Purple Sage.

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Siringo

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 5, 2014

Siringo—Brad Johnson, Chad Lowe, Steven Macht, Floyd Crow Westerman, Crystal Bernard, William Sanderson, Barry Corbin (Made for Television, 1995; Dir: Kevin G. Cremin)

Probably an interesting movie could be made about Charlie Siringo, but this isn’t it.  The contents of this short, made-for-television piece are completely fictional.  The real Charlie Siringo was not part Kiowa, as this would have it (his father was Italian and his mother Irish, both immigrants).  He spent most of his career as a Pinkerton agent, not an actual lawman, and he was not exceptionally sympathetic to Indians.  Much of his time was spent undercover working against labor (as in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, in the 1890s) or in unsuccessfully chasing Butch Cassidy.  He became known principally because he wrote a memoir describing his adventures.

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Siringo (Brad Johnson) and Kaitlin Mullane (Crystal Bernard) nurse an old Indian.

In this slight effort, Siringo (Brad Johnson) lives in Arizona at the San Carlos Apache reservation.  After capturing Texas bad guy Wade Lewis (Steven Macht) who was selling guns to Indians and assassinating their leaders, Siringo is put on leave while he recovers from a leg wound.  Lewis escapes while being shipped to the Yuma prison, and Siringo is sent north after him, accompanied by talkative young deputy U.S. marshal Winton Powell (Chad Lowe).

In Wyoming they find Kaitlin Mullane (Crystal Bernard), a former girlfriend of one of Lewis’s fellow escapees.  Kaitlin has used the proceeds of a long-ago robbery to start a ranch there and go straight.  Meanwhile, Siringo befriends an aging Sioux couple with health problems.  When the outlaws and their gang arrive, the young deputy marshal is killed and Siringo almost is as well.

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Brad Johnson as Charlie Siringo; and the real Charlie Siringo, Pinkerton operative.

Nursed back to health by the Sioux, he finds and attacks the outlaws Indian-style (bow and flaming arrows, stealth).  In the final shoot-out Kaitlin is killed, and Siringo hauls the despicable Lewis back to Arizona instead of killing him as he really wants to, thus establishing himself as a real lawman.  If it wants us to care what’s going on, this needs to do a better job of developing story and characters, especially Siringo.  Short, at 90 minutes.

For Brad Johnson in another western, see him as bad guy and assassin Beau Dorn in Crossfire Trail (2001), trying to get Tom Selleck.

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The Avenging Angel

Nicholas Chennault ~ October 3, 2014

The Avenging Angel—Tom Berenger, James Coburn, Charlton Heston, Kevin Tighe, Jeffrey Jones, Fay Masterson, Leslie Hope, Andrew Prine (MfTV 1995; Dir: Craig R. Baxley)

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“They trained him to shoot.  To ride.  To kill.  He was the hunter.  Now, he’s the hunted.”

Conspiracies and counterplots among the polygamous Mormons of Utah in 1872 drive this made-for-television (TNT) account of Mormon assassin/bodyguard/security agent Miles Utley (Tom Berenger).  Historical figures such as Brigham Young, Porter Rockwell and Bill Hickman are mixed with fictional ones like Utley in an environment that has some historicity but was probably not as overheated as depicted here.

Young Miles Utley is headed west with the Mormons in 1847 when his father dies.  Brigham Young (Charlton Heston, playing the American Moses) assigns Bill Hickman (Tom Bower) to care for young Utley and raise him.  Hickman and Utley are shown as members of the Mormon militia that slowed down Albert Johnston’s army invading Utah in 1857.  Fast forward to 1872: By this time Utley is a kind of security agent for the Church, reporting to Milton Long (Jeffrey Jones), its head of security.  He is shown dispatching dissident Jonathan Parker with a bowie knife to the throat, so he is not exactly a good guy.  He is also shown frolicking with Young’s daughter Miranda (Fay Masterson), so we know he takes political/spiritual chances, too.

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Miles Utley (Tom Berenger) takes aim. Not all his enemies are obvious.

Long assigns Utley to shadow a couple of suspicious newcomers in Salt Lake City, and he follows them to the Assembly Hall on Temple Square.  Elder Benjamin Rigby (Kevin Tighe, playing a fictional character) preaches fire and brimstone against outsiders.  Brigham Young arises to espouse more restraint and less violence against non-Mormons.  As he does so, a hooded figure approaches him and pulls a derringer; Utley intervenes and shoots the supposed assassin first and is himself attacked and rendered unconscious.  When he starts asking questions about the person he shot, he is again hit (he should be suffering from multiple concussions by now).  He awakens on the shores of the Great Salt Lake.  Apparently his assailants intended that he should drown, but he floated in the salty waters.

