Tag Archives: Made for Television

The Outsider

Nicholas Chennault ~ February 27, 2014

The Outsider—Tim Daly, Naomi Watts, David Carradine, Keith Carradine, Thomas Curtis, John Noble (Made for Television, 2002; Dir:  Randa Haines)

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This slow-moving relationship drama is set in Montana, a variation on a theme of Angel and the Badman from 1947.  Good acting power is in evidence, though; Tim Daly is convincing as gunman Johnny Gault, and Naomi Watts (before she really became a big star) is even better as young widow Rebecca Yoder of the Plain People, who takes in the badly wounded Gault and nurses him back to health. 

Based on a romance novel by Penelope Williamson, this is one of the few westerns directed by a woman, and it’s better than you’d expect.  (The reduced expectations are because of the nature of the source material, not because the director is a woman.)  As usual, there are three conflicts going on in this plot:  the clash/attraction between Gault and Yoder as man and woman, the clash between the worldly Gault and the Mennonite-like Plain People, and the clash between Gault and those who’d oppress both him and the Plain People with violence.  In only one of these conflicts might Gault’s talents with violence prove helpful, and even then numbers favor the bad guys (although a relatively low budget may have kept down the number of them who appear on film).  

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The gunman takes the young widow and her son to church.

Not only are the Plain People religiously separate, they raise sheep in cattle country.  Rebecca’s husband was killed by the real bad guys, who wanted (and still want) her land.  The real bad guys are the usual collection of local banker-cattle baron (John Noble) and his hired gunmen.  Keith Carradine is one of the Plain People, presumably romantically interested in Rebecca; his real brother David Carradine plays the sympathetic local doctor.  Thomas Curtis is good as Benjo Yoder, Rebecca’s young son.  An interesting touch is the music, based mostly on Norwegian folk songs, although the film sometimes seems self-consciously arty in its use of both music and images. It seems to take a long time getting to dealing with the conflicts.

There are the usual scenes of the wary gunman trying with very limited success to mesh with the religious community for the sake of the young widow.  There is the sizing up by others in her community who are trying to assess both Gault and the nature of the relationship that’s apparently in formation.  There is the developing relationship between the gunman and the traumatized young son of the beautiful widow.  And there is the resistance by both the gunman and the widow to the attraction they’re feeling to each other, along with questions about how much each will have to accommodate the other’s beliefs and ways of life if they do go ahead.

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This version of the story isn’t as sympathetic to religion and the strength of community as Angel and the Badman, and it ends with Rebecca leaving the Plain People when she marries Gault, although Gault appears to make some accommodations, too.  Of course, the religious community here projects a little more paranoia and pressure toward conformity, and fewer warm fuzzies than the Quakers in the John Wayne movie.  Although music isn’t allowed outside of church, Rebecca hears “the music of the earth,” signaling that maybe the Plain People aren’t her real destination anyway. 

The story of a gunman entering a religious community with very different values is one of the oldest western stories, a variation on the Mysterious Stranger theme.  It was the basis of Zane Grey’s 1912 best-seller Riders of the Purple Sage, for example, where the violence wins because of the inherent dishonesty of the religious community.  (Check here for one of the more recent film versions of Purple Sage.)  This is much more like the 1947 John Wayne movie, where the validity of the religious community seems to be recognized, except that (a) the violence from the gunman is still necessary to resolve matters, and (b) the widow ultimately leaves the religious community instead of the gunman joining it.  Presumably there is still some kind of uneasy affiliation remaining there, rather than a shunning from the community, though.  At least the bad guys have been dealt with.  A non-western version of the story is 1985’s Witness, with Harrison Ford as a hard-boiled cop among the Amish in Pennsylvania.

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Leaving their respective religions: Rebecca Yoder (Naomi Watts) leaves the Plain People, and Johnny Gault (Timothy Daly) renounces his guns.

