Tom Selleck’s first role was playing a walk-on “Cowboy in Bar” in a 1969 TV episode of “Lancer,” which starred James Stacy. Ten years later it occurred to somebody that he looked dad-gummed good in a Stetson, and he was asked to play a cowboy again in “The Sacketts,” a wonderful made-for-TV horse opera that had him riding alongside Sam Elliott, Glenn Ford, and Ben Johnson. And though he struck gold as “Magnum, P.I.” the following year, Selleck was persuaded to saddle up again for “The Shadow Riders” in 1982. Maybe it’s an 8-to10-year-itch, because 1997 saw him take to the range in another TV Western, “Last Stand at Saber River.” And the success of that TNT special presentation led to “Crossfire Trail” (2001) and “Monte Walsh” (2003).
All three all movies were based on novels by distinguished Western writers, and all three won a Bronze Wrangler for Outstanding Television Feature Film in the Western Heritage Awards. That’s not a bad bundle to package, as Warner Brothers has done here with the “Tom Selleck Western Collection.”
What these films have going for them is that they attempt to depict life in the Old West accurately, the cinematography is appealing, and the acting and plotlines are decent. Most Westerns, you just see the interior of a store. Here, you get some sense of how people bought and sold, just as you get a fuller sense of bunkhouse life and the “down time” moments that cowboys and settlers had. There are fights, sure, but given the emphasis on daily life those fights also seem different. You’d think that TV would make the fights or the violence watered down, but that’s not the case here. Men get blown right off their feet, and fist-fights can be darned brutal, resulting in stitches over the eye which we see performed in the aftermath.
But not all three films are equally successful. In fact, Selleck and this crew gets better as they go on. “Last Stand at Saber River” is the first and weakest entry, while “Crossfire Trail” is slightly better, and “Monte Walsh” is by far the best of the three. The difference is in the script and dialogue. There are a few “groaner” moments in the weaker Westerns that make you wonder why they didn’t opt for something less corny or less clichéd. But “Monte Walsh” offers surprises and intelligent writing at just about every turn. In fact, it’s a better film than the 1970 big-screen adaptation that starred Lee Marvin.
Monte Walsh (2003)
“Ain’t nobody sets a horse like Monte Walsh,” the storekeeper (Barry Corbin) says, and it’s true. Selleck looks right at home in the saddle, with that brush mustache and taciturn look. “Monte Walsh” was based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, who also penned “Shane,” and like that classic it follows Western conventions while also being careful not to skimp on character. The good guy faces the bad guy alone in a scene that could have come out of a hundred different Westerns, but you don’t mind at all because the bulk of the film is so enjoyably peppered with great lines and day-to-day details of life in the Old West.
The scene is Antelope Junction, Wyoming Territory. The year, 1892. Yep. The West is all but closed, and new-fangled gadgets like bicycles and motorcars are turning up. But what has made the cowboy a dying breed is that the ranches were hit hard by a bad winter and many of them had to fold. Enter big corporations who send people to “manage” the ranch and don’t know a thing about cattle or horses or the men whose jobs have been lifestyles all these years. We follow Monte and his sidekick, Chet Rollins (Keith Carradine), as they try to adjust while still pursuing their dream occupation, and they’re a great couple of guys to hang out with. As much as the “Lonesome Dove” duo, these two have a nice bond between them that comes across on-screen, even when they pursue separate women: a respectable widow (Lori Hallier) and a saloon woman (Isabella Rossellini). A few fun faces turn up, like Wallace Shawn (“The Princess Bride”) playing a Wild West show operator who wants Walsh to be his featured “bronc buster,” Robert Carradine as Sunfish Perkins, and William Sanderson (“Newhart”) as Skimpy Eagens.
“You could break a leg doin’ that,” Chet cautions. “I got two,” Monte says, continuing to do what that man’s gotta do. This film is shot through with gorgeous sunsets and scenes of the land, and lines that make you smile. It begins with a practical joke, and you start to realize that of course these guys had so much time on their hands that they probably relied on humor to get by as much as the next guy. But the next guy doesn’t end up in an all-out brawl with railroaders after the fireman pulls on the whistle just as the cowboys are bringing their wild mustangs to the loading gates and the horses stampede off. You’d the cowboys would just throw their hats on the ground and spout Western profanities. Nope. They all rope the locomotive smokestack and break it off so the train can’t build a good head of steam, then the brawling begins. And if you think you’ve seen movie fights, well, you haven’t seen one like this. That’s partly what makes “Monte Walsh” the success that it is. The plot remains familiar while the details are all new. And some of the scenes are so memorable you’ll never forget them. I’d rate this one a 7 out of 10, easily.
