It’s actually surprising that there were not more miniseries based on Louis L’Amour novels. After all, he wrote about 6,000 books each year of his incredibly productive life and managed best sellers constantly. His themes were unabashedly “American,” full of patriotism and happy scrappy history, Western style. The Sackett clan may be his most-treasured group of characters, but it would have taken an entire decade worth of miniseries to commit all of the Sackett novels to screen. Instead, a mere two were combined under the lackluster, though unarguably to-the-point title of “The Sacketts.”
Louis L’Amour himself does the introduction (unseen, he’s not James Michener or Judith Krantz), trying his story immediately into historical fiction by mentioning Davey Crockett, “Andy” Jackson (were that that close as friends?) and the Sacketts of Tennessee.
We start at a wedding, where a rather unfriendly neighbor comes toting a gun aimed at celebrating Sackett brother Tom Selleck. “It all comes down to I’m a Higgins and you’re a Sackett,” the gun toter expounds, adopting a traditional hick accent that might actually never have existed. The bride rushes in with just enough time to take the bullet and younger Sackett brother Jeff Osterhage plugs the villain. That, of course, means that Jeff has to leave the comfort of his family. Ma Mercedes McCambridge, apparently not having learned to stay away from Westerns after “Johnny Guitar” is a rough gal, but with heart underneath. When you get West, she tells Jeff, “have someone write your Ma a letter.” “You always ride with the law, never against it,” the curt Polonius of Tennessee growls to her baby.
Ma Mercedes then tackles Tom, who carries a gun even to his gal’s funeral. “You’re gonna follow your brother West…do as your Ma says,” she tells him, though he would rather massacre the rest of the Higgins family. In the many close-ups of mother and son, one wonders how hunky Tom came from chunky Mercedes.
There is a third Sackett brother, the inevitable Sam Elliott, a miner who gets himself into a poker game with a fancy pants full of cheating tricks. Sam calls him on it and kills him with a gun hidden under the table. Unfortunately, this brother is no better at picking his enemies than the others, for this man was a Bigelow and his kinfolk will be coming for revenge.
Jeff finds his way to a cattle gang, who don’t take to him since he’s a farmer (“oh the farmer and the cow hand should be friends…” wait, that’s a different Western). Grizzled Glenn Ford speaks in short ornery phrases (some by Tennyson), but hires Jeff against the wishes of the cranky cowboys. The cattle drive is not exactly “Centennial,” but it’s still early. Sent to find water, Jeff is accosted by another cattle gang, numbering seven, all aimin’ to kill him, but it would be at this precise moment that his brother Tom arrives, blasting his brother to safety. In the entire Western part of the entire North American continent, he happens to be in the right place at the right time. Tom is offered a job, with Glenn wondering if there are any other Sackett brothers, but neither Jeff nor Tom knows where Sam might be, “or if he’s even alive.” He’s alive, almost getting himself shot by a fellow loner who tells him of potential gold veins.
Indeed, there must be something around, because Sam finds evidence of the Conquistadors, including dates etched in rock and the remains of a breastplate.
The cattle gang successfully makes it to Abilene, where Glenn tells Jeff and Tom to go into town and have some fun, meaning, of course, whiskey and women. Tom makes a beeline for the first “yaller-haired” girl he sees, Marcy Hanson, who flirts with a fan until her glum father John Vernon shows up. The brothers bathe, the closest we get to a nude scene, so enjoy it (Tom Selleck circa 1979, hubba hubba!). Tom gets a souvenir of his girl with a scarf he likes to sniff and then finally it’s pay day when Glenn sells the cattle.
Glenn’s fluent Spanish comes in handy when older-than-dirt Gilbert Roland shows up from the silent film era, dripping wealth and a pretty granddaughter Ana Alicia, with whom Jeff falls in love immediately. Jeff presents himself to Don Gilbert, offering protection on the route to Santa Fe. John Vernon has vowed to run all of the Spaniards out of Santa Fe and unctuously tells Don Gilbert to stay away from there. “Santa Fe does not belong to me, it belongs to my people,” Don Gilbert tells him (in a surprising twist, Gilbert Roland was actually born in Mexico, making him ideally cast–even more, Ana Alicia was also born in Mexico, though they bring out the bronzer in buckets to make her seem more Latin here).
