Monday, November 18, 2013


This weekend, director Vic Armstrong and producer Clyde Lucas headed to Monument Valley to scout locations for one of John Ford’s pet projects which never reached the screen.  COMANCHE STALLION.  Based on the novel by Tom Milstead, it’s the story of the Comanche’s search for a mystical horse, while suffering the wrath of General Lathrop.  Ford wanted Burl Ives for the role of the general, but Ives’ health was not up to the task, and Ford’s own health also failed. 

Now famed stuntman and stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong, who just directed Nicholas Cage in LEFT BEHIND, is preparing to finish Ford’s last planned project.   To outline even a fraction of Armstrong’s credits would take hours, so I’ll just mention that he doubled for Richard Harris in RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE, doubled for Harrison Ford in the INDIANA JONES movies, and was just supervising stunt coordinator on THOR.  Clyde Lucas has produced several documentaries, some involving the late Harry Carey Jr.  Sadly, Carey was set to star in what had been the Burl Ives role, but passed away this year.  I’ve not heard many details of casting, but at the moment Tyrone Power Jr. and Robert Carradine are said to be involved.  I hope to have much more to tell you following the location scouting.

Shortly before his death, James Arness, who appeared in HONDO and WAGON MASTER for Ford, recorded the narration for the film.  Below is a sample.

(Note: this clip was playing just fine last night, but isn't running now, here or on Youtube.  Maybe it will come back up.)

SHADOW ON THE MESA – a Movie Review

Back in March of this year, when SHADOW ON THE MESA originally aired on the Hallmark Movie Channel, I interviewed star Kevin Sorbo (HERE is the link if you missed it  ), and I intended to review the movie as well.  But they were still editing it up to the last minute, so I didn’t get to see it prior to the airing.
I don’t know if I would have pursued the film afterwards, but when I heard that the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum had presented it with their 2013 Wrangler Award for best Television Movie, I figured I’d better make an effort to track it down, and I’m very glad I did; it’s a fine piece of work.  And the good news is that it will be released on DVD one month from today, on December 17th – right on-time for Christmas.

One of the immediate appeals of SHADOW ON THE MESA is that, rather than trying to endlessly draw parallels between the Old West and the modern world (to make it more ‘relevant’ to an unsophisticated audience), its story grows out of a situation you would not have today.  Wes Rawlins (Wes Brown), a sometime bounty hunter who’d been raised by his recently murdered widowed mother, learns that she was not widowed at all.  Just prior to his birth, his parents were in a group of settlers who were attacked by Indians, and his father (Kevin Sorbo) was taken prisoner, though he later escaped.  Without the easy communication of the 21st century, each spouse wrongly concluded that the other was dead, and started new lives.  Now, more than twenty years later, Wes finds that his mother had only recently learned that his father was still living, and had written him a letter.  Had that letter led to her death?

Meredith Baxter, Barry Corbin

Leaving the older couple who took care of him and his mother (Barry Corbin and Meredith Baxter), he heads off to find his long-missing father; and kill him if necessary.  And when he arrives, he finds himself in the middle of a range war between his father and family, and the Dowdy family, led by patriarch Peter Dowdy (Greg Evigan). 

While the Hallmark Channel and Hallmark Movie Channel have long shown a greater commitment to the Western form than any other networks, there has also long been the complaint among oater enthusiasts that Hallmark Westerns were ‘soft’, and lacked action.  Happily, as demonstrated by the recent HANNAH’S LAW, GOODNIGHT FOR JUSTICE – QUEEN OF HEARTS, and now with SHADOW ON THE MESA, Hallmark has upped their game considerably. 

Shannon Lucio, Wes Brown

With forty features under his belt, director David Cass Sr., has a long career in Westerns that goes back to stunting on MCCLINTOCK! and HERE COME THE BRIDES.  He knows his business, and deftly handles the drama, the humor, and the action.  And there is a good deal of action, starting with Wes Rawlins’ work as a bounty hunter, and after a half-hour break, continuing with growing ferocity as  the range war grows uglier.   As a stuntman, Cass worked on eight features and episodes with the quintessential director of fun Westerns of the 1960s, Burt Kennedy, and some of that may have rubbed off, giving the occasional lighter moments a professional glow so often missing in today’s Western fare.  In particular, an exciting and amusing jail-break sequence harkens back to that style of filmmaking. 

