The Quick and the Dead (1987)

Starring: Sam Elliott, Tom Conti, Kate Capshaw

Director: Robert Day
Released: 1987

Mood: If you’re a huge Sam Elliott fan and just want to gaze longingly at him for 91 minutes without having to actually concentrate on a plot or dialogue.

It’s a sad, sad day when a diehard Sam Elliott fan realizes that her Western review website only features four Sam Elliott movies!

I f*cking adore Sam Elliott. I’ve thought he was the epitome of Western-leading manly perfection since I was a kid. My mom showed me Roadhouse, and then Tombstone came out, and that was it. Cue lifelong obsession with that gruff voice and glorious moustache. 

Seriously. This is one of my bookshelves:

photo showing a bookshelf with a magazine featuring Sam Elliott and a Sam Elliott VHS tape

Yesterday was the perfect day for Western-watching. I didn’t have weekend work, which almost never happens. And despite it being a rare sunny day in this bullshit June-u-ary, I’d just had a morning round of laser tattoo removal and needed to stay indoors. That was when I realized this site has been lacking in Sam Elliott, and so I threw on The Quick and the Dead

I was 99% sure I’d never seen it – but I was wrong. Turns out it’s just really, really forgettable

the quick and the dead dvd

The Quick and the Dead is an HBO made-for-TV movie, based on the 1973 novel by Louis L’Amour. And let me tell you, there is NOTHING quick about it. 

It takes place in 1876, in the Wyoming Territory. The McKaskel family has come west to start a new life at a house built for them by the brother of Susanna (Kate Capshaw). But a gang of ruffians led by Doc Shabbit (Matt Clark) takes a shine to their horses and wagon, and decides to make trouble. 

Lucky for them, Con Vallian (Sam Elliott) is passing through and witnesses the initial horse theft. He gets a crush on Mrs. McKaskel, much to the annoyance of her husband (Tom Conti), and ends up protecting the family and helping them defend their belongings while they continue their journey. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

The problem with The Quick and the Dead is that in typical L’Amour fashion, you’re dropped right into the ‘action’ and you don’t get all the backstory that would establish feelings toward the characters. His novels are generally under 200 pages, and get right down to business. They’re meant to be bite-sized snacks that give you a Western thrill, but don’t make you think too hard or demand too much of your time. 

It works for dime novels, but not so much for film.

With The Quick and the Dead, you’re asked to instantly care about the family and get mad at the bad guys. It all comes down to the dialogue and acting, and there just isn’t enough meat in either. The story doesn’t give the actors anywhere to go.

It’s too bad, because this is some PRIME Sam Elliott. He’s got his trademark scruffy mop and rugged voice, and as always his facial hair is a perfect 10/10. He’s rocking a bandana that was once red but has faded from a life spent riding under the sun, and he’s perpetually covered with trail dust. 

When he delivers his “you should have finished me!” line, he has has those crazy-intense eyes he does so well – you know, where he goes from gruff squinting to wild-eyed madman. He’s also thoroughly convincing in a scene where he’s having a bullet removed. 

Kate Capshaw, who will always be Willie from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to me, suits the pioneer woman role. She’s pretty but in a natural way, and good at being at once scared, determined, and romantically confused.

Everyone else is just kind of ‘meh’.

illustration of a fancy moustache

The whole relationship between Con and Susanna is also asking too much from the audience. Like, he repeatedly comments on her attractiveness to her husband, in front of her son. He steals a kiss from her – she insists that she loves her husband, but emphatically kisses him back. The husband is never told. The music soars and swells when they share long looks. 

It feels like a romantic Western, yet the romance that’s being played up is emotional cheating on her part, and knowingly pursuing a married woman on his. And then he rides off and she loves her husband after all and we’re supposed to be satisfied? 

To top it all off, we have two super white dudes (Elliott and Patrick Kilpatrick) playing two ‘half-breeds’. You’re telling me that in the late ‘80s you couldn’t find a single Native American actor to fill at least one of these roles? Sam Elliott is great, he’s literally the only reason to watch this movie – but Wes Studi, Graham Greene, Steve Reevis, David Midthunder, and many others had active careers at the time. 

illustration of a fancy moustache

The Quick and the Dead is a good-looking TV movie, despite its cheesy music, fades between scenes, and terribly fake blood. The costumes are great, and the bad guys all look proper filthy and scraggly. Unfortunately, it fails to stir up any feelings whatsoever.

If Sam Elliott wasn’t in 90% of the scenes, it would be a total flop. Add it to your collection so you can stare at his face, and move on.