Starring: Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross, Barry Corbin
Director: Reynaldo Villalobos
Mood: If you’re pissed off at your co-workers and need to watch a bloody fist fight so you don’t get into one but your S.O. wants to cuddle up with a romantic movie and you need a compromise.
I have to share the backstory of how I first watched Conagher, because it ended up impacting how I felt about the movie.
I had randomly grabbed a handful of Westerns to watch while on a short trip. My first night ended up with less free time than anticipated, so I chose Crossfire Trail because it had the shortest runtime. By total coincidence, I picked Conagher on the second night.
I’d seen Crossfire Trail several times, but it was my first time watching Conagher. Both are L’Amour books-into-movies, which has so far always resulted in me loving the movie. Both feature one of my two favourite moustachioed men OF ALL TIME. Unfortunately, Conagher felt kind of… slow.
That was really f*cking painful to say, given that Sam Elliott was my first Western love. But after watching all that Tom Selleck action, Conagher’s quiet storytelling felt more like a novel. Like I’d be super into it if I was reading it in bed, but less so when that was my sole visual entertainment for the evening.
It’s still a good movie. But you definitely have to be in the mood for a softer, more romantic Western.
Conagher begins as the Teale family heads West by wagon to their new home in the Indian Territory of Colorado. When Mr. Teale rides out to get some cattle, his horse gets bit by a rattler and falls on him, and he dies on the trail.
The steadfast Evie Teale (Katharine Ross) keeps things running at the homestead, coming to terms with her husband’s death. She partners with stagecoach driver Charlie McCloud (Barry Corbin) to earn money by preparing meals for the coach patrons when they stop by.
One of her visitors is the mysterious Conn Conagher (Elliott), who comes with plenty of warnings. But the family takes a liking to that gruff ol’ drifter.
There’s so much story after that, you kind of have to be there. Conagher gets hired as a ranch hand for Seaborn Tay (Ken Curtis), and realizes the other hands, led by surly ginger Chris Mahler (Gavan O’Herlihy) are plotting to steal Tay’s herd.
Meanwhile, the Teale family suffers an attack from an unspecified local Native tribe – but you never see the Natives after that, so it’s one of many, MANY minor events that tease you with a little action, then fade away.
Conagher opts to defend Tay and his herd, even after the nefarious ranch hands take up with the Ladder Five gang, run by Smoke Parnell (brilliant Western character actor James Gammon). So you think the movie is headed toward a final showdown between Conagher and the gang, but nope, you’re wrong. The final blowout is all fists and no guns, and Parnell respectfully bows out before that point (I’m still confused as to why).
The unifying thread between the two stories is that Evie writes little bits of poetry and ties them to tumbleweeds, and Conagher keeps finding them while he’s out minding the herd. It’s actually ridiculously cute and I was here for it. Like, tens across the board for a Western love story.
There are lots of great points to Conagher. As I said, it’s a winner as far as star-crossed Western romance. It’s a good family movie, too (I only have fur children, but there are kids in the movie so that means it’s good for kids, right?).
Two key issues kept me from really loving Conagher:
- I had the constant feeling that there was this massive backstory that I wasn’t getting – like I came into it at the halfway point or something.
- There are SO MANY F*CKING AMAZING ACTORS and yet somehow none of them blows you away or steals the show.
You have Katharine Ross, who was phenomenal in The Shadow Riders, yet is kind of subdued and lacking that fierceness that I’ve seen when she goes all strong pioneer woman.
I’ve already lamented my love for Barry Corbin and his super-Western face in my Crossfire Trail review. He’s in so many L’Amour movies, and Selleck movies, and he’s great. I was actually kind of hoping he’d get the girl, which was weird since that’s not where this story was steering the audience. He’s the side of potatoes to Elliott’s man meat, and I was craving carbs.
Conagher also features Buck Taylor (close friend of Sam Elliott and no stranger to Westerns), his dad Dub Taylor, James Gammon who is in like, every Western ever… and SAM F*CKING ELLIOTT.
Elliott is rocking one of his thickest, most powerful moustaches, and it’s a fun change of pace to see him smiling so much in a movie. He carried a lot of the film in non-speaking scenes. It took until the final minutes to reach peak Sam Elliott – and I’m sure lots of people will appreciate the slow boil. But as mentioned, Tom Selleck had given me so much L’Amour action the night before, and my patience wasn’t having it.
Slight sidetrack – when Gavan O’Herlihy walked into his first scene, I literally typed in block caps “OMFG IS THAT AIRK FROM WILLOW?!” I love when an actor’s face makes that much of an impression – and he sure plays a great asshole.
Some more Conagher trivia, which I dug up while I was waiting for action to happen:
- It’s one of long-time couple Elliott and Ross’ many movies together, and their real-life flame does come through in the later scenes
- Elliott and Corbin spent the last several years working together on The Ranch as old rancher dudes and I love it
- This was the last movie Ken Curtis made; he passed just a few weeks after filming wrapped
If you love Sam Elliott, and you’re into Western romance, you’ll love Conagher. This is a stellar cast, and a super satisfying love story.
I think in writing this I talked myself into rewatching it when I’m craving a chick flick, because it might give me all the right feels. Stay tuned.