Crossfire Trail (2001)
This one’s a distant second. It starts out promising enough, but somewhere around the two-thirds mark it gets hokey–make that when Mark Harmon’s dastardly dandy of a character starts to get more screen time. Prior to that, all the pieces were in place for another rip-snorting Western, which, oddly enough begins aboard a ship at sea near San Francisco. The year is 1880, and a fellow who’s been shanghaied and tries to escape is beaten to death by the captain, who’s subsequently pummeled by the poor man’s friend. That friend is Rafe Covington (Selleck), who leaves the ship with two buddies with the goal of keeping a promise Rafe made to the dying man–which was to take care of his ranch and his wife. As the credits roll and you watch the beautiful scenery and think, three guys just like “Monte Walsh,” you might expect a similar film. And you’d be wrong. By the end of “Monte Walsh” we feel as if we know each of the characters and why they’ve done the things they have, but that’s not the case here. “Crossfire Trail” degenerates from clichés into pure silliness. Based on a Louis L’Amour Western, this one goes off the deep end when Harmon’s character insists on marrying the widow to get her land–which was “sold” to her late husband by none other than the famous Sioux chief Red Cloud. Uh huh. As you watch this forced wedding you’re about as speechless as the other folks, but for a different reason.
Even the bright spots wear thin. Example? At first you think that character actor Wilford Brimley may have found his calling as a Western sidekick. Looking like a cross between David Crosby and Buffalo Bill he’s colorful enough and says colorful things, but then, dad-burn it, he starts to say sillier things and his character becomes a caricature. With this film, the cinematography also starts out promising and then settles into familiar two shots with lots of negative space behind the figures. As Rafe fights the guys who tries to steal the ranch and also tries to steal the heart of his friend’s widow (Virginia Madsen), there are practically no surprises–not in the plot, not in the dialogue, not in the staging, and not in the details. This one merits a 5 or 6, depending on whether you reward the first half or penalize the second. We won’t even get into how Rafe “sets” the broken leg of a “squaw” who just happens to be the daughter of Red Cloud. Sheesh.
Last Stand at Saber River
This one, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, jumps right into action . . . at the expense of logic. Made at another time, it could have been titled “Cable’s War,” because it’s one of those one-man wrecking crew stories. Paul Cable (Selleck) rides into town and everyone thinks they’re seeing a ghost. He was dead, his wife (Suzy Amis) was told, and the kids (Haley Joel Osment, Rachel Duncan) hardly recognize him. Cable was wounded in action while fighting for the Confederacy, and the war still rages. In fact, Union sympathizers (David and Keith Carradine) have taken over his small ranch. Naturally, he just waltzes right in and takes it back, despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Worse, he arrives just at the moment that one of the drunken men is about to defile a woman. Timing (and clichés) like that abound. Even the strong woman blasting away feels a little tired. There’s not much in the way of character development here. Except for some tension over why Rafe went to fight in the first place, it’s all action . . . and cheese. When Lorraine Kidston, the daughter of the honcho he’s fighting, tries to seduce him, it’s just another curd tossed in the bucket. I’d also rate this a 5 or 6, depending on whether you focus on the strengths (details, accurate depiction of Western life) or the cheesy moments and clichés.
But the video is really sharp-looking, with bold and vibrant colors (the blues and reds just leap off the screen) and a surprising clarity for a TV production. You’ll notice more grain if you watch on a small screen or computer monitor than if you watch at a distance on a larger monitor. “Last Stand” is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but the other two are in an unspecified widescreen, which to my eyes looks to be 1.85:1, as it comes close to filling out the entire 16×9 screen. Nice pictures all around, and that’s a plus because the cinematography and New Mexico/Alberta (Canada) locations are stunning and deserve only the slightest amount of grain that this offers.
The audio is also unspecified, but it appears to be a robust Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with a nice wide spread across the front speakers. Though limited, the sound is rich. Ambient noises seem distinct rather than clumped into an indiscernible mess, and that’s also a plus. As with the video, it’s a nice treatment. The only real negative is the mixing on the first two Westerns, which have disproportionately loud music.
There are no bonus features except for cast and director profiles on “Monte Walsh” and “Crossfire Trail.”
If you like Tom Selleck and you like Westerns, there are enough moments in these films to make buying the collection worthwhile . . . especially since the price is right ($19.98). But “Monte Walsh” is the only solid entry, so you be the judge.