Today is the birthday of Sam Elliott (b. 1944).
I won’t apologize for the adolescent tone of the header for this blogpost. Youthful enthusiasm and hero worship are the seed kernels of cinephilia. Why else do it? And Sam Elliott is my idea of a star. He ought to be a much bigger one in my book, but he ended up specializing in westerns, a genre that has fallen out of favor in the mainstream over the past half century, although since the 1990s it has made a pretty muscular comeback in its own market niche.
It’s no secret that Elliott has the best voice and the best mustache in the business. He could coast a lot more than he does (and I think he does coast just a tad), but he is a skilled and intelligent actor, and is more versatile than is readily apparent. I am a fan of pretty much everything he does; I’ve never regretted seeing any of his performances.
His screen persona has evolved over the years. He didn’t really become the “Sam Elliott” we see in our mind’s eye until the 1980s and 90s. Throughout the 70s, he was clean shaven and his voice hadn’t yet plunged into the deep gravel pit where it currently resides. He’s a good-looking cat, and other assets were already there: dimples, eyes with a penchant for twinkling, copious hair, and a hairy chest. This made him a shoe-in for the 70s equivalent of a leading man (with elements of post-hippie west coast “dude”). Motorcycles and surfboards were originally as much a part of the mix as horses. He was cast as the daredevil title character in a pilot for a tv series called Evel Knievel (1974), was also the eponymous surf-philosopher in Lifeguard (1976), Cher’s biker boyfriend in Mask (1985), and Patrick Swayze’s buddy and mentor in Roadhouse (1989). Early on, he was also leading drifter-man in two notorious horror films, both with varying amounts of camp value: 1972’s Frogs and 1979’s The Legacy, on which he met his future wife Katherine Ross. The Coen Brothers ingeniously employed his iconic status both as latter day cowboy AND groovy sage as the narrator in The Big Lebowski (1998). And in latter days, he’s been in some of the Marvel blockbusters, Hulk (2003) and Ghost Rider (2007). Nowadays I hear him do a lot of voice-overs for Jeep Cherokee ads. And of course, now there is his Oscar nominated performance in A Star is Born (2018).
But westerns are his franks and beans, and I’ve seen and enjoyed a bunch of them, so here’s something on them (warning: we always include spoilers):
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
This was one of Elliott’s first screen parts. You may not remember him because his role was “Card Player #2”. But look for him, he’s there! (and looking very much like the 25 year old kid that he was.
Molly and Lawless John 1972
Vera Miles is the homely, browbeaten wife of a town sheriff (John Anderson). She allows a ruthless prisoner (Elliott) to sweet-talk her into freeing him and they both go on the lam together. It quickly becomes apparent that her feelings for him are not requited. He makes love to her when the mood strikes him but he uses her and is as bad to her or worse as her husband. Things get still more complicated when she rescues a baby, and has to carry it with them on their wanderings. He tries to ditch her at one point, then comes back. In the end, we know it’s just because he needs the cover of a wife and baby. They are finally found out when she goes to christen the baby, naming it after him. In a rage, he is about to kill the baby. She shoots Lawless John dead with the shot gun, then delivers the corpse to her husband, who has learned the error of his ways. She is also a more assured and assertive woman–a feminist western for the times.
The Sacketts (1979)
A TV movie based on Louis L’Amour book.okey, clichéd. Elliott, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage are three Tennessee brothers (Mercedes McCambridge is their Ma) forced to flee west because of various run-ins. Two of the brothers join a cow outfit with Glenn Ford and Ben Johnson; Elliott goes prospecting, and finds gold and Spanish armor from 1544. What are the odds? When the cowboys get to Abilene, an evil hand who has been giving the brothers shit about being farmers calls them out. A showdown, but Selleck lets the other guy live. They throw in with some Mexicans heading for Santa Fe, led by Gilbert Roland. The three brothers split up meet up later in a town called Purgatory. Ben Johnson leaves with Elliott to prospect. The other two stay with Ford. Then wall-eyed Jack Elam (the brother of a man Elliott killed in a card game) shows up to kill him. Etc etc. I found this to be a sort of hokey and cliched outing, partially salvaged by the magic of the old time stars in the cast….passing the torch.
The Shadow Riders (1982)
A not completely terrible tv movie from a Louise L’Amour novel. Tom Selleck and Elliott are brothers who return from opposite sides of the Civil War to discover that Elliott’s fiancé (Katharine Ross) and all their sisters have been kidnapped by renegade Rebs to be sold into slavery in Mexico. They get their outlaw uncle (Ben Johnson) out of jail to help them get the girls back. In the end a half dozen of them take on an entire army of Mexican outlaws and emerge victorious.
The Quick and the Dead (1987)
Or as I call it now, “The OTHER Quick and the Dead, in light of Sam Raimi’s western by the same name. Yet another tv movie based on a Louis L’Amour novel. Seems very much based on Shane, but a tad more explicit. Tom Conti and Kate Capshaw are pioneers, with a child and a covered wagon. They are traveling to Wyoming to start a ranch. Unfortunately they come across some bad men. Conti seems a naïf, a former schoolteacher completely unable to take care of his family. Time after time their bacon is saved by Sam Elliot, a half breed Blackfoot, who keeps riding in and out of their camp. The wagon is pursued by the bad guys who are bent on stealing everything they own and raping the wife but Elliot picks them off one by one. Unfortunately he also seems to steal the hearts of Conti’s wife and son. It eventually emerges that Conti was a Civil War hero who has taken lives before…but he has vowed never to do so again. So he proves himself in a last scene. But it is very unconvincing…Conti simply seems like a schmuck from beginning to end. Otherwise the film is quite good…more gripping than 80s tv westerns usually are.
