Judge Russell Engebretson takes us back to the Old West—with Elmore Leonard.
Our review of Tom Selleck Western Collection, published May 20th, 2008, is also available.
Ex-Confederate cavalryman and would-be homesteader Paul Cable is drawing too much notice—and far too many bullets.
There is a great story here struggling to get out, but as with many Elmore Leonard novels, a good deal was lost on the journey from printed page to celluloid, even though Leonard had a hand in writing the script. I felt a bit saddle weary before the movie's end.
Facts of the Case
Paul Cable (Tom Selleck, Quigley Down Under), an ex-Confederate cavalryman thought to have died in battle, returns home to his family in Texas in the final year of the Civil War. His wife Martha (Suzy Amis, Titanic), after the initial shock of finding her husband alive, is uncommunicative and distant, angry that he left his home and family behind to enlist. Cable is stunned when he learns his infant daughter, youngest of their three children, died of influenza three years earlier. Cable longs to return to their homestead in Arizona, and tells his wife he will have to go on a cattle drive to earn enough money to make the move; however, Martha had put back the money he earned as a cattle herder before joining the cavalry, and it is enough to start them on their journey.
Events take a nasty turn for the Cable family when they discover their homestead has been confiscated by the Union army—specifically, by the Kidstons (Keith Carradine, David Carradine, and Tracy Needham), who are using the land to run their horses. A nighttime confrontation between Cable and several of the Kidstons' hired men results in two deaths, which creates a feud between the two families that quickly spirals out of control.
The movie includes an attempted seduction, a runaway wagon, a frame-up, and gunplay galore; also, a fine standoff finale allows Cable to employ his rifle marksmanship against a vicious group of Mexican bandits.
Writer Elmore Leonard's fascination with the Western genre did not stem from the novels of Western writers but originated with his love of Western movies. In 1951 he had to make a choice between writing Westerns or crime novels, and he said, "Westerns won, because I liked Western movies a lot, and there was a wonderful market then for Western short stories." A few years later the market for Westerns collapsed, and he turned to the crime genre for which he is now so well-known. First published in 1959, Last Stand at Saber River is one of Leonard's better Western novels. Sadly, the film version doesn't deliver the goods.
To begin with, the theme of a wartime atrocity and its subsequent trauma are downplayed (Cable stood by while his regiment slaughtered unarmed Union soldiers) and is used primarily as a confessional device as he tells his story to Martha at the film's end, which allows his wife a chance to talk about her guilt over the death of her baby. It's a quick and easy way to defuse the marital tension that has festered between them since Cable's reappearance into her life; but the tidying up of loose ends reeks of television, where all problems, no matter how intractable, are resolved before the credits roll. The runaway wagon scene was so contrived that it lost any semblance of suspense; the horses managed to slip their harnesses at the last moment before the wagon flew over a canyon edge, and the resultant tumble down the side of the cliff was choreographed like a standard movie car crash—I expected the wagon to explode in a ball of flame when it hit the bottom. A troublesome technical aspect of the movie is the outdoor nighttime shooting. The outdoor daylight scenery appears authentically Western, but the exterior night scenes were obviously done on a soundstage: The kerosene lanterns, which should emit a soft, yellow glow, shine like mercury vapor lamps (the better to illuminate the actors and props, I suppose). The pumped-up klieg lighting imparts an artificial look to the surroundings that makes them appear to be exactly what they are: sets. The movie was directed in off-the-rack cable television style (though I did like the sweeping aerial photography of horses galloping across the plains), and the score was only adequate; however, there are some things to praise.
On the plus side, Tom Selleck cuts a fine figure of a cowboy. He is taciturn, sensitive (but not so sensitive as to undercut his machismo), smart, and a damn fine shooter who can dispense old-fashioned Western justice when circumstances demand action. Selleck delivers his lines with panache, and he manages to look intensely brooding and troubled. As with many Leonard novels, there are no distinctly black or white hats to distinguish the bad guys from the good. To the scriptwriters' credit, the movie follows the spirit of the novel; it does not portray events as a struggle between good and evil, but rather as a clash of strong-willed personalities (although the Cables have a legitimate claim on their homestead). The only real villain in this piece is Edward Genro (David Dukes), an embittered ex-Confederate soldier who has taken to gunrunning. Praise is also due to costume designer Betty Pecha Madden, who created an impressive period wardrobe that goes a long way toward giving the film a genuine Civil War–era appearance.
The picture is a very decent 1.33:1 DVD transfer (as it was presented on cable TV) with only an occasional stray hair or speck of dirt. The sound is not spectacular, but the Dolby 2.0 stereo mix is fairly dynamic, and the dialogue is crisp and clear. The only extras are a couple of trailers, both for TNT original Westerns.
Last Stand at Saber River is not a timeless addition to the canon of Western films, but it has its moments. The Western fan may find enough action and cowboy drama to retain his interest; the non-Western viewer might want to mosey on by.
The court finds this movie guilty of not doing justice to the novel; luckily for the perpetrators, that's only a misdemeanor in Hollywood.
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Studio: Warner Bros.
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