Cable's 'Conagher' is more than a western


July 01, 1991|By Michael Hill

The made-for-cable movie "Conagher" is something like its title character -- there's more there than meets the eye.

When someone first meets Conagher, he's liable to think that this is nothing more than a dusty old cowhand just trying to scramble through life on the barren rangeland at the foot of the Colorado Rockies.

It takes a while to learn that beneath Sam Elliott's droopy bush of a mustache, somewhere back behind his huge baritone voice, is the very model of American moral rectitude, the very foundation on which some would have built an empire.

Why, Conagher's the type of character that Gary Cooper might have played, maybe even the Duke himself, John Wayne. He may not say much, but his actions speak with the words of a thousand parables.

So it is with the movie "Conagher," which is based on a novel by the late Louis L'Amour. It will debut on basic cable channel TNT tonight at 8 o'clock. There are a lot of things you can't figure out at first, as if you're seeing through the dark, murky vision that the film uses to effectively capture what it must have been like inside an isolated cabin with tiny windows and a smoky fire.

But stick around. Just as the film's characters learn that Conagher is worth getting to know, so you'll eventually find that "Conagher" has that same crucial characteristic.

The movie opens with Evie Teale, played by Katharine Ross (who is married to Elliott), moving into a stone cabin in the magnificent Colorado wilderness. She has her husband's two kids to look after as he leaves his family to head back to town to buy some cattle so they can begin their herd.

The viewer learns -- though Evie doesn't know -- that a misstep by his horse a few miles away kills him and the animal. She

and the children are now alone on the frontier. Fine, you figure that this is the story of a strong woman making it in the face of all the hardships such a situation can dish out. You start waiting for the Indians, maybe an outlaw or two, perhaps a cruel winter storm.

Evie finds a way to make a living by providing meals for a stagecoach line. One of the workers on the line is Elliott's Conagher. If electricity had been around, you would have felt some when the two of them took a look at one another. Fine, you figure this is the hard, dusty cattle hand and the pretty woman falling for one another and making a life together out in the middle of nowhere.

But then Conagher heads off to find a job for the winter, hires on at a spread run by a character played by the late Ken Curtis -- Festus of "Gunsmoke" fame -- and keeps running into trouble with something called the Ladder gang.

Meanwhile, back at the Teale ranch, Evie is feeding the stage riders, fighting off Indians and figuring out that her husband is never going to come back, all the while tying these pieces of paper to tumbleweed and sending them on their way.

So what's going on? Who are these Ladder people? What are those things tied to the tumbleweed? Is this action or romance, are we going to fight outlaws or Indians or what?

Don't worry yourself, now. Just settle back and let Elliott's deep timbre massage you into relaxation. Notice how Ross' face, the one that launched a thousand fantasies in "The Graduate," has moved on into middle age with a rare grace, even though her attempt to make Evie as strong and righteous in her own way as Conagher is in his comes off as a bit flat and stern.

Look at the beautiful scenery captured in the remote Colorado location filming. Enjoy the fine western types brought to life by a raft of top-notch character actors like Curtis, Barry Corbin, Billy Green Bush, Paul Koslo, Gavan O'Herlihy and James Gammon, who plays Smoke Parnell. Indeed, though it sounds a bit too much like a steal from the theme of PBS' "The Civil War," listen to the fine score by J.A.C. Redford.

Eventually, you'll find out that all that talk about the Ladder gang refers to the brand of a ranch that's really just a bunch of outlaws up to things like cattle rustling, just the type of behavior that drives a man like Conagher to take matters into his own hands.

And you'll discover that those pieces of paper tied onto the tumbleweed contain romantic messages that the lonely Evie has written to the only ear that is there to hear her, that of the wind and the prairie.

Finally, if you stick around, by about the second to last scene, you'll realize that you weren't watching a frontier romance -- what they used to call an "adult western" -- or a cowboy shoot 'em up -- though there's a fair amount of gunplay -- but instead that "Conagher" is an insightful and gentle commentary on the conflicting drives that plague and power western civilization, to wander and roam in search of triumph and treasure, or to settle down in the meaningful nest of family and community.

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