For reasons not really worth discussing (and much cut footage), it comes the day when Jeff has to face cattle driving bully Buck Taylor on Abilene’s one dirt road, with Buck’s men, Glenn and the good guys and even the Spaniards looking on. Glenn allows the potential killing of Buck because “it’s been building up for a while.” Buck ends up only humiliated, not dead. The whole tense scene earns Jeff Ana’s affection, naturally. After a hooker fails to snare virgin Jeff, one of the Spaniards comes to tell him Ana wants to see him. Ana’s accent is something, though not really Spanish, when she offers Jeff and his partners the protection job he suggested.
Sam and his horses arrive in Purgatorie, the very town Jeff had mentioned he and Tom would be traveling to. He brings $500 worth of gold with him. As we expect, everywhere a Sackett goes, someone takes an immediate hatred to him and Sam is watched by the suspicious citizens as he goes from the bank to the saloon. He is set upon by a potential thief, but Sam pushes him to the bar and shaves off his mustache in front of the other town drunks, his eyes bugging out enough to be committed to any number of asylums.
The Spaniards take off on horseback, leaving their protection posse, the two young lovers having to kiss each other goodbye so the Sacketts can head to Purgatorie. Jeff and Tom hear the bartender talk of Sam’s flamboyant shaving (“he didn’t use no soap, no water”) and they go to find their long-lost brother. It’s not the happiest reunion, but then again, Sam Elliott never does happy. “You best have a good reason for not being dead and not writing,” Tom chirps. The first is explained by his wandering, the second by illiteracy, but a few swigs of whiskey later, fraternity finally kicks in. Sam declines a job with Glenn and company, as he would rather chase gold. Only old Ben Johnson wants to go with Sam, as the younger Sacketts yearn for Santa Fe.
As Sam leaves his brothers, he reminds them to tell Ma he’s alive, but none of them can write. “Words can be a real comfort to folks,” he says, ruing the fact that they never learned. Sam Elliott was just given that line? In his entire career, he hasn’t spoken 100 of ‘em!
Jack Elam rides into town that evening looking for Sam, not because of the gold, but to revenge his brother’s death.
Glenn not only teaches Jeff and Tom to write, but also the principles of democracy from a law book. “I was a lawyer once,” Glenn tells them. No doubt there’s a story there, but I guess we have to wait for it. Meanwhile, Ben and Sam head into another small town where Ben reacquaints himself with plump gal pal Ruth Roman. Also there is Paul Koslo, a jumpy sort who, as expected, takes an instant dislike to Sam. Paul picks a fight, and Sam gives him good advice to stay away, saying “killin’ don’t mix with a man’s supper.” Paul backs down, but he and Ben know they haven’t seen the last of him.
The younger Sackett brothers, with Glenn in tow, chase after Don Gilbert and Ana, to find a convoy of wagons plucked clean by Indians, scalped bodies and all. Glenn knows it’s the Utes because he smells the tip of an arrow. I know, it didn’t make sense to me either, but the Sacketts don’t question him, so neither should we. There is cash there for the taking, but Tom refuses as Jeff tries to read a letter he’s found (now able to read at at least a fifth grade level after only a night of training). Tom shows he can read too. “This is a hard land, boys, with hard ways,” Glenn notes unsympathetically, but Jeff, also spouting his new knowledge of the law, talks of democracy and how two votes to one means Glenn can’t keep the money. This is schmaltzy revisionist history courtesy of one its most cunning masters, Louis L’Amour, in an aching attempt to make Americans feel good about themselves (1979 wasn’t a high point for American self-esteem, but why not pretend otherwise?).
Ever seen a cow run into a tree head first? No? Then watch “The Sacketts” and try not to laugh.
Ben and Sam, trying to out-crag each other, ride off in search of gold, barely speaking, feeling their way through the Old West toward gold, back to the mountain where Sam had found it the first time. Their attempts to pant their way through mountain passes are intercut with Glenn and the younger Sacketts herding cattle, none of it fascinating, and heavily cut down to save time.
For pretty much the entire length of the movie, scary Sam has been feeling like someone has been following him. Indeed, it’s true, but it’s not who you think. It’s a crazed woman in tattered clothing, appropriately made-up to look both rough and decently pretty. “You clean her up…she might be mighty pretty,” Ben notes, but Sam doesn’t want to worry about a woman slowing them down. The Feral Female, Wendy Rastattar, is American. She had been searching for gold with her pa when Indians found them and killed him. She’s been hiding out for two years.