There are echoes of other westerns in this.  The gunman coming to know and appreciate both the widow and her son is much like the main story arc of Hondo.  And the cattle baron and his men trampling a gathering of the Plain People (while Gault rescues the young son of the widow) reminds us of a similar scene with the homesteaders in Shane.  The culminating shoot-out with the bad guys (and they are undeniably bad) is satisfying, except that Rebecca Yoder is accidentally shot and appears to be dying.  Gault symbolically places his pistol in the blacksmith forge, in a scene that reminds us of other gunmen’s similar renunciations:  Gary Cooper tossing his badge in the dirt in High Noon; Glenn Ford burying his guns at the end of The Fastest Gun Alive and The Last Challenge; and Randolph Scott giving up his guns at the end of A Lawless Street, for example.  And, most of all, John Wayne giving up his guns at an inopportune moment at the end of Angel and the Badman.

Timothy Daly is good enough in this that one regrets he had no other chances to make westerns.  In addition to a revolver, Gault also uses something that looks like a cut-down rifle, like the mare’s leg used by television’s ethical bounty hunter Josh Randall (played by Steve McQueen) in Wanted:  Dead or Alive in the late 1950s.  If the vegetation doesn’t entirely look like Montana, that’s because this was filmed in northeastern Australia.  They’re careful to keep eucalyptus trees out of it, though, and it’s not distracting.

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Riders of the Purple Sage

Nicholas Chennault ~ January 13, 2014

Riders Of The Purple Sage—Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Henry Thomas, Robin Tunney, Norbert Weisser, G.D. Spradlin (Made for television, 1996; Dir:  Charles Haid)

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This is the fifth and most recent film version of Zane Grey’s 1912 bestselling novel, which is perhaps as some call it “the most popular western novel of all time.”  Having said that, it should also be noted that this, as some other oft-retold western stories dating from near the turn of the 19th century, does not wear its age lightly.   The film’s strengths:  very good cast, attempt to be true to the language of the novel, beautiful locations (Moab, Utah).  Weaknesses:  poor direction and editing, failure to use the scenery well.

This is a Shane story, from before Shane—the Mysterious Stranger.  An unknown gunman rides alone into a tense situation and turns things around by siding with the underdogs.  In this case, the underdog is Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan), spinster-rancher in a religious community in southern Utah (presumably, by the looks of the terrain).  Without much help, she is facing (a) rustlers, (b) Deacon Tull (Norbert Weisser) of her own church, who wants her to marry him and is trying to force her hand, and (c) Pastor Dyer (G.D. Spradlin), who also wants her to marry Tull.  When Tull and his men are attempting to hang Bern Venters (Henry Thomas), one of her hands, she prays for help, and into this mess rides Lassiter (Ed Harris, balding with otherwise long hair), who backs them off and they ride away without completing the hanging. 

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Lassiter (Ed Harris) and Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan).

Lassiter, who spends most of the film without a first name, tells Jane he is looking for the grave of Millie Erne and wants to know how she came there.  Jane seems to have harbored friendly feelings for the late Millie and is willing to show him the grave, but does not give him any of the other information he seeks.  He agrees to stay and work for her until she does tell him.  Meanwhile, Bern rides out looking for rustled cattle and finds Oldring’s rustlers, including a strange masked rider.  When they come after him, he shoots them.  The masked rider turns out to be Bess (Robin Tunney), a female.  Bern hides her in an Indian cave dwelling and nurses her back to health.

Back at the ranch, Pastor Dyer shows up to lecture Jane and pulls a gun on Lassiter, who wounds him.  Jane’s one remaining hand, Judkins, is killed and her two best riding horses (Black Star and Night) are stolen.  Bern crosses paths with the thieves, recognizes Jane’s horses, and exchanges shots with them.  He gets several of them, including Oldring, but is captured by Tull, who is riding with the rustlers and takes Bern off to be hung (again) for stealing the horses and killing Judkins, which he obviously did not do.

