Friday Film Review: Conagher
I first saw this movie shortly after it was made in 1991 and immediately went out and bought the book upon which it was based. Louis L’Amour was better known as a writer of traditional westerns but here he includes a bit of romance along with punching cows and riding the range.
After Evie Teale (Katherine Ross) and her family arrive at their new home in Arizona, her husband rides off almost immediately to buy what they plan to be the start of their cattle herd. Shortly after that a stage drives through the area and the manager makes Evie a deal to be a stopping place for food and rest until the stage line builds its own station. It’s extra money the family can use as it’s been too long now without word for Mr. Teale to be anything but dead.
When the stage cowboys drive in some horses, Evie meets Con Conagher (Sam Elliott), a tough older cowpuncher who admires her from afar. But what does he have to offer such a fine woman? So he hires on to the Tay (Ken Curtis) outfit and along with one other man, fights off the rustlers who plan to kill the old man and take over his cows.
But he, like several other cowboys, is chasing after sagebrush and the notes which some lonely woman is writing and trying to them to drift across the wide open spaces of the county. Will he admit what Evie already knows, that he does have something to offer her?
Conagher is a straight up and honest man. When he takes a man’s pay, he rides for the brand. It’s all he knows and his honor is bone deep. He thinks that killing a man when there’s another way to settle the problem is crazy and we see several instances of that. We also see that in the end, it saves his life after a final run in with the rustlers who actually admire him as a man. Elliott has a lived in, weathered face such as I would expect to see on a middle aged cowboy and his gravely voice is one I could listen to all day.
Evie is a woman of nerve and grit. It’s never made plain if the move west was as much her idea as Mr. Teale’s but when she’s left on her own with her stepchildren, she buckles down and gets the job done all while trying to do right by Laban and Ruthie. Hers is a dignified beauty and strength which Ross shows throughout the story. I love how her dresses are obviously meant to look homemade unlike so many worn by actresses in those old 1960s westerns.
In truth this is more a western than a romance. Conagher and Evie share little actual screen time but when they do, the quiet connection between them is obvious. Shoot, Con spends more time with his horse than he does with Evie but the fact that he’s willing to chase after sagebrush shows that he’s got a romantic streak.
There are several secondary actors who are probably known more by face than name including Ken Curtis and Buck Taylor (both of Gunsmoke fame) and Buck’s father Dub Taylor (in decades worth of westerns) as well as James Gammon and Barry Corbin (Brenda Leigh Johnson’s father on “The Closer”). All of them turn in great performances and are a pleasure to watch.
And then there are the great open spaces of the West where you can hear the wind in the grass and cedars. I love that everything is a little rough and slightly ragged around the edges here. That scenes are shot by firelight and we get a real sense of how jostling a wagon ride was and how hard it was to keep clean when you were a cowboy trailing through the dust after cattle.
The western payoff is all through the movie and considering it was originally done for television, I think they did a fine job. The romance payoff takes the whole film but the first, and final, kiss is well worth waiting for. B
I am sorry that you rated this film a “B”. To me it’s an “A+” and more, much more. “Conagher” is Western Romance at it’s finest. Sam Elliott is without peer as a Western Star! Louis L’Amour, Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross and a stellar supporting cast make this sweet prarie love story unforgettable! I own the book and the movie. In addition to playing the title role, Sam executive produced and co-wrote the screenplay (with wife Katharine Ross and Jeffrey M. Meyer ) for “Conagher”. The picture was one of the highest-rated originals ever to air on TNT and would win Sam a Western Heritage Award, as well as a Golden Globe nomination (for Best Performance by an Actor in a Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV).
I own this on DVD. Love love love this movie.
And I think Sam Elliot and Katherine Ross were born to bring Louis L’Amour’s characters to life. They were just so perfect.
Huh. This one slipped right past my film radar. Was it a made-for-tv production?
I do wish we were offered more good Westerns. Recently I re-watched two of my favorites, Stagecoach (every Western trope included in one great package!) and Angel and the Bad Man. I don’t care what the critics say, sometimes John Wayne is exactly the right actor for a role!
@Darlene Marshall: Yes, it was a made-for-TV production. The DVD is nicely transfered but there are no extras or bonus materials.
@Shannon Stacey: You’re right. Elliott and Ross are perfect in their roles and wonderful together. I wish they’d do more of this kind of movie.
@Virginia C: I need a little more on screen romance but that isn’t what I’m going to get from a Louis L’Amour based story. So maybe the grade ought to be higher but B is what I felt after the last time I watched it.
I didn’t realize that he and Ross had done with the screenplay. They did a marvelous job.
Sam & Katherine were also together in The Shadow Riders (another Louis L’Amour). I don’t love it quite as much as Conagher, but it’s still a favorite.
@Shannon Stacey: Yep, I’e seen that one and, even though it’s full of eye candy, I didn’t like it as much as “Conagher” either.
Loved this movie :) The only thing I think that you got wrong is that Louis L’amour wrote romances for men. There isn’t a book of his that didn’t turn on a romance. They aren’t as spicey as modern romances, but when you remember a good deal of them were written in the fifties and sixties — they were as spicey as most any romance written for women at the time. I love Louis L’amour — he was a terrific storyteller. I just wish he’d finished Walking Drum or Last of the Breed (both of which were intended to be trilogies) before he died.
@Shannon Stacey: Ah, I was gonna bring this one up. I love the two of them in this movie! (The book isn’t bad either although it is totally different).
I would also recommend Two Mules for Sister Sara as a Western Romance. That movie is so funny.
My favorite funny western is McLintock with John Wayne & Maureen O’Hara. Most people are familiar with them as a couple in The Quiet Man. But McLintock is a Taming of the Shrew story and I love it.
Dear “Dear Author,”
Sorry that I’m just now writing, having seen Conagher only recently. I enjoy the western genre film very much, and those with Sam Elliott are some of the best. And those that blend a love story into the action are my favorites. This really is a superb movie of that kind, isn’t it? Picture-perfect and pitch-perfect in every respect, authentic in detail, well-paced and understated, with complex, fleshed-out characters that we truly care about. Elliott and Ross are magical in their respective roles as restless cowboy and lonely widow, their growing regard for each other expressed more in looks and gestures than in words. The scenes where he’s reading her “tumbleweed notes” and where she’s sending them across the prairie ring with such tenderness and sense of longing. And you’re right, Jayne, the last frame is the “payoff”–two drifting souls, in different ways, finally finding each other to “make a start,” to reclaim what’s been lost. What a love-affirimg, life-affirming moment! And that sweet western waltz in the background doesn’t hurt either! Splendid film! Thanks for offering a chance to talk about it.
@Gordon De La Vars: Thanks for stopping by and commenting. It makes me realize I haven’t watched a good western in a while. Might be time for a weekend marathon.
@Jayne: Enjoy your marathon, Jayne! After this film I went on to a marathon of my own–to Crossfire Trail, Broken Trail, and Open Range! Conagher is still my favorite, although the scene in Broken Trail when Tom’s love steps off the stage at the last minute is a grabber! The look on her face . . . and his. Terrific.
@Gordon De LaVars: It might be hard to find a copy of this since it is another “made for TV” movie but “Thousand Pieces of Gold” has a similar theme to “Broken Trail.” If you subscribe to Netflix they have it available to rent.
@Jayne: Thanks for the suggestion, Jayne. I’ll check that one out. And thanks for your attention to these films and your obvious devotion to the romantic spirit! A worthy cause if there ever was!