Santa Fe is not yet the artistic mecca it is today when Glenn, Tom and Jeff drive the cattle into town. Glenn heads for the bar and the brothers look for cattle buyers. Luckily, their rudimentary Spanish and the Mexicans’ rudimentary English negate the need for subtitles. Tom and Jeff are prickly because they want Glenn to send the money to the family of the dead wagoners, but Jeff is more excited to hear Don Gilberto is doing well. To remind us this is historical fiction, a local tells the three about US-Mexican relations and a shattered landscape (okay, mine is a more succinct version).
Back in Purgatorie, Paul cozies up to Jack Elam, volunteering to lead him to Sam so he can finish avenge his brother’s death.
John Vernon and his daughter are in Santa Fe as well, the opposition to Don Gilbert. Since John Vernon always played the bag guy, he aims to brainwash the Sackett boys with a rah-rah speech about the inevitable statehood of New Mexico, of course at the expense of the Mexicans. Jeff doesn’t fall for the flowery speech because “they were here first” and realizes John wants them only as hired guns. Tom is less quick to disappear because of pretty Marcy, and manages to get into a fistfight on the way out for absolutely no reason other than he’s Tom Selleck.
In fact, Jeff and Tom have it all figured out for Don Gilbert: democracy! Elect a sheriff and remember that the Mexicans outnumber the Americans. That will peacefully solve all problems. It’s so simple! “The only way to peace is the law,” Don Gilbert decides, swayed by a few pretty words (and Jeff’s adoration of Ana, natch). It’s decided just as quickly that Tom should be the sheriff and he starts making speeches to crowds of adoring Mexicans, until…
…yup, until Glenn decides to enter the race against him! Glenn touts his experience and knowledge of the law (see, I told you that random fact would come in handy), in a battle of Hollywood hokum versus new talent. John Vernon arrives just at the right time to tell the crowd Glenn once killed a man in New Orleans and is therefore not worthy of being a sheriff. Why John would back Tom, a friend of the Mexicans is not yet clear. But, he has sway in town and Glenn is humiliated by his past. Jeff and a Mexican wonder silently if perhaps Tom will be corrupted by John and his gang. Or at least that’s my impression. They may just be killing time.
Drunk and undone, Glenn kills another man, in the shadows of Santa Fe, much to the chagrin of the Sackett brothers who have always idolized him.
In exchange for any gold found, Jack Elam and brother Slim Pickens tell Paul it’s time to go find Sam. Another brother will eventually be joining them, but for now they have a big enough posse to overwhelm Sam and Ben (though a troop of spiders could do that).
Tom becomes Sheriff Tom, tin star and all. Is it any wonder Magnum P.I. was only a few seasons away? The man is the very epitome of law and order (and, in 2012, is still doing it with another TV series), but Jeff is definitely worried, in his silent unspoken way, that Tom is under John Vernon’s thumb. So, he decides to go to Glenn and hear the real story of his life. It seems he might have done that before this, but that wouldn’t fit into the plot. After hearing the woeful tale, Jeff offers Glenn a job as Tom’s deputy. Glenn growls a refusals, reminding Jeff he taught Tom how to read and even learn the law! He will not be a part of John Vernon’s Santa Fe, though Jeff reminds him “war is coming” and he needs to choose a side. Or at least remain very drunk until then.
Not moving at top speed is Sam’s plot, though it finally gains a bit of momentum when Jack, Slim and the posse show up at his lair to start slinging the guns. Ben is hit in the knee, though Sam is an expert in wound care and scenes I’ll politely call, the “mumbling on the mountain.”
As expected, Tom and John eventually have to have a discussion about the Mexicans (timing is all jumbled here, that really would have happened sooner), with John not winning any viewer points asserting that New Mexico should be all white (post-”Roots,” Cesar Chavez and Marlon Brando’s Native American Oscar-getter, that marks him as clearly the worst of all villains). “We’re the interlopers,” Tom reminds him, but John counters that he is behind Tom’s success and the sheriff would do well to remember that, lest he “unleash” his gunmen on the town. To make it worse, Marcy slithers over to Tom and tells him, “if you want me, you’ll do what my father asks.”
