Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Quick and the Dead (1987)

This HBO western, based on a Louis L’Amour novel, must have pleased the gun lobby. Its message is that decent people will be preyed upon by villains if they don’t arm and defend themselves. “The meek,” as one character says, “will inherit nothing west of Chicago.”

Plot. The plot of the movie bears a strong resemblance to Shane, as a lone gunman (Sam Elliott) befriends a small family of settlers threatened by a gang of nasty men. The family is traveling across Wyoming in a lone covered wagon. Elliott, playing half-breed Con Vallian, joins them as a self-appointed protector.

Running through this story of decent folks pursued by bad men, is a simmering love triangle. The husband (Tom Conti) becomes aware that Elliott is quietly putting the moves on his wife (Kate Capshaw). Meanwhile, Capshaw is more than a little interested in returning his interest.

Conti turns out to be a Civil War veteran, whose experience on the battlefield has made a pacifist of him. He’s vowed never to take the life of another man. But it’s a lawless land in the West, and under Elliott’s influence, his wife parts company with him on this issue and takes up rifle practice. “We have no choice,” she says. “I have no choice.”
Kate Capshaw, 1984 (CC) Towpilot
Women. Out here, we are made to understand, a woman is never safe from a fate worse than death and needs the protection that only guns can provide. While Conti is already “tough as a nail” according to his young son, he is forced to accept this point of view as well. Not only does at least one openly craven member of the villainous gang have rape in mind. There is a fox in the henhouse in the form of Elliott.

Tables turn when Elliott’s character is ambushed and takes a slug. Conti confidently removes it with a bowie knife, and cauterizes the wound with a hot poker. Conti and Capshaw then become his protectors, and Elliott survives, but only just.

Playing nurse to him, Capshaw listens as Elliott explains how he has “a lot of feelings” for her but finally has chosen to consider the feelings of others. He won’t try to take her from her husband and son. “You are a real gentleman,” she says and kisses him on the cheek. Thus the film instructs us is the way sexual urges are civilized, and the world is made safer for women—and their husbands.

Meanwhile, through a process of attrition, the eight men in the gang are whittled down to three. When these show up at the family’s cabin, each is shot dead by Capshaw, Conti, and Elliott in turn. When it’s over, husband and wife stand side by side, weapons in hand, as Elliott says, “Damn, you folks are quick.”

Fully recovered, Elliott’s Con Vallian makes his exit. He and Conti part amicably—after Conti punches him—and Conti says, “There’s a kindness in you, Vallian. That’s what I’ll miss.” It’s another way of calling him a gentleman.

Like Shane’s departure from another homestead in Wyoming, Con Vallian remains an enigma. His last words are with Kate Capshaw, and the longing in her eyes is undisguised. “Wild things gotta be free,” he tells her and rides off, the lone drifter again.

Elliot, more than most cowboy actors, captures that particular type of male Owen Wister first found in his Virginian. With a three-day growth of beard and his trademark mustache,  he’s a gentleman in the rough.

Self-reliant, independent, unafraid, he uses the physical strength that comes with his gender to protect good, decent folks—and win the hearts of women. Yet truer to type than the Virginian, who marries and settles down, Elliott’s Con Vallian rides off alone, our last image of him a small figure disappearing on the horizon.

Myth. The drawback is for folks who take a film like this as a true portrayal of American history. Though there’s been an effort to dress the cast in period costumes, it’s still nine-tenths romance.

For starters, in a study of homesteaders to be found in frontier photography, you’d be hard pressed to find faces with Kate Capshaw’s movie-star looks. With her unblemished skin and flowing blonde hair, she might have been found at a gathering among the social elite in Newport, but not out here in the wild.
Homesteaders, 1866
Instead of Conti’s well-groomed and clean-shaven appearance, you would find men with long unkempt beards, greasy hair, and shapeless, soiled clothes. As for Elliott’s “gentleman” living rough in the wild, he would probably have smelled strong enough to squelch most any curious woman’s interest in intimacy.

For the very reason that the frontier offered any number of perils, settlers would seldom have traveled alone as the family in this film does. Meanwhile, they would probably not have encountered only gangs of evil men and wild Indians, who seem to be the sole inhabitants of Wyoming.

The setting of the film is also mythical. It was shot in Arizona, near Flagstaff and Sedona, which makes for lovely scenery, and snowfall during the shooting of some scenes transforms the landscape beautifully. But Arizona does not look like the stark, open, wind-swept prairie of Wyoming.

When they finally arrive at their cabin and Capshaw says to Conti, “I think we can make a good life out here,” you have to wonder if she’s in her right mind. They are like a modern-day couple lifted out of suburban comfort and deposited in the middle of nowhere. What could she be thinking?

The effect of a western like this is to reinforce notions in its audience that they are living in a lawless world themselves, where firearms are needed daily for self protection. Unlike the book and film Shane, where there is a community of settlers standing together against a greedy rancher, the couple in this film is alone, always vulnerable to robbery, rape, and murder.
1973 edition
The film may be 100% faithful to L’Amour’s novel. However, it should be noted that the script writer, James Lee Barrett, also has the writing credit for The Green Berets (1968), John Wayne’s Vietnam-era war film. There’s a battlefield tone to the survivalist sentiments that Elliott expresses.

“Have you actually ever done a day’s work in your life?” Conti asks, as Elliott stands watching him chop down a tree. “I’ve worked hard every day of my life, Mister,” Elliott says. “Stayin’ alive.” Another time, he says, “Out here we just kill what we need to live,” referring to a deer he’s shot, but not excluding humans.