At this point, Jane tells Lassiter that Pastor Dyer was the one who stole Millie Erne from her husband and family and gave her to Jane’s own father.  When her father tried to force Millie, she shot him and then herself.  Meanwhile, her father had given away Millie’s infant daughter.  Lassiter straps on his guns and heads to the church, where he blasts all the bad guys except Tull, including Dyer.  Taking Black Star and Night, Lassiter and Bern pick up Jane and head for the cave where Bess is waiting.  It develops that Bern and Bess are in love, that Bess is in fact Millie’s missing baby (although she thought she was Oldring’s daughter), and that Lassiter is Millie’s brother and has been following her trail for thirteen years.

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The masked rider is (gasp!) a girl!  It’s Bess (Robin Tunney).

They see Tull and his riders heading for them, and Bern and Bess take off on Black Star and Night, leading the pursuit away and heading for a new future together.  Lassiter and Jane have only one horse for the two of them and head up the canyon to where Bern was hiding Bess.  As Tull eventually realizes his mistake in being led away and returns to follow Lassiter and Jane, they tip over a huge rock and cause a landslide on to him.  And presumably they live happily ever after.

As with Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet,” the 1912 Zane Grey novel makes Jane’s religious group specifically Mormons, following cultural conventions current when the book was written, what with Mormon reclusiveness, their practice of polygamy and supposed related woman-stealing.  This film makes the bad guys a non-specific religious cult, now that Mormons are more mainstream.  The action takes place in 1871, so Lassiter has been following the evildoers since before the Civil War, apparently.  This is only about 90 minutes long without commercials, and it does not flow well.  The Oldring thread of the story is not very developed.  The direction (by Charles Haid, once an actor on television’s Hill Street Blues in the early 1980s) seems like television direction, not using the spectacular canyon landscapes as well as it might.  The red rock shots seem like postcards, not related well to the surrounding terrain or to the story.  John Ford would have done it better; even Gore Verbinski did it better (in the otherwise forgettable The Lone Ranger), but they both probably had much bigger budgets.  There is good use of light and dark, which gives an appropriate 19th-century feeling and perhaps an occasional sense of the moral confusion Jane Withersteen is feeling.

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Deacon Tull and his henchmen, in hot pursuit of Lassiter and Jane.

All in all, not great but worth watching—perhaps the best version on film of this antique story.  The previous most recent film version was made almost 60 years before this, in 1941.  This and several other often-retold western stories from its era (The Virginian, Whispering Smith) can seem kind of clunky and dated to modern viewers.  This story has a great title–good enough to be adopted by a country-rock group in the late 1960s and by three separate country-western groups.  But it’s unclear what riders are referred to in this story.  Everybody rides the purple sage:  rustlers, religious zealots, ranchers, spunky spinsters and mysterious gunmen.  Zane Grey is not read nearly so much as he was a hundred years ago, and his cultural assumptions and floridly romantic sensibility have not worn well.  His writing style is not much to modern tastes, either.  But he still tells a good story if one takes the trouble to read him.

Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, the leads, were married when this was made, and they were also executive producers.  All four of the leads here give good performances, and it’s a shame the film doesn’t have a good flow to make better use of them.  Apparently Ed Harris liked westerns enough after this experience to direct and star in his own several years later:  Appaloosa in 2008.

This was made for television’s TNT network which, in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one of the best places to see new westerns and remakes of old western stories, often with Tom Selleck or Sam Elliot.  Another classic western story from this period of TNT’s sponsorship is the 2000 version of The Virginian, directed by Bill Pullman and starring Pullman and Diane Lane.

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Purgatory

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 30, 2013

Purgatory—Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts, Donnie Wahlberg, J.D. Souther, Randy Quaid, Peter Stormare, Brad Rowe, Amelia Heinle, R.G. Armstrong (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  Uli Edel)

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Much more watchable than the premise and the fact that it was made for television would suggest.  Despicable outlaw Blackjack Britton (Eric Roberts in his evil mode) and his numerous gang rob a bank in the town of Sweetwater, killing a number of citizens and soldiers in the process.  Pursued closely by a posse into the desert heading for Mexico, they get lost in a storm and emerge into a green valley and a small town.  They enter the town of Refuge and are welcomed, bemused by the fact that the sheriff (Sam Shepard) doesn’t wear a gun and asks them not to curse.  Meanwhile, they get free booze and accommodations, but, given their predilections, that’s not enough for them.