Ben doesn’t die up on the mountain, and somehow Sam and Wendy outwit the shivering posse not doing a very good job of watching them, but focus returns to Santa Fe where Don Gilbert gives us the movie’s best death scene, one he had been rehearsing since the 1920s. His death serves to hasten the impending battle for New Mexico, with the Sacketts firmly lined up against John (we assume Glenn will show up at the best possible moment to join the brothers).
The spark is a seemingly random killing of a Mexican man and the arrest of his white killer (with a particularly annoying whore shouting all through the arrest). There is a rather hastily-constructed through wildly convoluted bit of plotting as Tom and Jeff arrest more white men and serve justice in bringing down the bad guys. It’s all over in a flash, and Jeff even has the line saying, “I’m sure glad that’s over.” Oh, now really! Even better, the satisfied Sacketts have pull now, so Tom can run for mayor and Jeff can be his deputy.
As fast as Tom and Jeff are moving, Sam lives in another time zone, still up on the mountain with injured Ben and wild Wendy. Gimpy Ben offers to stay behind, but Sam refuses to leave him, having rigged a complicated roping system to make it easier on Ben, at a snail’s pace that Jack and Slim don’t seem to notice. Indeed, just as the posse is entering Sam’s cave, our heroes are already on the other side of the mountain. As Jack and Slim and the posse crawl slowly toward them, Sam hauls Ben up another mountain with yet more rope systems.
While Tom is making a stump speech in the center of town (translated happily into Spanish), Glenn arrives, intent on causing harm. Jeff tries to stop him, but Glenn Ford wants another “High Noon”-ish moment and aims to plug Tom from a nearby building. Only a bullet from Jeff stops him. Or attempts to, because he gets up and aims again, only to be shot again. “You gave me no choice,” Jeff tells him, and Glenn shakes his hand with knowing agreement as a) Glenn dies and b) thunder strikes. It’s laid on way thick, I know, and a lot is missing, but the point is hammered in with the gentleness of a sledgehammer strike.
With that saga over, Tom and Jeff are free to go help Sam, altered by a wire from Wendy, slipping unnoticed into Purgatorie to take advantage of the telegraph system (but not clean water). Off they race as the last Bigelow brother, Gene Evans rides into town. Sam is able to get Ben to a doctor with only the bartender seeing him do it. But, word spreads fast and the three Bigelow brothers send the bartender to the doctor with a message that there is to be a showdown tomorrow.
Sam assures Wendy, “I’ll be comin’ back” as he goes for his rendezvous with the Bigelow brothers, though I’m not entirely sure if he knows who they are or why the hell they want to kill him. Ben knows Wendy loves Sam, in case that hasn’t been obvious yet. Though leaning on a crutch, Ben silently makes his way down to the street, unplanned aid in case Sam needs him. Sam, who knew Wendy was following him for months, doesn’t even sense Tom has arrived, only feet from him. Jeff too, of course. Three and a half (Ben is pretty banged up) against seven, though since this is called “The Sacketts” and not “The Bigelows,” I think we can safely guess the rest.
There is a huge climactic gunfight (with Slim Pickens making fun of his denouement in “Dr. Strangeglove” for the few “Dr. Strangeglove” fans who might have accidentally turned on “The Sacketts”). Lots of people get shot and Sam hits Jack Elam a few times, but Jack does his best to milk a death scene. As expected, the Sackett brothers emerge triumphant, without a scratch, and even Ben and Wendy are just fine! The Sackett trio walks down the street of Purgatorie, passing the dead bodies as the music swells and the West is won.
“The Sacketts” is as cornball a Western as they come, though over three times the length of most oaters. It’s not subtle or clever and it doesn’t even want to be. It’s shameless 70s huckstering, being big and brave at a time when the American mindset was anything but. Since it’s not trying to do anything but entertain, “The Sacketts” is relatively successful, luckily way before the genre started to rot from the inside. The miniseries is still wide-eyed and hopeful, mindlessly entertaining in the most innocent of ways (if a bit stilted and stupid). However, as easygoing as “The Sacketts” may be, it does fail to hit the heights of the genre, though that won’t be obvious until “Lonesome Dove” rolls around a decade later. Only then will the potential of the TV miniseries Western be fulfilled.
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