Tag Archives: Tom Berenger

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)


“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.


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.”

AvengingAngelCoburn Beren

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.


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.


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).

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Last of the Dogmen

Nicholas Chennault ~ August 1, 2013

Last of the Dogmen—Tom Berenger, Barbara Hershey, Kurtwood Smith, Steve Reevis, Wilford Brimley (1995; Dir:  Tab Murphy)


To be honest, this was made as a B-movie, as the presence of Tom Berenger would suggest.  He’s sometimes better than his material, although the material here is fine, if unpretentious.  Berenger plays Lewis Gates, a modern-day wilderness guide and tracker in Montana and a man seemingly born a century too late.  Sent to track three escaped convicts in a remote area, Gates finds them all killed—with arrows, and not modern-style arrows.  He has in fact discovered a surviving and very isolated band of 19th century Cheyennes in a remote and inaccessible wilderness area.  Their culture is frozen in time, as if they were still in the 1870s when Cheyennes last roamed free.  Barbara Hershey is Professor Lillian Diane Sloan, Gates’ romantic interest (after quite a bit of development).  Sloan is an academic anthropologist specializing in Indians—in the Cheyennes, specifically.  The plot then revolves around getting the Cheyennes to trust them and protecting the Indians from the invading modern world.  The story has obvious similarities with Lost Horizon and other hidden civilization stories.  It takes a while to develop, but it doesn’t drag.

There are subplots involving the animosity in Berenger’s relationship with the local sheriff (Kurtwood Smith) and a race for modern antibiotics to save an Indian boy.  The sheriff is the father of Gates’ dead wife, and he blames Gates for his daughter’s accidental death.  Gates may share some of that view, although he ostensibly realizes that his wife’s death wasn’t really his fault.


There are slight believability problems here and there, but it’s fun and very watchable.  Hershey also is better here than in some of her other roles, although she was good in a similar role in Hoosiers.  The Indians look authentic.  Steve Reevis, Blackfoot actor, is particularly good as Yellow Wolf, although not much is required of him but to look stoic and resolutely anachronistic.  One director’s-cut version does not have the Wilford Brimley voice-over narration, and many prefer that version.  In another decade with a stronger lineup of westerns, this might not have made the great westerns list.  But in the 1990s it does, even if it’s rated PG.  A movie of modest pretensions (and made with modest resources), it’s good for a Saturday afternoon.

This movie was filmed in Alberta, Canada, in and around the town of Canmore.  The supposed “Oxbow Triangle” in Montana, the remote area where the Cheyennes survive, appears to be a fictional creation for the movie.

LastDogmenReevisReevis as Yellow Wolf.

A certain amount of romantic lore has always surrounded the Cheyennes, including a legend of a lost band of the Suthai clan.  Curiously, the title of this movie never seems to be fully explained in the film, although there are references to “dog soldiers.”  The leading Cheyenne warrior society called themselves “dog men” or “dog soldiers.”  The survivors depicted in the movie are presumably the descendents of a dog soldier group and their families.  The nearest group of modern Cheyennes to these supposed 19th century remnants would be the Northern Cheyennes.  The modern Northern Cheyennes have a reservation adjacent to the Crows in southeastern Montana, and are descendants of the band led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf who were the subject of John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn.

For another Tom Berenger western, check out the made-for-television The Avenging Angel, featuring Berenger as a kind of Mormon not-so-secret agent, dealing with historical characters Brigham Young and Porter Rockwell, along with murder, machinations and mayhem among the polygamous Mormons of the 1870s.  For another excellent western set in modern times, featuring a white tracker-hunter drawn to Indian ways in the wilderness, see Wind River (2017), with Jeremy Renner and a number of Indian actors and set on Wyoming’s mountainous Shoshone-Arapaho reservation.


Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestEmail this to someone