Wrapping up. When all’s said, the film is still a darn good western. The performances and direction are all excellent. The photography nicely captures the western settings, and there’s effective use of close-up shots to bring you in close to the characters. The music is also well restrained and evocative. For Sam Elliott fans, it is a must-see.

The Quick and the Dead is not to be confused with a similarly-named Sharon Stone film of dubious merit released in 1995. If you order it up from netflix or amazon, make sure you’ve got the right one. Note that the 2010 release on DVD is in splendid widescreen, with an informative commentary by director Robert Day.

Overlooked Movies is a much-appreciated enterprise of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Adrian Louis, Skins


  1. I liked the book quite a lot. Can't say I remember much about the movie, although I think I probably saw it.

  2. I do like Sam Elliott very much, so it's possible I've seen this film. Even if I am not now nor have I ever been a fan of Kate Capshaw. :)

    Tom Conti I love since AN AMERICAN DREAMER.

    Thanks for a terrific thought provoking post.

  3. I'm pretty sure I saw this in the theater, and remember liking it. I'll need to see it again -- I'm a big Sam Elliott fan.

    I also saw, and loved, the Sharon Stone movie of the same title. It's got Gene Hackman in it, for crying out loud! Gunfights! Mayhem! I even own that sucker, now that I think about it.

  4. The one featuring Stone and Hackman is one of two tributes to Sergio Leone featuring Hackman in the space of a year or so, and I enjoyed both.

    This one does have the unfortunate sound of a Peckinpah, down to those faithless, easily corralled women, as described.

  5. I`ve currently got a 4 day growth, does that count?LOL! However, I have seen this film, its a good romp and shoot `em up. I have always admired Sam Elliot, and his acting. He seems to be lifted right out of the era!

    Louis L`Amour,? Cant fault his stuff.

    1. "He seems to be lifted right out of the era!"
      He sure does.

  6. The myth is just that! Good review.

  7. I like Sam Elliot a lot, but like Charles, don't remember seeing this. I know I haven't read the book. So! Another to add to that beloved stack!!! Thanks!

  8. Charles, I think you'd remember this one.

    Yvette, Kate does OK in this one.

    Chris, I've never seen the Sharon Stone movie; the description has always made it seem so far-fetched.

    Todd, not so much Peckinpah, though it's his kind of material for sure.

    Cheyenne, I think Elliott is a natural horseman.

    Sage, thanks.

    Richard, I'm getting my hands on the book to do a comparison.

  9. I have loved Sam Elliot since he starred in "Once an Eagle".

  10. The Sharon Stone-Gene Hackman flick was on AMC this past weekend. Enjoyed it, although it was far-fetched. Don't remember seeing this one, although I like Sam Elliott. My bro had a fine collection of Louis L'Amour films and I saw some of them.

  11. Sorry that Kate Capshaw stopped making movies after marrying SS. Never saw this one though.

  12. I liked the Gene Hackman movie better than the Sam Elliott one.

  13. I'm not sure I agree that the film is 100% faithful to the book. There are some striking differences. I can think of a few right off the top of my head:

    -- In the book Duncan McKaskel isn't a doctor but an educator.

    -- Con isn't shot hunting he's shot tracking the Huron, whom he tangles with twice. After being shot, in the book, it's Native Americans that heal and hide Con, thanks for giving them food to feed their young kids on two separate occasions in the story (the second of which, an antelope, is the callback that ends the novel).

    -- The house they find in the mountains isn't Susanna's brother's, there's no mention of a brother in the entire story, unless you count the yarn that Duncan spins to Ike to avoid being killed in the end. The cabin in the mountains is chosen more out of necessity than desire, though Susanna's desire to live in the mountains plays a part in their final decision.

    -- The beauty of Susanna, in the book, is treated as a rarity; It's the reason Red wants so badly to track them while Ike and Doc surmise (wrongly) that the McKaskel's must be carrying gold because of the deep ruts they're leaving in the earth.

    -- The gang of eight isn't really whittled down in the novel as they are in the film. One is run off by Con, Red shoots Ike's brother, Susanna kills Doc, and Con kills another, he assumes (he's missing two rounds in his Colt and he always reloads), while stumbling around wounded before being found by the Native Americans. This all happens at different times.

    -- In the end only two men, Ike and Red, storm the cabin. Ike is shot right off while it takes something like ten or eleven rounds from Con's Colt and a second revolver to finally bring down Red. Huron, as I mentioned earlier, delivers an antelope to the family before thanking them for the fun and riding off.

    -- Con Vallian never leaves the cabin at the end of the novel. He desires to, yes, but we never see him actually do it.

    -- There is no love triangle in the book. Once Susanna tells Con she's Duncan's man Con lets it go. He comments about her beauty, yes, but there's no indication that he's in love with Susanna. In fact, after healing for ten days with the Native Americans, Con searches for the family not because he loves the woman but because he genuinely cares for them and enjoys the company of Duncan, who is the kind of highly educated man that Con rarely meets. (And he likes the wife's coffee.) Con is also helping to "train" Tom, the McKaskel's son, in how to survive in the open wilderness.

    -- Finally, Duncan, in the novel, in not a veteran of the Civil War, he's simply an educated city man who believes that all disputes can be resolved through discussion and compromise, something he comes to understand isn't true when captured by Red, Ike, and Purdy.

    -- Also, some of the quotes you picked out from the movie (some of them) are not in the book. Small, I know, but a difference all the same.

    These are just a few of the differences that I can name off the top of my head. I know there are more.

    Overall the book is well worth the read if you're looking for a well written, exciting western with a brain and a heart. Not saying the movie isn't good, it's just not 100% faithful to the source material, which is a much more nuanced story than a simple shoot-'em-up western.