He is retrieved by Eliza Rigby (Leslie Hope), who doctors his wounds.  She is an estranged polygamous wife of Elder Rigby, who she says was more interested in her sister Sarah.  As Utley heals, the two develop an interest in each other.  He is about to leave when Rigby himself shows up, with Alpheus Young (Daniel Quinn), Brigham’s son.  Young leaves and Rigby is heard hitting Eliza, with Utley restrained by the pleading of her young daughters.

Miles Utley:  “You know, Alpheus, the problem with polygamy is that when you’ve had 27 wives and 56 children [a reference to Brigham Young’s extensive family], one’s just bound to turn out as dirt-stupid and pig-ugly as you.”

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Utley (Tom Berenger) finds Porter Rockwell (a hairy James Coburn) in the canyons of southern Utah.

Still investigating the deceased assassin, Utley finds apparent grave robbers digging up her body.  Yes, it was a woman—Eliza Rigby’s sister Sarah, a disaffected former Mormon.  Put in jail, Utley is sprung by his boss Milton Long; both Long and Miranda Young smuggle him guns.  He warily heads south, looking for his long-time friend and mentor Porter Rockwell (James Coburn, with long hair and beard wigs).  He visits his sister’s family (with daughters played by two Berenger girls).  As Utley departs, he is attacked by and forced to kill Alpheus Young.  He stops to see his disaffected, alcoholic foster father Bill Hickman in Kanab and is given Jonathan Parker’s diary before heading into wild country. As he leaves, he is attacked again, and joined by Miranda Young, who is wounded.  He fights the attackers off and sends Miranda back with their remnants.  He reads Parker’s diary and finds that he was simply an honest dissident and was doing nothing for which he deserved killing.

Utley and Rockwell join forces to fight a conspiracy led by Elder Rigby to take over the Church and Utah.  Brigham Young is reported to have headed to his winter home in St. George, threatened by the conspirators.  Rockwell creates a diversion without killing any of Young’s faithful bodyguards and Utley enters the house, to find that Milton Long is part of the conspiracy and he is now captured.  Brigham Young slips him a gun, which he uses to take out Long.  He heads back to Salt Lake, to the Assembly Hall, where he finds an unhinged Rigby speaking to an imaginary audience, now that his conspiracy has fallen apart.  Eliza persuades Utley not to kill Rigby, and he hangs up his guns.

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Brigham Young (Charlton Heston) is about to slip Miles Utley (Tom Berenger) yet another gun.

The title refers to the Danites, a supposedly historical group of thugs and assassins who did the Church’s dirty work, of which Utley is supposed to be one.  To the extent they were real, they existed principally in the 1830s; by 1872, they were long gone.  Porter Rockwell was the most prominent of those said to have been Danites, and he was an actual lawman and frontiersman well into the Utah period, dying about the same time as Brigham Young in 1877.

Elements of the cast are very good.  Berenger is sympathetic as Miles Utley, although he sometimes seems confused in his religious environment.  His character could have used a bit more subtlety in the writing of his motivations.  He made this between appearing as Gen. James Longstreet in Gettysburg and as Lewis Gates in Last of the Dogmen.  His production company played a role in getting this made.  Aging actors Heston and Coburn are fine in their roles.  The casting of Jeffrey Jones and especially Kevin Tighe telegraphs that their characters are not to be trusted, however.  The female parts are not strongly written.

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The sometimes autocratic Brigham Young, ca. 1870, about 69 years old; and the aging Mormon lawman and frontiersman Orrin Porter Rockwell.

The polygamous Mormon church, with its secrets and undercurrents under Brigham Young and his successors, would make a fertile environment for mysteries and action films for a generation after the time depicted here, until the church gave up the practice in the early 20th century.  This is based on a novel by Gary Stewart, who apparently has a Mormon background, and, while enjoyable enough, it’s not particularly memorable.  Mormons may enjoy watching it for what strikes them as historical and what seems misplaced.  It was written by somebody who likes guns; when Utley is smuggled guns in jail, they are described in loving detail (a Smith & Wesson .44, said to be just like Jesse James used; a .36, said to be light but effective) as they are slipped to him.

The screenplay won the Western Writers of America 1996 Spur Award for Best Drama Script (Dennis Nemec).  Not to be confused with another made-for-television western, Avenging Angel, with Kevin Sorbo (2007).  For another western featuring Brigham Young, see Dean Jagger in 1940’s Brigham Young, with Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell.  For historical background on Young, see Brigham Young, American Moses, by Leonard Arrington (1985) or John Turner’s Brigham Young:  Pioneer Prophet (2013).  The definitive biography of Porter Rockwell, an authentic western character, is probably still Harold Schindler’s Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God, Son of Thunder (first edition, 1966; go with the revised edition, which is easier to find).

