Sam Elliott’s favorite role
I think you have to give credit to Turner for some of the made-for-television pictures produced in the 1990s. The TV movie is not perhaps the highest of art forms but TNT’s were solid, well-made and well-cast affairs with decent location shooting. I’d say that Conagher was one of the best.
It is certainly Sam Elliott’s favorite, and we’re now well into our Sam Elliott season on this blog, having recently reviewed the likes of 1883, Rough Riders and You Know My Name. Mr Elliott was also executive producer. As we saw in our last post, a review of the original Louis L’Amour novel Conagher, the title role was tailor-made for Elliott. L’Amour’s Conn Conagher was an aging mustachioed cowpoke who’d knocked around the West for years, was a solitary drifter, cantankerous and tough as all get out. It could have been written with Sam in mind.
As I said before, despite the title, the real hero of the book is in fact a woman, Evie Teale, also no longer young, a widow (as it will turn out) bringing up her husband’s two young children in a remote Arizona outpost, battling hostile terrain and local in habitants (Apaches) with a great deal of grit. This part went, naturally enough, to Katharine Ross, Mrs Elliott. She and her husband also collaborated with Jeffrey M Meyer to produce the teleplay from the novel – though they remained very faithful to the book in many ways. This was Mr Meyer’s only Western but he did a good job. He also got a bit part in the movie.
Like her hubby, Ms Ross had Western form: Oscar-nominated (for one of my favorite films of the 60s, The Graduate, so that I always think of that picture when I see her), as far as oaters went, after a couple of TV show episodes (a Gunsmoke and The Virginian) on the big screen she was in Shenandoah in 1965, then in 1969 got the biggest part after Newman and Redford as Etta Place in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (in which her future spouse also had a small role). Only two months after Sundance she returned with Redford in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here. In 1976 she did a Sundance-spin off TV movie, Wanted: The Sundance Woman (she joined up with Pancho Villa), she’d return with Elliott in The Shadow Riders in 1982, and have an uncredited bit in Elliott’s Sam Houston biopic in ’86. As recently as 2019 she appeared yet again with Sam Elliott in The Hero. Nearly a quarter of a century on from The Graduate and Sundance, she could not play a girl in Conagher but she did extremely well (she is a fine actress) as the older woman still yearning for love.
Conagher was directed by Reynaldo Villalobos, whose only Western as director this is (he would later be assistant director on Seraphim Falls) and he and his writers and actors stuck closely to the book. There were a couple of changes. One which surprised me was the omission of Conagher’s early brutal fight with a gunman who tries to bully him, Kiowa Staples (Paul Koslo in the movie). In a way this was a dramatic necessity, to establish the hero’s tough-guy bona fides – in the book Conagher beats Kiowa with a coiled rope – and would have been good cinema. But there’s no such conflict in the movie, though Kiowa threatens him darkly in an early scene and that’s kinda left hanging.
The big fight with cowboy/rustler Chris Mahler (Gavan O’Herlihy), though, is not neglected, saved till the last scene. It’s a brutal punch-out in a dark saloon. Mahler is a natural bruiser and has never been bested in a fistfight but Conagher changes that.
The picture was shot in different Arizona locations and around Buckskin Joe, near Cañon City in Colorado (where Westerns have been shot since the silent days), by James R Bagdonas. I don’t know if they shoot these pictures on videotape or what but you can always tell, can’t you, when it’s a TV movie. But that’s OK. It looks nice.
The costumes were good, seeming authentic and beat-up. There are none of those stupid 1960s low-slung holsters or curly-brimmed Stetsons.
The supporting cast contained some excellent old-timers. I’ve always liked Barry Corbin and James Gammon in Westerns. Corbin is the friendly stage driver Charlie McCloud and Gammon the outlaw Smoke Parnell, boss of the Ladder Five ranch which he uses as a base for rustling forays.
We also get both Taylors, Dub (as the station agent) and son Buck (outlaw Tile Coker). And it was the last role of former John Ford son-in-law Ken Curtis – he died soon after the wrap at the age of seventy-four. Ken was a former Tommy Dorsey vocalist who made low-budget singing-cowboy pictures for Columbia in the 1940s, appeared a lot for Ford but is probably most remembered as the scruffy Festus in Gunsmoke. Here he plays sympathetic old rancher Seaborn Tay, who hires Conagher as cowpuncher and comes to appreciate him greatly.
I thought the child actors (Cody Braun and Anndi McAfee) were very good. The children have to work hard to keep the family going, the boy especially; he is really being forced into adulthood before his time.
Of course Conagher and Evie will finally come together. He’s already bonded with the children, so there’ll be no problem there. In the book, Conagher comes across the corpse of Jacob Teale, Evie’s late husband, and finds the $400 in gold he was carrying. With this, the new family will set up on the now-abandoned Ladder Five ranch. In the movie though there is no such closure. No corpse or money is found; they just go on supposing that Jacob is deceased and they stay on the Teale place. That’s OK.
I reckon Conagher will appeal especially to oldies like your Jeff, because of the maturity of the characters – who still find romance – and indeed the cast of characters. It’s well done, and I’m not surprised Elliott rates it highly.