This film is based on a novel by the prolific and popular western author Louis L'Amour, who died in 1988. You will see in the end credits that the film is dedicated to him. I believe the writer would have approved of this film as it is full of typical L'Amour flourishes. "Conagher" is a typical archetypal L'Amour hero. A rugged, self sufficient individualist who knows how to live in a harsh land. If pushed he is a man to steer clear of, but above all he is honest to the core. In one exchange a would be cattle rustler says to Conagher "Your a hard man Mr Conagher", to which his typically laconic reply is "It's a hard land". In the L'Amour world the hero has to be hard to survive, but it does not stop him remaining the good guy in the white hat.
In the film an attractive widow, played by the still devastatingly beautiful Katherine Ross, settles in a remote ranch which she turns into a stage outpost. But the location, beautiful as it is, breeds a deep loneliness. It is also fraught with danger in the shape of renegade indians and outlaws. But her life is brightened by the arrival on the scene of the veteran cowboy "Conagher", played by the the amply moustachioed Sam Elliott. Sparks begin to slowly ignite between the two, but Conagher is in the same mould as Charlton Heston's veteran cowboy "Will Penny", and settling down is not at the top of his wish list.
Sam Elliott certainly looks and sounds the part. He also clearly knows how to ride a horse which helps. An elderly rancher in the film asks hime if he has sand, and it is clear that he most certainly has. Katherine Ross is excellent as a typically independent L'Amour frontierswoman who can handle a winchester as proficiently as a dish cloth. She echoes the Geraldine Page character from the John Wayne film "Hondo", which also happens to be based on a L'Amour novel. In one scene when the indians arrive at the ranch she tells her adopted children "Don't show them your afraid". She then gives a perfect demostration of how to look very afraid. This unsurprisingly leads to a spot of bother and an injection of unintentional humour. Western buffs will be glad to see those veteran support actors Ken Curtis, of "The Searchers" fame, and the distinctive Dub Taylor throw in stalwart support.
The film does bear strong similarities with the already mentioned "Hondo", with whom Conagher is the twin of. It does however fall a little short of this bigger budget film. It is a slow burning, at times gentle, unpretentious western. The love story is not of the prairie fire variety and takes a bit of time to get going, which makes it all the more believable. The scenes where Ross ties notes to tumbleweeds are particularly poignant and strong. They show the loneliness that life on the frontier can bring. It was apt that Sam Elliott was to have such a strong association with tumbleweeds in the film, given his opening narration in the Coen brothers "The Big Lebowski". If you haven't seen it you will need to watch it to understand. The location filming in Colorado will appeal to those who love the sound of the wind in the grass. It is a pity about the weak folksy music which seems to be popular in modern westerns. Call me old fashioned, but give me a score by the likes of Max Steiner or Elmer Bernstein any day! The film being slow paced, is perhaps a little overlong at about 1 hour 50 minutes and drags a bit at the end, but overall it is a commendable effort that remains faithful to the ideals of Louis L'Amour. A good western and a fairly generous four stars. Well it is a western after all, so it gets an automatic extra star!