The gang’s segundo, Cavin Guthrie (Peter Stormare, recognizable from Fargo), is if anything even more despicable than Blackjack, but he’s hampered by his green nephew, Sonny Dillard (Brad Rowe), an avid reader of dime novels.  Sonny fancies he starts to recognize some of the town’s characters.  The sheriff bears a resemblance to Wild Bill Hickok; the town doctor (Randy Quaid) seems like he could be Doc Holliday; the storekeeper (J.D. Souther) seems like Jesse James; and the impetuous deputy (Donnie Wahlberg) like Billy the Kid.  And Sonny is taken with Rose (Amelia Heinle), a young lady of the town.  They all seem to spend an unusual amount of time in church. 

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Eric Roberts as the loathsome Blackjack Britton; Brad Rowe as Sonny Dillard.

[Spoilers follow.]  Not seeing any viable resistance, Blackjack loosens the controls on his men and they start tearing the place up.  Among them, Cavin develops plans to molest Rose.  Meanwhile, Sonny finds himself identifying more with the townsfolk than with the miscreants he rode in with.  He discovers Rose has a hanging scar around her neck; she was Betty McCullough, the first woman hung in Arizona Territory, at age 19 for killing her father with a meat cleaver after he had molested her for seven years.  [Note:  Betty McCullough seems to be a fictional creation, not an actual historical character.]  She does not encourage Sonny’s attentions, and describes the setup of Refuge:  they are there as a place of repentance and reformation after living questionable lives.  If they succeed in reforming, they get to move on to heaven in due course.  In fact, the sheriff is due to leave in a couple of days after ten years in Refuge.  But they can’t return to their former vices and violence, or they’ll go the way of the truly damned.  And they’ve spent years reforming in Refuge.

Finally, the gang plans to leave in the morning and burn the town down, having their way with whomever they feel like.  Sonny tries to get the sheriff and townsfolk to resist, but that would be violating the rules of their probation.  Finally, he declares that even if they won’t help him, he’ll defend Rose and the town the best he can.  There are more than 16 in the gang against him, and he’s not that good with a gun.  The question is less what will happen than how it will happen, and what will follow from it.  

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The uneasy sheriff (Sam Shepard) and his impetuous young deputy (Donnie Wahlberg).

This is about choices, and not easy ones.  Sonny has drifted into some bad choices in the past, and he’s choosing where (and with whom) his future will lie.  He chooses to give Rose something she’s never had:  somebody to stick up for her.  For the four, it’s different.  They made bad choices in the past as well, or at least some that played to their violent skills and strengths, and they’re having to choose where they want their strengths to be long term.  Ultimately they go, as we knew they must, with what feels right in the moment, despite having lost some of those skills they valued in life.

Hickok concludes that he’s been thinking too much about his own good and shortcomings, and straps on his two guns, handles forward.  Even Blackjack recognizes that.  Similarly Jesse and Billy put on their guns, and even Doc takes a hand.  Unlike Sonny, they probably can’t be killed (since they’re already dead), but they have just put themselves in line for eternal damnation and given up any hope for redemption.  In the extended shootout all the outlaws but Cavin and Blackjack are taken out (these four defenders are really good, and they move well). 

Sonny stands up with his dime-novel heroes and plays his part, but he’s clearly out of his league, both with his deceased colleagues and against his former outlaw friends.  Finally, it comes down to just Hickok, who is putting away his guns after the showdown, and Blackjack, who won’t take no for an answer.  It isn’t even close.  Sonny discovers that he has mortal wounds but somehow isn’t dead—or if he is, he’s now a resident of Refuge like everybody else.

