Starring: Vera Miles, Sam Elliott

Director: Gary Nelson
Released: 1972

Mood: If you recently got burned by someone you care about and trusted and you’re so mad that you also want to feel burned by Sam Elliott so you can truly know that the world is against you.

“Woman, I was just using you to save my ass.”

John Lawler (Sam Elliott)

I’ve seen Molly and Lawless John before, so I knew what I was in for when I sat down to watch it last night.


It’s a whole lot of Sam Elliott being an asshole.


I don’t mean gruff and curmudgeonly like in The Ranch. This is Sam Elliott as a lying, manipulative man who doesn’t give a crap about anyone but himself and goes around acting like a dick until it finally catches up with him – and you’re not sad about it.


With that said, if you like all things Sam Elliott, this drama is a fascinating departure from his usual Western fare. He’s so young (just 28 years old) that he doesn’t even have his trademark moustache! It’s not a must-see movie or anything, and is actually quite depressing. There’s no joy you’ll get from this viewing. But it’s not the worst way you could spend a weekday evening.


photo of the molly and lawless john DVD

Molly and Lawless John opens with so much action that you might think this is a shoot-em-up action Western. It’s not. Enjoy it while it lasts – and the opening scenes are super enjoyable.


John Lawler (Elliott) robs a bank with a small posse. Lots of people get shot and the robbers flee, including a SERIOUSLY IMPRESSIVE stunt by Elliott where he runs and leaps with no hands onto a horse. Law enforcement pursues. Lawler loses his horse, is picked up by one of his crew, and then clubs that guy over the head so he can get away.


Told you he’s an asshole.


Lawler goes to jail, where he meets the quiet Molly (Vera Miles). Her husband is the sheriff, and Lawler can tell right away that she’s treated like dirt. So he starts acting sweet to her, tugging at her heartstrings, until she’s convinced he’s innocent and needs to be broken out.


The rest of the movie follows Molly and John on the run, despite several attempts by John to ditch her.


illustration of a fancy moustache


Although Lawler is a totally despicable character, there’s no arguing that Elliott does a masterful job of the role.


He is ridiculously charming when he turns it on, but menacing and heartless when he slips back into Lawler’s natural selfish state. At one point he says to this poor woman who trusted and believed him, “you ain’t much, but you’re a hell of a lot better than nothin’.”


There’s no warmth, no hidden nice guy that just needs to be unearthed. It’s uncomfortable if you’re used to enjoying Elliott’s characters, but he looks so different that you can pretty much forget it’s him.


Vera Miles gives you that simple, naïve woman who is forever trying to see the good in everyone. It’s painful to watch Molly fall for Lawler’s bullshit, and keep giving him chance after chance to be a decent human.


But Molly has an unexpected, fierce strength when pushed, which makes her deeper than the typical Western female character. Yes, she falls for his wiles, but she’s also protective, stubborn, smart, and resourceful. Every look on her face and every emotion Miles delivers, they all feel, for lack of a better word, real.


  • Fun Fact: Vera Miles was no stranger to Westerns when she made this movie – she had appeared in multiple John Wayne films, plus episodes of many popular Western TV series like Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Virginian, Laramie, and Zane Grey Theater.


Molly and Lawless John isn’t my top pick for Sam Elliott Westerns, or for female-driven Westerns, or really for anything. You aren’t even really rooting for Molly because she keeps making such big mistakes.


It’s one of those movies you probably only watch because you want to see everything a certain actor made. It’s not bad. I really do think both lead actors gave strong performances.


But why you would choose to be mad at Sam Elliott for 98 minutes instead of watching something fun like The Shadow Riders is beyond me.