Starring: Sam Elliott, Tom Selleck, Jeff Osterhage, Glenn Ford, Ben Johnson
Director: Robert Totten
Mood: If you want the opportunity to hear the best campfire story of your entire life while simultaneously judging who has the best moustache in Hollywood.
I LOVE when one kind of Western gets me into another.
I worked in public libraries around Greater Vancouver for 15 years, and in that time I shelved hundreds of Louis L’Amour paperbacks. But even though I’m a diehard Western fan, I didn’t actually read L’Amour until this year. I thought the books looked cheesy and kind of stupid (and in some cases, offensive to non-white-dudes).
But the awesomeness of The Sacketts miniseries is what made me read my first L’Amour. This cinematic gem rocked my world, introducing me to Tom Selleck Westerns (how the f*ck did I not know?!) and to my new favourite literary saga.
The day my boyfriend’s dad showed me The Sacketts and handed me four Sackett novels was one for the books. Pun intended. Like, I wish I’d made one of those stupid Facebook ‘milestones’ so I could be reminded annually of its historical significance.
The funny thing is that this miniseries isn’t even my favourite Tom Selleck or Sam Elliott Western. But I’ll still watch it over and over again because it has both actors on one screen, and it’s entertaining AF.
The Sacketts combines two L’Amour novels, The Daybreakers (1960) and Sackett (1961). Both stories were adapted, pretty heavily in the case of Sackett, into one sprawling adventure featuring three of the most fascinating Sacketts: brothers Tell (Sam Elliott), Orrin (Tom Selleck) and Tyrel (Jeff Osterhage).
Here you’ve got two simultaneous Western stories that occasionally cross paths (they didn’t in the novels, but that’s okay) and involve tons of interesting characters.
In the first story, Orrin’s bride-to-be is gunned down on his wedding day and Tyrel kills the man who did it. Ty has to leave town to avoid bringing more trouble from the rival Higgins clan on the family homestead. He drifts for a bit, and finds work punching cattle with an outfit run by Tom Sunday (Glenn Ford) and Cap Rountree (Ben Johnson).
Not long afterward, Orrin (who’s drifting because he’s sad) meets up with them and joins the outfit. In a town they meet two appealing young women: Laura (Marcy Hanson), daughter of the shady old rich dude Jonathan Pritts (John Vernon), and Drusilla (Ana Alicia), a gorgeous young Mexican American traveling with her ailing grandfather, Don Luis (Gilbert Roland).
Orrin is infatuated with Laura, and Ty has his adorably awkward hopes set on Drusilla. Orrin, Ty, Tom Sunday, and Cap Rountree ride West for a bit with the Mexican American group for mutual protection.
Take a moment to sip your beer while you wrap your head around all that.
In the other story, Tell Sackett is briefly working with a mining camp, but shoots a man named Wes Bigelow for cheating the miners at poker. Now this Sackett also has to drift to avoid trouble from the angry Bigelow clan. Tell heads into the wilderness, and learns that there’s gold in them thar hills.
Tell starts mining the gold, but of course he catches the attention of bad guys in town – and those Bigelow brothers who are hot on his trail.
After a chance encounter with Orrin and Ty in Purgatorie, Cap Rountree joins Tell on the gold quest. Meanwhile Orrin is backed by Pritts to become sheriff in Santa Fe, which comes with a whole lot of baggage in the form of Tom Sunday’s bruised ego. Plus, the evil Pritts is trying to get rid of all the Mexican families including Ty’s beloved Drusilla and the Don.
Okay, let me get this out of the way – if you love The Sacketts, you should read these two books.
Orrin and Ty’s story is quite similar, but in The Daybreakers you get much deeper into the bad shit Jonathan Pritts does to the Mexican families. L’Amour never shied away from depicting how badly white people treated everyone else on the frontier. Orrin goes along with the Pritts family bullshit for a much longer time in the book, and Ty has to fight a lot harder to save the Don’s land.
Sackett is almost completely different. Most of the major events in the book take place in the winter, and Tell is solo for much of it. You get to like Tell a lot better in the book, too. It makes sense that they needed to write more scenes using multiple actors, and rework the books to tie the stories together. But Sackett is a great read, and Tell’s story with Ange (Wendy Rastattar) makes so much more sense.
WITH THAT SAID. The Sacketts gives me everything I could ask for in a Western. The story is epic. The adventures are plentiful. There’s tons of action. Everything is done on horseback. And the acting is so good, I could watch it 10,000 times and never get bored.
Selleck makes the perfect Orrin, with his natural charisma and loveable nature. Osterhage is great as the awkward but still adorable Tyrel, and holds his own among all these seasoned Western actors.
Elliott is crazy intense as Tell. This is a rough, wild-eyed Sam Elliott, which is a fun change of pace when you’ve mostly been watching his newer projects. Tell was described as tall and gangly, the less good-looking Sackett, and kind of feral – but in the books he was much more sociable, and could talk his way out of violent situations. Elliott’s spin on the character works for the rewrites.
Glenn Ford as Tom Sunday is freaking flawless. His character has the biggest journey, and you can feel the power of his lifelong acting career in the performance. The more times I watch The Sacketts, the more I appreciate how much Ford put into the character.
Cap Rountree is my favourite Ben Johnson role of all time, and that’s hard to call because he’s been instrumental in so many great Westerns. Even though the scenes with Tell and Cap are so far from the original book, I LIVE for their friendship and the way Johnson lights up the screen. Tell’s story became my favourite of the two once he joined up with Cap.
You also have Mercedes McCambridge as Ma Sackett. Although her appearance is brief, she packs a whole lot of performance into her time. I’ve since seen her hold her own with Joan Crawford in the brilliant Western drama Johnny Guitar, and it’s safe to say that McCambridge plays no part half-assed.
And of course, Jack Elam always brings me joy, even when he’s playing a dirtbag like Ira Bigelow.
My only real criticism of The Sacketts is that this would have worked much better as a four- or six-hour miniseries. We needed MOAR SACKETT – more of the plot that made these two truly great stories. More time to know and hate the bad guys, and watch the good guys struggle to prevail. We deserved more of Don Luis’ heartbreaking story, and thus more of legendary Mexican actor Gilbert Roland.
But seriously, I will never stop loving The Sacketts. And I will never, ever shut up about the Sackett family! Go out for beers with me, and see how long it takes before I find an excuse to start talking about Jubal or Tell.
Better yet, avoid me like the plague, and stay in and binge The Sacketts for yourself.