The four and Sonny present themselves at the cemetery, where they expect the old Indian Chiron figure (Saginaw Grant) will conduct them to hell.  As they prepare to enter, the eternal stagecoach pulls up.  It is driven by R.G. Armstrong, who says that the Creator takes their self-sacrifice for what it seems to be, and they can now all get in.  Sonny, too, but he declares he wants to stay.  Hickok passes the badge to him, and the coach takes off.

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This is better done than we have any right to expect.  The writing is good, by Gordon Dawson, a long-time television writer with experience on The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick, among many other things.  The pacing is good while the premise develops, presumably the work of the director Uli Gellen, a German television veteran.  The social attitudes are not unbearably anachronistic.  We could wish that this were in widescreen, but mostly made-for-television westerns weren’t in 1999.  Recently (2019), a widescreen HD digital version has been available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

The cast is very good for such an enterprise, especially Sam Shepard as Hickok.  Brad Rowe is also surprisingly good as Sonny; if we don’t care enough about him, this story loses a lot of its punch.  Eric Roberts can do evil in his sleep, and he does exactly what’s required of him.  Peter Stromare is a little over the top as the evil Segundo uncle, but it works.  Randy Quaid is a little broad as Holliday; we’re aware that others, including his brother Dennis, have played Holliday more elegantly.  Souther is lacking in charisma as Jesse James.  Given the balances of this, the film has to depict horrible evil convincingly without showing it too explicitly, and it does that well.  It’s one of the best things of its kind, although it’s hard to think of very many other things of its kind.  Usually a high concept supernatural premise like this would find a lot of ways to be irritating, and this is actually quite watchable and involving.  One could quibble about Billy the Kid and Jesse James as candidates for redemption, but what the heck.  This deserves to be better known.

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At the cemetery: Holliday (Randy Quaid), James (J.D. Souther), Hickok (Sam Shepard), and Billy (Donnie Walberg).

There are a couple of echoes of other westerns, particularly Ride the High Country.  There is a reference to Hickok’s upcoming “entering his house justified.”  And of course, the presence of R.G. Armstrong, often cast as a religious fanatic in Peckinpah films (High Country, Major Dundee), here used as a much cheerier sort of quasi-religious figure in his last western.

As of 2019, there is a widescreen HD version of this available.

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The Jack Bull

Nicholas Chennault ~ November 11, 2013

The Jack Bull—John Cusack, John Goodman, L.Q. Jones, Miranda Otto, John C. McGinley, John Savage, Rodney A. Grant (Made for television, 1999; Dir:  John Badham)

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Beautiful cinematography with a wintry cast to it, appropriate for the bleak material.  This was made for HBO before widescreen televisions were widespread, and widescreen DVDs of it can be hard to find. 

This is a grim tale of an obsessive hunt for justice in Wyoming, ca. 1890.  Myrl Redding (John Cusack) is a small horse trader in Rawlins.  A local cattle baron, Henry Ballard (L.Q. Jones), is trying to discourage locals from agitating for statehood, which he figures will restrict his ability to do as he pleases.  When Redding signs a pro-statehood petition, Ballard buys the land leading to a pass and puts in a fence, restricting travel in the area. 

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Redding (John Cusack), trying to figure out what’s ethical.

On his way to an auction in Casper, Redding is forced to leave two black stallions with Ballard as security, only to find them in bad shape when he returns for them, with his Crow hand Billy (Rodney A. Grant) badly beaten by Ballard’s men.  From there things get out of control as Redding organizes his neighbors in an obsessive quest for justice—futile because the local judge is in Ballard’s pocket.  Everybody gets pushed into making choices they don’t want, even the purported semi-bad guy (Ballard). 

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There are Unintended Consequences.  Redding’s wife Cora (Miranda Otto) is accidentally killed while seeking redress from the attorney general in Cheyenne, her death steeling Redding’s resolve.  Ballard’s foreman Staker (John Savage) is killed by Redding in a confrontation as Staker tries to get Billy.  A rancher’s wife gets killed accidentally in a confrontation with a band led by Redding, even though Redding didn’t want that. 