Pretty good Turner tv movie, based on Louis L’Amour novel. Two plots that eventually converge. Katharine Ross is a widow who is stuck on a ranch with two children. Sam Elliott as the title character, an honest, straight arrow cowhand (on another ranch) who pretty much single-handedly tussles with some rustlers. Ross’s husband went to buy some cattle and disappeared. For a time she survives by making her house a way station for a new stage coach line. Later they build their own station and she is lonely—leaves poems in the tumbleweeds. Elliott has a series of run-ins, fights and shoot outs with the bad guys, eventually causing them to concede and ride off. The villain admires him too much to kill him when he collapses. The widow convinces Conagher to stay with her on the ranch.
The 999th retelling of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, narrated at the opening by Robert Mitchum. I like this movie a lot better than the terrible Wyatt Earp made by Lawrence Kazdan the following year, but it still has lots of problems. The acting and direction are fine for the most part (in some spots excellent) but the screenplay is the pits. To its credit, every scene has a point (which is more than you can say about some screenplays) but the points range from the insultingly obvious (at one point to my own amusement, I predicted a very predictable line) to occasionally hitting the nail on the head. To my surprise, one of the film’s positive elements is Kurt Russell (whom I usually hate or dismiss) as Wyatt Earp. He has an insane intensity and taciturnity in the role, easily the best thing I’ve seen him do, and perhaps the best Earp on record (with the possible exception of Fonda, whom, let’s face it, isn’t really playing Earp in the Ford version). Sam Elliott plays Virgil Earp, and Bill Paxton is the other brother, Morgan. The Clantons are downplayed in this script, in favor of an outfit known as The Cowboys, here made out to be a highly organized terror-gang, all of whom wear red sashes, and led by the happy go lucky (and psychotically murderous) Curly Bill Brocius, played by Powers Booth. 2/3 through the picture, Curly Bill is killed and the villain switches to one Johnny Ringo, one of the film’s many flaws. Doc Holiday is played by Val Kilmer. The part, as written and enacted is way affected, but it still struck me as better than many who’ve attempted the role (such as Victor Mature and Dennis Quaid). Also, Charlton Heston has a small role as a rancher who puts the bunch up for a while.
Technically not a western, I know, but I do think of the few Civil War battle pictures there are as a kind of sister genre — given all the 19th American cavalrymen riding around and shooting each other. So many westerns feature Civil War subplots, or take place directly after the war and are stories about Civil War vets. They overlap. ANYWAY, in this all star production, Elliott plays the pipe smoking Confederate General John Buford, for me, one of the highlights of the picture.
Buffalo Girls (1995)
A precious and sentimental “woman’s western”. Angelica Huston feminizes Calamity Jane in this heavily ficitionized bio-pic. In two senses of the word. First, it opens with a feminist history lesson monologue about “nothing to do for women back in them days”. Then, ironically, the script and her portrayal proceed to cut the metaphorical dick off of Jane, making her a weepy soap opera heroine (for a much better portrait by light years, see Deadwood). The plot is how she loves Wild Bild Hickock (Sam Elliott) so bad, then he gets shot, then she is with child and then gives the baby up for adoption. Then Buffalo Bill Cody (Peter Coyote) tries to get her to join his Wild West and make the trip with him to play for the Queen of England. She resists for a while, but then she hears her baby is in England, and the adopted mother has died, and it seems as though she will go. That is IT. Along the way, Jack Palance and another recognizable character actor play a couple of scouts/trappers with nothing to do but wander in and out of the story and comment on the sad loss of the frontier. There is a subplot about Melanie Griffith as a prostitute and Gabriel Byrne as this guy who wants to marry her. One of the least interesting film experiences I have ever had. How anyone thought there was a movie in this story is beyond me. But at least you get to see Elliott as Wild Bill.
The Desperate Trail (1995)
Fairly good script, but directed in hasty, cursory made for tv style that subverts its potential. A feisty, hard fighting, hard shooting woman teams up with an erudite thief. She is on the lam for killing her wife-beating husband in self-defense. Her husband’s father, a marshall (Sam Elliott) now wants to see her hang. He rounds up a posse to apprehend her. Along the way the fugitives stop at his brothers, a head-in-the-clouds, crippled scientist who likes to watch the stars through his telescope. He will of course be killed when the posse shows up, as will the thief, who gives his life to save the girl. Some good stuff in the movie, and a rare chance to see Elliott as a bad guy.
You Know My Name (1999)
A Jazz Age western! A very interesting TNT tv movie, based on real events. Sam Elliott is excellent as Bill Tilghman (pronounced Tillman), an former cohort of Wyatt Earp’s, and the guy who brought in Bill Dalton, Cattle Annie and Little Britches and countless others. At the beginning, circa 1924, he is actually making his own Hollywood film about his experiences. But some folks from a lawless Oklahoma oil boomtown hire him to establish law and order. He protests but takes the job. It is the Prohibition Era. Crooks have flooded the town not only with booze but narcotics. And the worst of the criminals is actually a federal prohibition agent, a psychotic dope fiend. In the end, the guy goes on a shoting rampage and kills Tilghman. A wild story, deserving of legend, and so recent! The transitional period is so interesting. Tilghman still has a ranch and goes around on horseback…but there are also Model Ts, phonographs playing jazz, and gangsters with machine guns. This film isn’t perfect, ambles a lot, but contains enough interesting elements to keep ya glued.
Well, this ain’t all of Sam Elliott’s westerns by a damn sight, but these are all the ones I seen, so Adios for now.