Louis L'Amour, obviously appealed a lot to me, and I still remember the first book of his I read, The First Fast Draw. I still read his books from time to time because above all else, they're the literary equivalent of comfort food. You know what you're getting each time you open one of his books.
In the last few months, I've reviewed several L'Amour ventures into movies, made for TV movies and even TV shows. Unlike bigger scale westerns where the scale was important, L'Amour's novels never had that problem. They usually focused on a handful of main characters instead of hundreds of speaking parts and were about the problems of those individuals rather than a bigger western where a whole town or territory might be in danger. So with that thought, maybe Louis L'Amour and his novels were cut out for made-for-TV movies where the smaller scale was a benefit, not a hindrance. Not one of the best examples but a decent enough western, 1991's Conagher.
Traveling west with her recently married husband and his two kids from his previous marriage, Evie Teale (Katharine Ross) finds herself running the homestead by herself in unforgiving territory. Her husband went to buy cattle and has been missing for months, leaving her to believe he died somehow because he wouldn't just abandon his family. But Evie trudges on, living the toughest of frontier lives from day to day. A drifting cowboy, Conn Conagher (Sam Elliott), stops by one day on the trail and helps out briefly before moving on. There is a connection immediately between Evie and Conn, but they seem almost fated not to be together. But trying to carve out a living on their own, the two similar minded people can't help but be drawn to each other.
Some actors are cut out for certain genres, and Sam Elliott belongs in westerns, plain and simple. He has the look and the acting style that fits in perfectly with the genre. More than that, he's cut out to play a L'Amour hero, hard-working, tough, always willing to help, and honest/loyal to a fault. Basically, he's a man of principle. This was Elliott's fourth appearance in a movie based off a L'Amour novel, and he's got the part down to an art by now. His performance is the best part of the movie, and the story tends to drag when he's not around. It drags some even when he is around, but that's not entirely his fault.
Now I haven't read Conagher so I may be criticizing the movie more than I am the book here. At 117 minutes, this feels too disjointed without any unifying connection through the story. There are these little episodic sidebars that reveal more about the character but never anything surprising. Conagher signs on with an old rancher (Ken Curtis in a solid supporting turn) who is being run out by a rival ranch. These scenes show Conn's willingness to do what's right when it'd be easier to bail, but that's nothing we didn't know already. Then to add insult to injury, this drifter cowboy must tangle with two rustlers (James Gammon and Paul Koslo). Streamline the story some and these segments are gone for an overall more well organized story.
It isn't often I'm about to say this, but this is a western that could have used more of the romantic subplot that it introduces but doesn't do anything with until the end. Married in real life, Elliott and Ross have an obvious chemistry together without much in the way of words spoken. After a brief scene early where they meet, they spend most of the rest of the movie apart. Maybe I was just expecting something different from the story where they meet early, fall for each other and go from there, but I was disappointed in how the relationship developed. Basically they spend too much time apart in the slow-moving middle sections that don't do much anyways.
The rest of the cast is solid for a TV western. Barry Corbin is the best part as McCloud, the stagecoach driver who frequents the Teale's place. Billy Green Bush appears very briefly as Jacob, Evie's husband, with Gavan O'Herlihy making a reliably evil bad guy. Also look for recognizable western faces Buck Taylor as a rival cowboy and Dub Taylor as a stagecoach station agent. It's a decent enough western, but other than Elliott and Ross I'm remembering little to recommend. Average in every way and probably only for western completists.
Conagher <---trailer (1991): **/****