Redding is convicted of murder (for the rancher’s wife) and sentenced to be hung as statehood is declared.  Judge Joe B. Tolliver (John Goodman) investigates and sympathizes with Redding, but in the end there appears to be nothing anybody can do.  Not an easy black and white, good versus evil story.  Honor, duty, pride and justice collide, and people make their choices.  

Well acted, especially by John Cusack, Miranda Otto as Redding’s wife Cora in a brief role and by John Goodman who expresses the tragedy of it all.  Jones’ Ballard is continually objectionable, if clueless.  Having appeared in a number of Peckinpah and other westerns, his presence provides a familiar face.

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Judge Joe B. Tolliver (John Goodman) explains it all, but he can’t fix any of it.

This bleak, tragic story has a screenplay written by Cusack’s father Dick, loosely based on Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 novel Michael Kohlhaas.  (Dick Cusack also has a cameo as the jury foreman.)  Late 20th century social attitudes intrude a bit, with blacks given more visibility than they probably had in 1890s Wyoming.  Wyoming Territory was the first place in the country women could vote, but you probably wouldn’t find blacks on a jury.  The title apparently refers to a Jack Russell terrier, tenacious enough so that once it locks its jaws it never lets go.  Here that tenacity leads to a tragic conclusion.

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Lonesome Dove

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 9, 2013

Lonesome Dove—Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane, Danny Glover, Robert Urich, Rick Schroder, D.B. Sweeney, Glenne Headley, Frederick Forrest, Steve Buscemi (miniseries made for television, 1989; Dir:  Simon Wincer)

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Finally, in 2008, a DVD with a worthy version of this modern classic novel was released.  Although Lonesome Dove was made for television in the late 1980s, it was apparently filmed with a large budget in a widescreen format, as now shown on the 2008 DVD.  And the new transfer was of a significantly better, clearer quality than earlier releases.  One result is that this version gives a greater sense of the visual sweep and power of the American west than its more limited predecessors.

The spine of Lonesome Dove is the story of a cattle drive from Texas border country on the Rio Grande north to Montana, but it includes so much more:  Indians and renegades, scurrilous buffalo hunters and rough cowhands, romances current and past, outlaws and old friends gone wrong, Texas rangers and Mexican rustlers, battles against evildoers, miscreants, Indians and the elements.  Based on one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, it takes the time to do justice to its rich source material.

How can the greatest western be something made for television?  It was the coming together of so many elements, including the rich and sprawling story, terrific cinematography, excellent music (by Basil Pouledoris), masterful direction, superb casting, and, perhaps most of all, the time to tell the story fully at its own pace and develop the characters.

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Capt. Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Capt. Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones).

And the cast!  The casting is magnificent.  Some of the excellent cast members (Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane) are known best for their work in non-western films.  Others (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper) are icons well known from other westerns on this list.  Duvall is so good as romantic former Texas Ranger Gus McCrae that it is now impossible to think of anybody else in the role, although a younger McCrae has been played by others since.  Originally, James Garner was to have played Gus, but had to drop out for health reasons; he played Woodrow Call very creditably in the sequel Streets of Laredo miniseries.  Tommy Lee Jones, who is actually younger than Duvall, nevertheless matches him well as the unyielding, steel-spined Captain Woodrow Call.  Anjelica Huston as McCrae’s lifelong love Clara has one of the most memorable roles of her career, as does Diane Lane as the prostitute Lorena.  Danny Glover as the scout Deets is terrific.  It’s still strange to think of Frederick Forrest as the enigmatic but thoroughly evil Comanche Blue Duck, but even that bit of casting works.  Chris Cooper, in one of his first major roles, is oddly and quietly impressive as July Johnson, drawn out of a quiet life in Arkansas and thrust into the epic struggles around McCrae and Call.

There are vivid scenes that come to mind, and everyone has his favorites:  the death of a drover in a river filled with snakes, McCrae’s relentless pursuit of the elusive Blue Duck (who appears mysteriously and memorably in a flash of lightning), the hanging of an old friend gone wrong, Call decisively taking on the U.S. cavalry without hesitation (“I can’t abide rude behavior in a man”), McCrae and Clara trying to work out an old love, July Johnson coping with death and with the continuation of life, and Call’s inability to claim an important relationship, are only some.  Some things get resolved, and some seem not to; that’s life, and sometimes death.  It has an air of authenticity.  It stays with you.