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Hannah’s Law

Nicholas Chennault ~ September 12, 2014

Hannah’s Law—Sarah Canning, John Pyper-Ferguson, Billy Zane, Danny Glover, Greyston Holt, Ryan Kennedy (MfTV, 2012; Dir.: Rachel Talalay)

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This made-for-television movie was produced for the Hallmark Channel and shows its awareness of its audience (largely female and older, but reaching for younger viewers, too) by embracing anachronistic attitudes toward feminism, killing, ethnic diversity and sex.  It is part of a line of female revenge fantasies going back at least to Hannie Caulder in the early 1970s and extending to the present through The Quick and the Dead (the one directed by Sam Raimi, not the one based on a Louis L’Amour novel) and 6 Guns (also made for television).  Although it attempts to introduce actual historical characters into its story, it takes some of them (Isom Dart, Stagecoach Mary) out of their actual times and locations.  This appears to be set in Dodge City when Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt) was a deputy there, making it the late 1870s.  Doc Holiday (Ryan Kennedy) is also a character (relying heavily on Val Kilmer’s performance in Tombstone for inspiration), but Doc and Wyatt do not yet appear to be friends.

Hannah Beaumont’s family was killed by ruthless post-Civil War outlaws twelve years ago.  She (Sarah Canning) was raised in the orphanage in Dodge City and tutored in bounty hunting by Isom Dart (Danny Glover).  Now, one by one, she’s bringing in members of the gang that killed her family, without killing any of them.  Physically, she’s attractive but fairly small.  Wyatt would like to advance his relationship with her, but she’s not paying attention.  At least once, she sleeps recreationally with Doc.  She has carefully interracial relationships with Dart and with Stagecoach Mary.

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Danny Glover as Isom Dart, Hannah’s bounty hunting mentor.

Frank McMurphy (John Pyper-Ferguson), head of the outlaw gang, finally figures out his men are disappearing and decides to get Hannah before she gets any more of them.  Isom Dart, now wanted himself, has returned to Kansas, and McMurphy thinks Hannah will be looking for him.  (She’s actually plenty easy to find herself in Dodge, so this subterfuge isn’t necessary.)

As McMurphy and his gang come to town, everybody appears to desert her at the instigation of the town boss (Billy Zane), even her friends Earp, Isom, Holliday and Mary.  Predictably, they haven’t really deserted her, but she (not terribly believably) bears the brunt of the fight.  As Wyatt is forced to shoot McMurphy, the bad guy has just revealed to Hannah that her brother is still alive but did not say where he is or what name he is using, clearly setting up a potential sequel.

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Sarah Canning as Hannah in her bounty hunting attire, and looking more traditionally female with the young Doc Holliday (Ryan Kennedy) and Wyatt Earp (Greyston Holt).

Stagecoach Mary (real name:  Mary Fields) was actually significantly older than Isom Dart.  She would have been around 45 at the time of this story, a former slave living in Florida.  Around 1883 she moved to Montana, where she became known by her nickname.  Isom Dart would have been about 25-30 years old at the time of this story, not the 60-ish shown.  A rustler, he was killed around the turn of the century by Tom Horn in Brown’s Hole, where Wyoming, Utah and Colorado come together.

Uses of minorities in westerns are welcome, but one would like to see them used more authentically and less anachronistically than this.  Similarly, it would be good to see more female directors of westerns like Rachel Talalay–especially of good westerns.  This was kind of a low-budget production ($5,000,000), and it’s short at 88 minutes.  Shot in Alberta, Canada.

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Shadow on the Mesa

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 18, 2014

Shadow on the Mesa—Wes Brown, Kevin Sorbo, Gail O’Grady, Greg Evigan, Shannon Lucio, Micah Alberti, Barry Corbin, Meredith Baxter (MfTV 2013; Dir: David S. Cass, Sr.)

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This was made for the Hallmark Channel, so you know some of what you’ll find here: a certain kind of beautiful nature cinematography in establishing the mood and setting, the triumph of right over evil (could be a given in most westerns anyway), some kind of affirmation of the value of human relationships.  Not bad stuff, really.  And that’s all here.

