Tuesday, June 1, 2010
In a career that spanned a handful of decades, author Louis L'Amour published over 100 works that included novels, short stories, and even some non-fiction, many of which were turned into TV shows and feature length film adaptations. Most of these works were westerns, and I started reading them at a young age, starting with The First Fast Draw. I've enjoyed some more than others, but the ones I've gone back to come from a series of books about the Sackett family.
In the time when miniseries were extremely popular -- better known as the 1970s and 1980s -- two of L'Amour's Sackett novels were turned into a two-part miniseries in 1979 appropriately titled The Sacketts. My first concern was that the two source novels are two separate works about three brothers -- two in one book, and the third in a separate book -- with a very quick crossover. So how is a miniseries with two vastly different stories expected to work? Like any adaptation, things were dropped and left by the wayside, but big picture, this miniseries works because of the talent involved.
Based on the novels The Daybreakers and Sackett, the miniseries focuses on three brothers from a Tennessee family heading west in the years following the Civil War. Tell (Sam Elliott) is the oldest and despite growing up in the South, joined up with a Union infantry regiment during the war. Once Lee surrenders, Tell heads west, ending up as a drifter/saddle tramp looking for work wherever he can get it. Too young to join the fight, Orrin (Tom Selleck) is engaged to be married to a local girl, but a long-standing feud interrupts with young brother Tyrel (Jeff Osterhage) killing a man in his brother's defense. With the local law looking for answers, Orrin and Ty head west to set up a new life.
Riding into Texas, Orrin and Ty sign on with a cattle drive heading north to Abilene. Along the way, they become more than capable cowpunchers and in the process meet ramrod and trail driver Tom Sunday (Glenn Ford) and veteran cowboy Cap Rountree (Ben Johnson). Delivering the cattle to a buyer, the quartet sticks together and heads west to Santa Fe only to find a range war brewing between the Mexicans (led by Gilbert Roland) and the Americans (the always evil John Vernon in charge). Further north in the mountains, Tell stumbles upon a gold vein, but that's just the start. The Bigelow brothers are on his trail looking for vengeance. And wouldn't you bet, at some point the brothers' trails cross?
Cramming two full books into a 4-hour miniseries had to have been a daunting task for writer Jim Byrnes, and he does a solid job adapting the novels. Both books delved into romantic subplots with the brothers meeting women along the way, but in putting together a story about three brothers -- and not the ladies -- these subplots are just that, subplots in the background. Byrnes also had to invent basically a new storyline (the brothers meeting up on the trail) and an ending because Daybreakers and Sackett just didn't cross paths. All in all, props to Byrnes for pulling it off.
Starting with the casting of the Sackett brothers, the actors involved from top to bottom are downright impressive, more so for fans of westerns. Elliott, Selleck, and Osterhage were not stars when they were chosen to play these brothers. It's funny that the best character, Tyrel, was played by the actor who for some reason, never became a bigger star. As L'Amour writes them, Ty was my favorite. Like Tell, he's quiet and unassuming, but when pushed he pushes back. Elliott is basically a rougher, older Ty and growls his way through the part, and Selleck gets to be Selleck, a charming, likable personality. Among the three, there's a definite chemistry which pays off in a big way.
L'Amour's main characters were the prototypical western hero; tough, honorable, and able to shoot their way out of any sticky situation. These were men of few words who did what was right because they didn't know any other way. These three actors were all so good there's even an unofficial sequel -- 1982's The Shadow Riders -- where they play a trio of brothers, the Travens this time. Through all its other flaws in the miniseries, the casting is about as perfect as casting can be.
By 1979, the western had played out its line in terms of moviegoing popularity thanks to the spaghetti westerns and ultra-violent spins the genre took. So in a way, this is a last hurrah for the western, and the casting represents that. Tom Sunday is younger in the book, but Ford playing him is just right. He's a former lawyer, a cowboy, and a gunfighter and serves as a replacement father for the boys. Johnson as the saddle-sore cowboy who seen it all? Born to play the part. Roland makes a quick appearance, and Vernon is typically evil. Ruth Roman is good as Emma, a saloon owner in an outlaw town who knows Cap. The Bigelow brothers include Jack Elam, Slim Pickens, and Gene Evans. For the cherry on top, throw L.Q. Jones and Paul Koslo in for good measure. It'd be hard to ask for a better cast.
This review is getting a little long so I'll start to wrap this up. It's hard to complain about a TV miniseries looking like a TV miniseries, but The Sacketts isn't exactly made on a huge scale. It feels like we see the same town over and over with the same backgrounds once the story requires the brothers to hit the trail. My biggest complaint though was the music. A soundtrack doesn't have to be great, it just can't be noticeably bad. Well, the score here is bad, and in an obvious overdone way. Overall though, just complaints for a highly entertaining, well-made miniseries that does justice to Louis L'Amour's novels.
The Sacketts (1979): ***/****