The Shadow Riders

Starring: Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross, Jeff Osterhage, Ben Johnson, Geoffrey Lewis

Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Released: 1982

Mood: If you love them Sackett boys and want to watch a similar Western that delivers as much epic face and body hair as you could find on an otter which is the hairiest mammal on Earth. 

If you’re looking for a Western where you don’t have to think, and can sit back and be entertained, this one’s for you. 

The Shadow Riders is a made-for-TV movie based on the 1982 Louis L’Amour novel. Having read my fair share of L’Amour since the first time I saw this flick, I can confirm that watching it is every bit as easy as reading those snack-sized Westerns. 

It’s also visual eye candy: an hour and 40 minutes of the two finest moustaches in Hollywood… plus an astonishing amount of chest hair. Literally exploding out of Jeff Osterhage’s shirt, to the point where it looks like someone had to beat it back with a machete. Watch and tell me you weren’t distracted by his hairy scarf.

photo of Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, Jeff Osterhage on set in The Shadow Riders
Source

The Shadow Riders begins right as the South surrenders and the Civil War ends. The Traven brothers, Mac (Tom Selleck) and Dal (Sam Elliott), fought on opposite sides. We first see Mac enjoying the company of a ‘professional’ woman, although it’s Tom Selleck so he’s merely titillating her with charming conversation. 

Dal isn’t doing quite as well. He’s trussed up by a group of Union soldiers (being a Reb and all), facing down a firing squad with his don’t-f*ck-with-me, quintessential Sam Elliott attitude. But a group of Confederate soldiers rides up, guns a-blaze, and springs Dal. Major Cooper (Geoffrey Lewis) asks Dal to keep riding with them, but he’s set on returning home, so they give him a horse and a gun and send him on his way. 

Within a couple of minutes he’s got himself strung up again, this time by a pack of hillbillies who don’t take kindly to his treatment of their horse-thieving kin. 

The Traven brothers reunite and return to their folks’ home, where their ma hustles outside and speaks my feelings exactly: “There’s only one man in the world with that voice.” 

photo of the Shadow Riders DVD in a pile of fall leaves

Elliott and Selleck don’t look much alike – other than being really, really, really ridiculously good-looking – but that doesn’t matter. They’re both so awesomely suited to, and experienced in, the genre that you fall right into their characters and their family bond (including the younger Traven, played by Osterhage).

Selleck, Elliott, and Osterhage enjoyed working together on The Sacketts just a few years earlier, and asked L’Amour to give them another story idea. That’s how we got The Shadow Riders.

illustration of a fancy moustache

All the young women of the Travens’ hometown get kidnapped to be sold into slavery in Mexico. This includes their sister, and Dal’s former sweetheart Kate (Katharine Ross). Local law was unavailable at the time of the kidnapping – Sheriff Gillette (R.G. Armstrong) was preoccupied with hunting down Uncle Jack Traven, who got caught canoodling with the sheriff’s wife. Naturally, our two scruffy heroes need to save the day.

When Armstrong walked onto the screen I practically jumped off the couch shouting “I KNOW HIM!” He’s been in plenty of movies like Predator and Payback, but I saw those scarily intense eyes and immediately pegged him as Pruneface in Dick Tracy. My brain can pick out actors by a single facial feature, but can’t recall what I did five minutes ago. Useless talent #38. 

ANYWAY. All those girls and now Jesse Traven are being held hostage on a beach. It’s obviously going to take a lot of chasing and shooting to sort this out. Mac and Dal round up the nefarious ‘Black Jack’ Traven (Ben Johnson, also of The Sacketts), and set about the rescue. 

The Shadow Riders is the perfect weekday evening fare. It’s got tons of action, great one-liners, and of course, all that glorious facial hair. It’s also quite intentional about not letting anything get too deep or serious. Case and point: Uncle Jack’s suuuuuuper casual killing of the Mexicans intent on buying the girls. It’s like, “just blowing up 20 or so men with dynamite, NBD”. 

There’s also the upbeat Western soundtrack you’ll find in similar Selleck or James Garner movies. A thrilling train chase is driven by music that sounds like it belongs in a Disney Western. 

Still! I love The Shadow Riders, because it’s fast and fun. With all the shit going on in politics right now, happy movies are a necessity.

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