Wes Rawlins (Wes Brown) is a bounty hunter, and a proficient one.  As he returns from his latest trip, he receives the news that his mother has been murdered—beaten to death.  She had been rescured from Comancheros thirty years previously, taken in by the kindly Rawlinses (Barry Corbin and Meredith Baxter), and, when her son Wes was born seven months later, they raised him as part of their family. Now Wes hears that not only was his mother killed, but not long before her death she had finally found Ray Eastman, Wes’ father, “down Palo Duro way,” and had written him a letter. Wes decides to pay him a visit and find out why he abandoned his family and what he had to do with his mother’s death.

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Rawlins (Wes Brown) and foster parents (Meredith Baxter, Barry Corbin) at the grave of his murdered mother.

So Wes comes to town as the Mysterious Stanger with a Gun.  As Wes enters the local saloon, a loud-mouthed young man is causing trouble and Wes backs him off.  Turns out that both the loudmouth and the local sheriff are sons of Peter Dowdy (Greg Evigan), a neighboring rancher who wants Eastman’s land.  He is in fact conspiring with Eastman’s wife Mona (Gail O’Grady), and it was she who gave Dowdy the letter leading to the death of Wes’ mother.  Dowdy’s men killed her.

Wes rides in to the Eastman ranch, where Ray (Kevin Sorbo) has a bad leg and is on crutches.  He gives Eastman the news that Mary Rawlins has died, and from Eastman’s reaction is inclined to leave it at that and ride on.  The next morning as he leaves he encounters Eastman’s headstrong daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio), and they further have an encounter with Dowdy and two of his gunmen.  When the gunmen try to kill Wes, he takes them out and returns with Rosalie to the Eastman ranch.

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Rancher Ray Eastman (Kevin Sorbo) and daughter Rosalie (Shannon Lucio) are determined to resist their greedy but powerful neighbor.

The Dowdy sheriff son keeps driving off Eastman cowboys and throws one in jail to lure Wes into town.  Wes breaks him out, and things get more violent.  Wes breaks the news to Eastman that he, Wes, is Eastman’s son, and he bonds with the existing Eastman son (Micah Alberti) and daughter.  Rosalie overhears her mother talking with Dowdy and discovers what’s been going on between them. Wes orchestrates the defense of the Eastman headquarters and goes looking for missing cowboys.  In the course of rescuing one, Wes and his new brother kill four Dowdy gunmen, including the loudmouth son.

Back at the Eastman ranch, Dowdy, having killed Mona as she pleaded for more time to work something out, is attacking the few defenders.  Eastman and his few remaining men take out some of them but things are going badly. Then Wes and his brother ride in and even the odds.  With some well-placed dynamite and good shooting, all but the Dowdy father are taken care of.  At the end, Dowdy tries a hidden gun on Wes, but that’s not going to work.  Eastman forgives the deceased Mona, Wes has a new family, and he rides off into the sunset.

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Greedy and corrupt Dowdy (Greg Evigan) attempts to take the ranch by force.

Kevin Sorbo is the best-known name in the cast, but he is not the main character.  That would be Wes Brown as the bounty hunter Wes Rawlins.  The writing is a bit clunky, but it’s not that bad.  Wes seems impossibly invincilble, but that can be okay in a western.  (See any of Clint Eastwood’s characters, for example, especially in spaghetti westerns.)  At least he doesn’t talk too much.  There’s lots of killing for a Hallmark Channel western.  In terms of production design, Wes’ hat and facial hair seem too modern.  A pleasant enough western, but not terribly memorable.  Short, at 79 minutes.

 

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Hard Ground

Nicholas Chennault ~ June 20, 2014

Hard Ground—Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Amy Jo Johnson, Seth Peterson (MfTV, 2003; Dir:  Frank Q. Dobbs)

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A variation on a frequently-used theme:  two old-timers, a lawman and an outlaw, join forces to use their experience and old-time skills to deal with a gang of more modern (and nastier) bad guys.  In this case, John “Chill” McKay (Burt Reynolds) is a former bounty hunter serving twenty years in the Arizona territorial prison in Yuma.  He is released to the custody of his brother-in-law Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern) to track down psychotic bandit and prison escapee Billy Bucklin (David Figlioli), who has a new gang and is heading south toward the Mexican border to pull off some kind of nefarious job. 

The wrinkle is that Hutch’s deputy is McKay’s son Joshua (Seth Peterson); he’s tracking the bad guys out ahead of McKay and Hutch.  He rescues Liz Kennedy (Amy Jo Johnson) from a couple of the gang and leaves her at a remote trading post, for Hutch and McKay to send her back.  She won’t go back, predictably enough.  So now she’s following along with Hutch and McKay; she doesn’t have their survival and violence skills, but she gets by on spunk.  There’s an undercurrent of tension between McKay and his son.  Will there be some sort of rapprochement between the two, and, if so, how?  How many of them will survive the upcoming confrontation with Bucklin?

