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There were other made-for-TV Westerns before it, but THE SACKETTS (1979) is the first big multi-part cowboy epic that I can think of. It came out a full ten years before the LONESOME DOVE series and, though it isn't nearly as good, it does lay the groundwork for this type of sweeping TV Western.
The story follows the adventures of the three Sackett brothers, Tell, Orrin, and Tyrell. Tell (Sam Elliott) is the loner of the bunch, and we're introduced to him as he is forced to flee his mining job after gunning down a crooked card dealer (James Gammon) who happens to be one of the dreaded Bigelow brothers. Knowing that the other Bigelows will be after him for revenge, Tell disappears into the mountains, where he stumbles onto a rich vein of gold and starts his own one-man mining operation. When he totes a large bagful of the shiny stuff into the aptly-named town of Purgatorie to trade for cash, it doesn't take long for some of the less scrupulous denizens to try and surgically remove him from his new-found riches.
Meanwhile, his brothers Orrin (Tom Selleck) and Tyrell (Jeff Osterhage) have left their Tennessee homeplace to avoid a bloody feud between the Sacketts and another clan, and are headed West with a cattle drive. When they reach Abilene, Orrin falls for the golden-haired daughter of an ambitious politician named Pritts (John Vernon), who aims to drive all the Mexicans out of Sante Fe. Tyrell, of course, falls in love with a lovely Mexican lass (Ana Alicia) whose father, Don Luis (Gilbert Roland), is the main stumbling block in Pritts' plans. When they all get together in Santa Fe, the situation soon turns deadly and guns start a-blazin'.
The script is a combination of two Louis L'Amour novels, "Sackett" and "The Daybreakers", and it isn't a very smooth blend, crosscutting between the two barely-related stories the way you might switch channels back-and-forth between two movies that are on at the same time. The stories overlap only twice--once near the end of the first segment when the three Sacketts run into each other in Purgatorie, and again for the big finale as the Bigelow brothers finally catch up to Tell and he's reunited with Orrin and Tyrell to fight them off.
This awkward overlapping of the two stories bothered me the first time I watched THE SACKETTS, along with some jarring hand-held camerawork (no Steadicam here), an irritating musical score by Jerrold Immel, and a strange performance by Mercedes McCambridge that makes Ma Sackett look like she's either perpetually tipsy or tetched in the head.
But further viewings have helped me to get over the various minus points and begin to appreciate all the good things about this movie. Despite its somewhat rough-hewn quality, THE SACKETTS is an engaging Western with lots of authentic atmosphere, good characters, and a terrific cast.
For starters, there's Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck, who I think are the two best Western actors of the past twenty or thirty years (with the exception of Clint Eastwood, of course), and Jeff Osterhage, a lesser-known actor who does a fine job here. Glenn Ford plays Tom Sunday, the ramrod of the cattle drive who later joins Orrin and Tyrell in their own cattle venture and eventually ends up as their enemy, and his intense, masterful performance (watch his face twitch in those close-ups!) is a joy to behold.
This can also be said for the great Ben Johnson as Cap Roundtree, who becomes Tell's gold-mining partner. Paul Koslo is a hoot as the blowhard would-be gunslinger Kid Newton. The Bigelow brothers are played by Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, Gene Evans, and James Gammon, and also appearing in the cast are the likes of L.Q. Jones, Ruth Roman, Pat Buttram, Shug Fisher, and Buck Taylor, in addition to the aforementioned John Vernon and Gilbert Roland. (Louis L'Amour himself does the opening narration.) If you're like me and you love great character actors as much as A-list stars, this is the kind of "all-star" cast that will put a smile on your face.
I can't give THE SACKETTS a super high score due to its various deficiencies, and the fact that it's not the polished effort that later TV Westerns like LONESOME DOVE would be, but it has enough going for it to get a solid three-and-a-half cans. The final shoot-out alone is worth waiting for--it's almost as good as the bullet-riddled free-for-all that ended OPEN RANGE. And that cast--awesome. There's one scene which features Sam Elliott, Tom Selleck, Glenn Ford, and Ben Johnson sitting around a campfire, and I thought "Damn...I'd like to be sitting around that campfire, too."
Added: Sunday, September 09, 2007
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