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McCrae looks for a lost love with Clara (Anjelica Huston).

The McCrae-Call partnership around which this story revolves was loosely based on the Oliver Loving-Charlie Goodnight relationship from the 1860s; they’re the Texas pair who blazed the Goodnight-Loving Trail.  This version of the story was so powerful that it generated three more long novels (one sequel and two prequels) with the same characters from author Larry McMurtry.  None of those matches the novel on which this was based.  The others tend to get more sidetracked in the dark, the quirky and the wildly idiosyncratic, losing their grip on the themes and story that give the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove its powerful narrative thrust.  Some of them have been made into watchable miniseries themselves (Streets of Laredo, Comanche Moon), but none of them works as well as this original on the page or on screen.  The story of Lonesome Dove seems complete in itself, despite McMurtry’s insistence on giving more of it less compellingly in other novels.  As for made-for-television sequels not based on McMurtry novels, such as Return to Lonesome Dove, watch them at your own peril.

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This was the first large-scale directing effort by Australian Simon Wincer, who has gone on to make both theatrical releases (Quigley Down Under) and excellent made-for-television westerns (Last Stand at Sabre River, Monte Walsh), including the Lonesome Dove prequel Comanche Moon.  He got it right the first time.

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Blue Duck (Frederick Forrest), the worst of the bad guys, although there are a number to choose from.

Lonesome Dove and one other are often cited as the best miniseries ever, and their proponents tend to divide along gender lines.  The other is the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice (the 1995 Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version), and you can guess who likes which.  They’re both great, but only one of them is a western.

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Broken Trail

Nicholas Chennault ~ July 25, 2013

Broken Trail—Robert Duvall, Thomas Haden Church, Greta Scacchi, Scott Cooper, Gwendoline Yeo, Rusty Schwimmer, James Russo, Chris Mulkey (Made for television, 2006; Dir:  Walter Hill)

This originally aired as a two-night miniseries on television; its playing time on DVD is just over three hours.  But television or not, its top-of-the-line casting, a strong story, good direction and excellent production values qualify it for this list.  It won an Emmy for Best Miniseries.

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Broken Trail takes place in 1898 and follows Print Ritter (Robert Duvall) and his nephew Tom Harte (Thomas Haden Church) as they drive a herd of 500 horses from the John Day country of Oregon eastward across the mountains of Idaho to Sheridan in north-central Wyoming.  That’s where the British are paying top dollar for horses because of the Boer War.  Along the way, they have a number of unexpected adventures, such as rescuing a wagon-load of non-English-speaking Chinese women destined for prostitution.  They deal with problems provided by nature and by various miscreants, loathsome outlaws, prostitutes, vile madams and a lawless mining town.

But the story and characters are what keep us watching.  Duvall has always been supremely watchable in a western role if the writing’s any good at all.  However, he and the film benefit hugely when he’s got another strong performer to play off; think of Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove and Kevin Costner in Open Range Duvall has said that he thinks of these two movies along with Broken Trail as his trail boss trilogy, and they’re all good. 

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In this case it’s Church’s performance, and his relationship with Duvall’s character, that make this movie excellent.  In some ways his character is harder, more humorless and more unyielding than Duvall’s, but in the end he can change more than Duvall can.  There’s a certain amount of heartbreak in this one, as well as all the action one could wish.  There are a number of historical touches that make this richer than it had to be.  It takes the time to develop not only the relationship between uncle and nephew but to differentiate the Chinese women as individuals.  It’s longer than most movies and the pace isn’t quick, but it seldom seems to drag.

This is obviously the story of a stock drive, horses in this case–or as Print Ritter calls them, “high-desert mustangs.”  As with many westerns, however, the subtext is the search for family on a number of levels:  the healing of long-time family relationships; the bonding of strangers; the formation of new romantic relationships and the relationships that don’t quite get formed—all while using traditional western themes, situations and settings.