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Brothers-in-law, former antagonists and now partners:  Nate Hutchinson (Bruce Dern), lawman (for a change), and Chill McKay (Burt Reynolds), convict and bounty hunter.

Bucklin and gang hit a U.S. army gold shipment, slaughtering the soldiers escorting it.  Undeterred by the border, Hutch, McKay, Joshua and Liz head into Mexico after Bucklin, and there is a climactic shootout in a Mexican town.  It’s better than many of its made-for-television type, although Burt Reynolds’ facelift is distracting.  He’s actually not bad in the role, though.  The screenplay isn’t great.  One wonders it the director’s name, Frank Q. Dobbs, is a pseudonym.  He has apparently been involved in other television westerns and western minseries, mostly as a producer:  Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, Rio Diablo, Johnson County War.

Burt Reynolds had a promising career in westerns beginning in the mid-1960s, when he became part of the cast in the late portions of the long-running show Gunsmoke on television.  He appeared as the protagonist in Navajo Joe (1966), a spaghetti western directed by Sergio Coliima.  (Reynolds supposedly signed on thinking the director would be another Sergio–legendary Sergio Leone.)  He did well enough in a couple of big budget westerns in the early 1970s:  the comedy Sam Whiskey and the more serious and underrated The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, based on a best-selling novel of the time.  He seemed like he might have had a robust career in westerns, especially those requiring a comedic touch but not too broad an edge–perhaps the sort of thing James Garner did well.  But the genre was dying out for the next couple of decades, and he drifted into such high-box-office-but-low-prestige good-ol’-boy fare as the Smoky and the Bandit and Cannonball Run movies.  He’s pretty good here, in the twilight of his career.  He and fellow old pro Bruce Dern carry the film, although supporting players Amy Jo Johnson and Seth Peterson are fine in their roles, too..

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Promise the Moon

Nicholas Chennault ~ March 8, 2014

Promise the Moon—Henry Czerny, Collette Stevenson, Aidan Devine, Shawn Ashmore, David Fox, Gloria May Eshkibok (Made for television, 1996; Dir:  Ken Jubenvill)

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Better than most of the lower-profile and made-for-television western productions in the last twenty years or so.  The title doesn’t tell you much about this western.  It’s set in the ranch lands of western Canada of the 1920s. It’s still frontier, to a significant degree, and the financial times are hard.

Wilbur Bennett (Richard Donat) owns the Four Arrows ranch and is suffering health and financial problems.  With his dying request, he sends his foreman Royal Leckner (Henry Czerny) to Chicago to collect his long-neglected and presumably mentally-impaired 15-year-old son Leviatus (Shawn Ashmore) from a sanitarium, where he has been since birth.  There Leckner finds the young man surviving under deplorable conditions, with Sophie Twelvetrees (Gloria May Eshkibok), an Objibway woman who is also a patient, as his only protector.  The three of them ride in a cattle car back to Canada. 

Meanwhile Jane Makepeace (Colette Stevenson), a prim young Englishwoman who has been serving as a secretary to unscrupulous banker Sir Robert Butler (David Fox), declines his advances and has to find another situation for herself.  Desperate, she takes her accounting and business skills to the Four Arrow ranch, where she hopes to make herself necessary and maybe even get paid by helping them put their business affairs in order.  She also becomes the intermediary for Sophie and Levi to Leckner and the rest of the world. 

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The remainder of the movie centers around whether Jane will be allowed to stay, whether Levi will ever become functional and whether Leckner will succeed in keeping the ranch afloat financially and out of the clutches of the nasty banker.  Also on the fringes is Wilbur’s brother James Bennett (Aidan Devine) who feels aggrieved by the very existence of young Levi and is nefariously helping nasty banker Butler behind the scenes. 

It turns out Levi is deaf, not mentally deficient.  Leckner, Levi, Makepeace and associated ranchers make a cattle drive to Pendleton to produce the money they need to keep the bank and Butler at bay.  The ending is much as you’d expect, but with an interesting shootout in a hospital.

The story has something of a Hallmark feel about it, since it’s about the formation of a family by a group of unrelated strangers and has an interesting and, to some extent, unexpected (by everyone except the viewers, who are thinking “Why else would we be watching this?”) romance at its core.  But it plays out well, and the central performances by Czerny and Stevenson make the film better than anticipated.  And the pacing, editing and storytelling are good here, too.  Based on the book The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko by Randall Beth Platt.  Filmed in Canada.

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This is an unheralded and underrated Canadian production, somewhat like The Grey Fox and Gunless in that respect.  They’re also worth more attention.

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