Git ’em up! Head ’em out!
The Quest, you may remember, was a Columbia Television Western series created by Tracy Keenan Wynn (Keenan Wynn’s son) that ran on NBC in the fall of 1976. It had a sub-Searchers plot of finding and rescuing a girl from Indian captivity. Sadly, low Nielsen ratings and the declining popularity of Western TV shows led to its cancelation in December ’76 and in fact four of the episodes produced were not aired.
But as a kind of pilot (which was then shown as two of the episodes) Bernard McEveety (director of very many TV Westerns, notably Gunsmoke, who also produced Cimarron Strip) helmed The Longest Drive, an 89-minute TV movie.
You can’t go far wrong with a cattle drive. As with all those wagon-train Westerns which we were discussing recently (click for that) cattle-drive pictures were a standard of the genre, and a lasting phenomenon. They went right back to the silent days (see, for example, our review of North of 36), then Red River in 1948 was the big daddy of them all. Lonesome Dove probably holds those paternal honors as far as TV goes, though many would opt for Rawhide. You will certainly be able to think of very many oaters, big screen and small, which featured a drive, usually from Texas to Abilene.
They were all obliged to feature certain plot elements, skullduggery/rustling, Indian threat, thirst, a stampede, etc, and The Longest Drive wasn’t going to go against the grain. All these happen.
Kurt Russell topped the billing, as Morgan Beaudine, who had been taken by the Cheyenne as a boy and is now more than half Indian himself. He wears buckskins and Indian accoutrements and rides without a saddle (though he uses one on the drive as essential cowboy equipment). Mr Russell was then 25 and Jamie McPheeters was well behind him now. He’d been doing various Western TV shows and was emerging as an adult actor. In fact he would pretty well abandon our noble genre after The Quest, not donning Stetson and six-gun again until the 1990s when he would be Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. Later still he’d be memorable in The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk but those were still far in the future. He looks very youthful in The Longest Drive.
His brother Quentin, a doctor (which comes in handy) is co-star Tim Matheson, who had also started as a boy actor and had also done a number of Western TV series, notably as Jim Horn in The Virginian, but is probably best known for being Otter Stratton in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Together they interrupt their search for their sis to help out a curmudgeonly old rancher drive his cattle to market.
This rancher, Hatcher, who has alienated everyone through his orneriness, is played by Dan O’Herlihy (brother of Michael, director of many Westerns, including Mosby’s Marauders with young Kurt – in fact they worked 17 times together). Brother Dan did four feature Westerns but 37 episodes of eleven different Western shows so he was pretty used to the format. We guess even before they set out that on the drive he will learn to respect and like his drovers and become a nicer person, and he duly does.
The first part of the film is Morgan and Quentin recruiting punchers to work the drive. One is blacksmith Woody Strode, who used to be a champion black cowboy.
Then there’s gunslinger Lucas (Gary Lockwood, Frank Poole in 2001: A Space Odyssey but he also did a handful of oaters, including Firecreek, directed by Bernard McEveety’s bro Vincent). He wants to hang up his guns and get back to his wife and daughter in Chicago.
Then there’s a young artist from back east, a Yale man (John Rubinstein). You had to have a tenderfoot. The paintings they used were quite nice, actually, slightly Remingtonesque.
Two slightly disreputable brothers sign up too (Sander Johnson and Cooper Huckabee) and they’ll be the necessary ne’er-do-well element (they start re-branding Hatcher’s cattle, the rogues). Santos (Erik Estrada) is the foreman Hatcher mistreats but who comes on the drive anyway, out of loyalty.
And of course you had to have a cranky old Wishbone-style cook who drives the chuck wagon, and that role was played by the series creator’s dad, Keenan Wynn, whom you’ll probably remember from Night of the Grizzly, Welcome to Hard Times, Smith! and Johnny Concho.
So that’s the team. Two will perish en route. En trail.
The director, DP (Al Francis) and editors (Richard Van Enger and Ken Zemke) were clever at integrating stock footage of a big herd and just shooting close-ups of the name actors. That way they could do with far fewer steers and the stuntmen would do the longer shots. But the thing manages to look quite good, in color with the nice Arizona locations. It’s not an ultra-cheapo.
I didn’t mind it, all in all. I mean it won’t set the prairies on fire or anything and we’ve pretty well seen it all before but it’s reasonably well done. Perfectly watchable anyway.