Moderately wild times
Last time we reviewed the entertaining Western novel Wild Times by Brian Garfield (click the link for that). Well, soon after publication of that book, producers Jim Byrnes, Douglas Netter and Les Sheldon put together a 2-episode miniseries adaptation, with a teleplay by Don Balluck. Byrnes produced or co-produced quite a lot of TV Westerns, especially Gunsmoke and How the West Was Won; Netter worked on The Sacketts and a couple of other TV oaters; Sheldon was known particularly for The Wild, Wild West; while Balluck wrote Daniel Boone, Father Murphy and The High Chaparral shows and especially Little House on the Prairie. So all had some kind of Western track (or trail) record.
Wild Times was helmed by Richard Compton, who had started on a biker flick for Roger Corman but moved on to some quite successful pictures such as Macon County Line in 1974. He didn’t do many Westerns but didn’t do too badly on Wild Times, though the second part does drag a bit, frankly.
The book is long and covers an extensive period, from the Civil War through the silent movie Western, and no 75- or 90-minute feature was going to do it justice. Even a 195-minute miniseries had to make substantial cuts and changes. That’s acceptable, although the most salient feature of the novel is the boisterous and picaresque tone, on the edge of a ‘tall tale’, and the movie version missed this, I think, being rather too earnest. It lacked zip, a bit. Put another way, the Times weren’t really Wild enough.
The hero is Hugh Cardiff, a young man from Kentucky with an uncanny talent as marksman with his old Hawken muzzle-loader. Sam Elliott was cast as Cardiff. He’d had small parts in features such as The Way West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the late 60s, had done mostly TV shows and TV movies through the 70s (especially as Doug Robert on Mission Impossible), led with Vera Miles in the slightly less than wonderful Molly and Lawless John in 1972, was second-billed as Captain Wood in I Will Fight No More for Ever in ’75, and led in the Sacketts in ’79. By the time of Wild Times he had quite a high profile in TV Westerns. He is very Sam Elliottish as Cardiff, long hair, droopy mustache, buckskins.
The great Ben Johnson was second-billed as Cardiff’s friend and marksman rival Doc Bogardus, and they built up Borgardus’s role, probably as a result, attributing to him actions in the plot which went to other characters in the book. By this time Mr Johnson was past his glory days as far as Westerns were concerned (but then so was the genre), and good roles in big early-1970s pictures like Chisum and The Train Robbers with John Wayne, and a superb performance in Junior Bonner for Sam Peckinpah had given way to the rather sorry likes of Bite the Bullet and Breakheart Pass in the mid-decade and The Sacketts on TV as the 80s neared. He was a paunchy 62 by the year of Wild Times and looking his age somewhat but you can still see the quality. He pretty well out-acts everyone else on the set and he gets to show off that wonderful horsemanship.
The other lead actors did risk letting the overall performance down a shade. The love of Cardiff’s life, Libby, is a key character in the tale and a strong woman. Penny Peyser in the part came across as just a silly girl to whom me, myself and I are the three chief preoccupations. Perhaps it was the screenplay.
The two villains of the piece in the novel, Vern Tyree and Senator Merriam, have been rolled into one in the film, in the sadly rather bland form of Bruce Boxleitner. It is Vern who marries Libby after Hugh is run off the Tyree Ranch. They have a son, too – Vern’s son. So that’s all a bit different, and he isn’t a rival marksman. Furthermore, the final showdown in Denver between Vern and Hugh, built up so much in the book, is a bit of a damp squib in the last couple of minutes of the movie. Writer and director got that wrong, I’m afraid.
But there are some good actors further down the cast list. I liked Pat Hingle as the Ned Buntline-like Bob Halburton. The Wild West spectacle is in fact his idea – he is passionate about it – and Hugh enters the project reluctantly, thinking it’s all rather ersatz. Hugh doesn’t bankroll the show; Bob’s dime-novel publisher does. So that’s different too.
Timothy Scott, who had started with Elliott in a small part in Butch Cassidy and went on to do quite a few Westerns, is OK as Caleb Rice. They invented a bit in which Caleb loses vital money for the Wild West show playing poker.
Buck Taylor is good as the lowdown (and not very competent) Tyree henchman Joe McBride, the excellent Cameron Mitchell is effective as Tyree foreman and Hugh pal Harry Dreier, and Leif Erikson is solid as the Tyree patriarch John. Gene Evans is Cletus Hatch, though the rich banker/sponsor of the book is reduced to a common bookmaker at the shooting match.
There are cameos by Dennis Hopper as a seedy Doc Holliday
and LQ Jones (curiously uncredited) as Wild Bill Hickok.
Hugh outguns and runs Holliday off, and Hugh and Caleb are awkward as guest stars on Hickok’s traveling tent show Heros [sic] of the West, so they’ve changed the book quite radically there too.
One top Western name, Harry Carey Jr, took the colorful (in the book) part of old mountain man and marksman Fitz Bragg but the part in the movie is strangely low-key. Dobe wears an Eastern suit and tie and has little to say or do, at least until he becomes announcer and MC of the Wild West show. Mr Carey was still going strong in the 1990s, being Marshal Fred White in Tombstone and doing the Elmore Leonard movie Last Stand at Saber River with Tom Selleck, but in this 1980 picture it almost seems as if they were ‘carrying’ him. I don’t know if he was having health (or alcohol-related) problems. Anyway, it’s a surprisingly tepid performance.
All in all though, the cast is capable and sometimes very good. You get the impression that the Western old timers were enjoying the shoot.
There’s no Kentucky and no Isaac Singman. There’s no younger brother/gun-making genius Kevin either. Hugh arrives alone at the Tyree ranch, saves Vern’s life with a feat of remarkable marksmanship, and is taken on by John Tyree. We first see Vern cruelly whipping a horse and this of course was standard Western semiotics: show the bad guy mistreating an animal or child in the opening scenes and you have immediately established him as the villain. By contrast, Caleb is nice to some street urchins, so even though he was a bit of a cad, gambling away the show’s money, he is basically a good guy.
The catastrophic incident which causes such woe in the book, when Libby thinks it amusing to hover over an embarrassed Hugh bathing naked in a creek, Vern leaps to conclusions and Hugh’s exile is the result, is weakly done in the movie, with the clothed couple having just a kiss – perhaps to avoid being too saucy, self-censorship at work.
There were some nice Eaves Movie Ranch, NM and Kaibab National Forest, AZ locations. You feel that there was budget available.
On the other hand the music, by Jerrold Immel, was largely trite, and horribly slushy in the lovey-dovey bits. Only when the action shifted to Mexico did it get vaguely interesting.
All the characters’ hats are distinctly on the ten-gallon side, but that’s OK.
Wild Times the movie is worth a watch, once anyway, if you have the time, but in truth it is a pale imitation of the book. I don’t know what Brian Garfield thought of it. I can’t imagine he was too impressed.