Sam is Bill
Continuing our Sam Elliott thread for a moment, after our post on 1883, in 1999 TNT screened a picture Elliott produced and starred in about the Oklahoma lawman Bill Tilghman, You Know My Name.
As we said in our article on Tilghman (click the link for that), William Matthew Tilghman (1854 – 1924) was one of the great lawmen of the old West. His name may not trip off the tongue in the way that an Earp or a Hickok does, and he certainly has not enjoyed the levels of Hollywood exposure that those men did, but nevertheless, to students of the West he was an important figure.
Rod Steiger, not overacting quite as much as usual, was Tilghman in Cattle Annie and Little Britches in 1981 and Bill appeared on TV a few times, such as in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, played by Don Kennedy. And of course Bill had played himself in silent movies, as we see in You Know My Name: the silent movie The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws, subtitled Picturization of Early Days in Oklahoma, was a 1915 picture directed by Tilghman himself and released by Tilghman’s own Eagle Film Company.
You Know My Name was directed and written by John Kent Harrison, known for Anne of Green Gables and Pope John Paul II, so rather an eclectic mix. He had done another picture with Sam four years earlier, The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky, also set in the early twentieth century.
For in You Know My Name we are in Oklahoma in 1924. The real Bill was actually a portly 70 years old then, while Sam was a slim 55, but the actor puts on the age, and he’s has always been very good at that.
While he is on the set of his motion picture, Bill is approached by a citizen of Cromwell, east of Oklahoma and about fifty miles to the south east of Tilghman’s home of Chandler. The town is lawless and in the grip of crooks and thugs. Will he help? At first he declines but you can tell he would like one last go at marshaling, and he gets a six-month contract. In reality, this was a good ten years after the making of the movie, but never mind. He goes off to Cromwell alone, promising his wife and sons that he’ll be back soon. Naturally he rides. No perishing autymobile for him.
I must say Turner spared no expense (well, maybe a bit) in creating up in Alberta the set for the oil town of Cromwell. It’s a filthy place full of corruption. As Tilghman rides in he regards the lowlife with that Sam Elliott Western silent disdain. Of course it doesn’t take him long to start cleaning up the town.
The main town crook should have been Robert Middleton, who would have been ideal, but sadly he passed away in 1977 and was unavailable, so they got a Bob Middleton lookalike (perhaps they held a competition) and Walter Olkewicz as Killian does an excellent job of impersonating him. Killian is a saloon owner, naturally, as bad guys have to be. He is properly blaggardly as leader of the anti-law ‘n’ order brigade, in with the Kansas City mob. Law ‘n’ order will reduce his trade in bootleg liquor (it’s Prohibition time), drugs, gambling and prostitution. I don’t know if there was a real Killian.
But the real villain, the seriously repellent one, did exist, though. I’m not sure that in reality Wiley Lynn was quite such a psychopath teetering on the edge of homicidal madness that Arliss Howard portrays him as, but Lynn was certainly a pretty loathsome character. Though a federal agent charged with eliminating illegal booze, he was in fact on the take in a major way. The movie Lynn is addicted to cocaine and pretty well barking mad. He murders various people, including the county sheriff, with glee, and shoves their bodies in oil tanks. He was certainly Tilghman’s main obstacle in bringing some semblance of peace and order to Cromwell.
Part of Tilghman’s strategy to tame the town is to show his movie, and we get the delight of James Gammon as Real Arkansas Tom who reluctantly steps onto the stage to back Bill up. The crowd cheers every move the goodies make, in the way that people used to at the flickers. This scene is well handled by the cast and by director.
We also get flashbacks in the movie as Bill relives his capture of Bill Doolin. In the film he appears dressed as a clergyman and has a shotgun in a violin case. “You know my name,” he warns Doolin, threatening to shoot him if he doesn’t come quietly.
Wild Bill Hickok (Dwayne Armitage) also briefly appears, in a mirage.
Bill is helped in Cromwell by a young assistant, Hugh Sawyer (Jonathan Young), which was in fact the case, and by rather rough methods (involving a barbed wire noose) Bill manages to get a spy into the enemy camp, Alibi Joe (James Parks), though it does not end well for Alibi when he is discovered. The oil tank has plenty of room for one more.
Bill goes back for bucolic weekends with his family. They are all a bit too good to be true. In fact the middle son, Richard, is written out altogether. In 1929 Richard was shot in the liver while attempting to hold up a dice game and died of his wounds, so maybe he was airbrushed out of the picture. But then Woodrow was also a career criminal, who spent much of his life behind bars, and he features, as a little boy.
Riding back to Cromwell from such an idyllic weekend, Bill is set upon by gangsters in an automobile who fire Tommy-gun bullets at him but of course a cowpoke on his horse is no match for a mere car, and the vehicle careers over a cliff, leaving Bull unscathed.
You do get the impression that it has all been sensationalized a bit. It opens with the announcement “All that follows is based on the true-life adventures of William Matthew Tilghman” so we can be pretty sure some of it is invented. Well, it is a movie. And that little phrase based on saves them from an outright lie.
Well, a drunken/drugged (or both) Lynn turns up in town, discharging his pistol wildly. Bill grabs his gun hand and succeeds in wresting the firearm away from him but the skunk pulls a second pistol from a pocket and shoots Bill twice in the gut. Bill falls, mortally wounded. He died on November 1st, 1924. That was more or less what did happen.
Amazingly, Lynn was acquitted at a trial. Eye-witnesses conveniently disappeared and Deputy Hugh Sawyer (Jonathan Young in the film), either incompetent or bought off, testified that he could not see clearly what happened, though in fact he was standing right next to Tilghman. Lynn continued his criminal ways until finally killed in a gunfight with Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent Crockett Long (who also died) at Madill, OK in 1932.
Bill Tilghman lay in state in the Oklahoma capitol building and was buried in Chandler.
Sam Elliott fans and those interested in Bill Tilghman will enjoy this one.