Sunset: Glenn Ford’s last three Westerns
Santee (CBS TV, 1973)
It was TV Westerns from now on. In 1973 Glenn Ford was in his late 50s but still working and still wanting to make Westerns. “The Western is a man's world,” he said, “and I love it.” CBS’s Santee, Glenn’s last Western as principal, was shot only on videotape but it’s good quality. It was directed by Gary Nelson, who had been second assistant director on The Searchers and Gunfight at the OK Corral (so he knew what a proper Western was), who then did TV work. In it, Ford is the eponymous bounty hunter but like all those good-guy screen bounty hunters (you know, Henry Fonda in The Tin Star, Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive, etc.), decent deep down.
A young boy, Jody (Michael Burns) finally meets his father after many years but finds that he is part of an outlaw gang being hunted by a ruthless bounty hunter, Santee. When Jody’s dad is killed in the shoot-out, Jody joins up with Santee in order to take his revenge when the opportunity presents itself. But gradually he comes to see that Santee is in fact a good man who is still mourning the death of his own young son at the hands of outlaws. When Santee learns that those same outlaws are back in town, Jody and Santee join forces to seek revenge…
Stand-outs are Dana Wynter as Santee’s wife Valerie, Jay Silverheels as Santee’s ranch hand John Crow and good old Robert J Wilke as Deaks.
It’s a bit slow in the early stages but the tension builds reasonably well and there’s (quite bloody) action at the end. The whole thing does have, however, that made-for-TV look about it and the uneven pacing caused by the pre-commercial break peaks make viewing on DVD in one go an erratic experience.
Ford had lost none of his power, though, and a made-for-TV Western is better than no Western at all, right?
The Sacketts (NBC TV, 1979)
At the end of the 70s, Ford was back in the saddle for another TV epic, this time The Sacketts, a “mini-series” which compresses two Louis L’Amour novels, The Daybreakers and Sackett, into two 2-hour episodes.
It wheeled out many of the old faithfuls to play alongside Sam Elliott, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage as the Sackett brothers. Ford is Tom Sunday, good-bad man, though he bears his age less well, seems to be going through the motions and sadly looks as though he had eaten a donut or two de trop.
Ben Johnson plays Cap Rountree and is, of course, splendid. We also get Jack Elam, Slim Pickens and James Gammon, excellent as the elderly but still ornery Bigelow brothers, out for revenge after Elliott has shot their card-sharp brother.
Mercedes McCambridge has a brief early part as Ma Sackett. Even after all these years you still can't help thinking of Johnny Guitar. LQ Jones is a cattleman in eyeglasses. John Vernon is satisfactorily slimy as leading bad guy Jonathan Pritts. Ruth Roman is back as Rosie, Johnson’s long-time ‘girlfriend’ and Gilbert Roland does his hidalgo act. So there are many old and loved Western faces, alright.
There’s also (there had to be) a girl each for the brothers: Marcy Hanson for Orrin, Drusilla Alvarado for Tyrel and Wendy Rastattar for Tell.
Apparently it was shot (by Jack A Whitman Jr.) in California and around Buckskin Joe in Colorado but some of it sure looks like New Mexico to me – that limpid light again. The music is by Jerrold Immel and is well up to the task.
It’s fun to watch and a lot happens. The actors clearly enjoyed it (Elliott, Selleck and Osterhage joined forces again to strut their stuff in another TV epic, The Shadow Riders, three years later). Ben Johnson joins the line-up at the end as the four of them walk down the street, Wild Bunch style. There’s a good final shoot-out. The overall impression we are left with, however, is of a frantic editing and cutting to squeeze two novels’ worth of story into a couple of evenings’ TV watching. So yes, get the DVD but don’t expect greatness. And as for Glenn Ford, well, it was Glenn so you have to see it. But sadly, don’t expect Jubal or 3:10…
Border Shootout (Turner TV, 1990)
Ford’s very last Western appearance was a small part as sheriff in Turner’s 1990 Border Shootout, also known as Law at Randado, the title of the book it is based on. He was 74.
First the good news: the movie is based on an Elmore Leonard story. It’s an early one (1954) but like most Leonard, it is spare, actiony and gripping. Being an EL tale, it is set in the Southwest. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young man, Kirby Frye (a rather wooden Cody Glenn in the movie) who becomes a deputy and battles the bad guys as much with brains as with guns. He is no quick-draw superhero, just a regular guy trying to do the right thing.
More good news: Glenn Ford is in it, not a big part, admittedly, despite his top billing, but he’s there, as County Sheriff John Danaher, who hires Kirby. He is rather obviously substituted by a stuntman on occasions and even just walking about town does look a bit stiff.
Sadly, though, that’s about where the good news ends. The writer/director (Chris McIntyre – he did another one, Hell to Pay, this time with Lee Majors in the Glenn use-a-big-name-star-in-a-bit-part role, in 2005) has tried to ‘improve’ the Leonard story. The additions and interpolations don’t do the story any favors and the development of the plot is uneven to say the least.
There’s the obligatory border town shoot-out at the end.
This really isn’t a very good Western, readers, I’m sorry to tell you, and Glenn Ford certainly deserved better as his swansong.
And so we come to the end of the Western career of Glenn Ford.