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Lonesome Dove was clearly a strong influence on this film, and this is not quite on the same level as that masterpiece.  The three-hour playing time makes the pace seem leisurely at times, especially in the second half.  The editing is looser than it could be, and not all of the many threads of the story seem to be entirely consistent or tied up by the end of the film.  There are a couple of spots where it seems like what was captured on camera could be clearer, as when the horses crest the Whale’s Back and start down the other side.  The ending seems extended beyond what we expect, but that extension has a certain power to it as we learn what became of these characters after the events of the movie.  Although they are fictional, they do seem real after this recounting.  The device is fairly common, but it is exceptionally well done in this case.  In the words of Print Ritter, “We’re all travelers in this world.  Sweet grass to the packin’ house, birth to death, we travel between the eternities….”  People make their choices, and human ties remain what the individuals have made of them.

Broken Trails Ritter and the Chinese girls

The Chinese women are all sympathetic and well-played, especially Gwendoline Yeo as Sun Foo (No. 3, the oldest).  Greta Scacchi is Nola Johns, an older prostitute who flees Cariboo City with Harte and the Chinese women, and she’s very good.  Scacchi is a very beautiful English-Italian actress of a certain age, deliberately made up here to indicate the hard use to which her character has been subjected.  She shows quiet warmth as her relationships develop with other characters, along with strength in disappointment, and, in the end with just her voice, controlled heartbreak.  Other smaller roles are excellently played:  Rusty Schwimmer as the vicious madam Big Rump Kate Becker; Chris Mulkey as ruthless bad guy Big Ears Ed Bywater; Scott Cooper as Heck Gilpin, fiddler and apprentice horse wrangler; and James Russo as Captain Billy Fender, loquacious white slaver.  The bad guys are pretty thoroughly evil, no question about it.

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Bad guys:  Big Rump Kate Becker (Rusty Schwimmer) and Big Ears Ed Bywater (Chris Mulkey)

The production design is excellent, overseen by Ken Rempel.  The production team obviously spent time doing their research and making this look and sound authentic for its period.  Except for Cariboo City, a rowdy Idaho mining camp (which was in fact largely abandoned by 1898), this movie doesn’t spend much time in towns, so look at what the characters are wearing and the equipment they use:  The curve of the brim on Church’s hat, for example, and the leather cuffs these working cattlemen wear to protect their arms from rope burns.  (Now we need to see a cowboy on these northern ranges wearing a pair of woolly chaps.)  The use of the term “buckaroo” was in fact common especially around the Great Basin and points north where this takes place, although not so much in more southern ranching areas.  The description by Nola Johns of the downward career path of a western prostitute is quite accurate.

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There’s been a trend in recent years to use the Canadian Rockies in Alberta for filming westerns, and Broken Trail benefits from this gorgeous scenery, with Lloyd Ahern as the cinematographer.  The horses crossing a river or just breathing on a frosty morning, keeping the herd moving through an early snowfall–it always looks great, even if you’ve never seen these things before.  On occasion it may not look much like the high deserts of eastern Oregon and southern Idaho, however.  Since it wasn’t released in theaters, it wasn’t subject to the cinematic rating system.  It would have been on the borders of PG-13 and R, because of the violence, occasional language (although they’re careful), and themes involving prostitution, ruthless behavior, and death.  Director Walter Hill (see The Long Riders, as well as the underrated Geronimo:  An American Legend) clearly feels an affinity for the era and is one of the three or four best directors now working in the genre, although he doesn’t actually make a lot of westerns.

If you’re interested in another good western featuring the Chinese in the American west, see A Thousand Pieces of Gold.  Scott Cooper, playing a supporting character here (Heck Gilpin), went to to become a pretty competent director of westerns himself.  (See Hostiles, 2017, an excellent cavalry movie).

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Thomas Haden Church and director Walter Hill.

 

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