Based on a soon-to-be published book by Western novelist Lee Martin, who also scripted, SHADOW is well-plotted, and populated with characters whose depth and range of emotions have attracted a strong and hardy cast of quality actors, both famous and new on the scene.  As Rawlins’ adoptive grandmother, Meredith Baxter brings a mature beauty, and a pioneer’s grace and strength to the role.  As adoptive grandfather, Barry Corbin tells Wes the story of his parents, and what would be dry exposition in other actors’ hands is deeply felt and deeply moving, without getting sappy.  It seems to me that over the last few years Corbin, in Westerns big (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) and small (REDEMPTION – FOR ROBBING THE DEAD) has earned himself the sort of sagebrush elder statesman position long held by Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr.  He’ll soon be seen in the Western THE HOMESMAN, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, and costarring Hillary Swank and Meryl Streep.

Kevin Sorbo is strong and effective, and I rather regret the story-choice of having him on crutches for most of the movie, as it limits his involvement in the action. However, Sorbo brings that seemingly-effortless James Arness-like gravitas that grounds the film just by his presence.     

Blonde, beautiful and twice Emmy nominated Gail O’Grady plays Sorbo’s second wife, who has an agenda all her own.  Shannon Lucio is their lovely and striving-to-be-independent daughter, who fancies Wes (don’t be cross; she doesn’t know they might be related).  As her brother, Micah Alberti plays a lad who lacks confidence until Wes teaches him the way of the shooting-iron.

One of the true pleasures of MESA is Greg Evigan, who plays the suave, sinister and oddly likeable cattle-baron rival to Sorbo; it’s the sort of role Brian Donlevy and Zachary Scott excelled at, and it reveals the style and sophistication that Evigan has developed.  He was also effective in a very different role in 2010’s 6 GUNS.  Dave Florek, whose Western credits go back to GUNSMOKE: THE LAST APACHE, is solid in a small but memorable role as a ranch-hand named Baldy.

Greg Evigan

Of course, such a movie rises and falls on its cowboy lead, and Wes Brown, as Wes Rawlins carries the picture well on his broad shoulders.  He’s handsome without being a pretty-boy, and has the saddest visage of any cowboy actor since William S. Hart.  He plays his part credibly, as a young man with serious problems. 

I had a chance to do an email Q&A with author Lee Martin, who told me, “I thought the cast was wonderful and just right.  Since I named the hero for my brother Wesley, who died when he was ten, I was delighted that the actor was Wes Brown.  Everyone did a great job, as did David Cass, the director.”
It’s her first screenplay sale, and she had a great time visiting the set.  “We were treated like royalty.  It was great fun.  And a real education.  (Producer) Larry Levinson’s outfit is a well-oiled machine with not a moment’s hesitation.” 

Gail O'Grady

I asked her if there were many changes from book to movie, and if we’d likely see more of Wes Rawlins.  “From novel to script to screen brought a lot of changes, some influence by Hallmark.  I had no hand in changes, but am still happy with the end result.  The novel, reflected in my first screenplay, had Wes as a half breed, but that was also changed along the way.  I can see a sequel, and I have ideas for it.”

SHADOW ON THE MESA can be pre-ordered from Amazon  for under $14 .  


Marvin Paige with Anne Jeffreys

One of Hollywood’s premiere casting directors has died at the age of 86 after a car crash on Laurel Canyon.  Known for casting STAR TREK and many other TV series and movies, of chief interest to Western fans, he cast the series BRANDED, and movies like RIDE BEYOND VENGEANCE, THE REVENGERS, THE HONKERS, MAN IN THE WILDERNESS, and many others.  He was particularly beloved by actors who gained their fame in the 1930s and 1940s.  The late Marcia Mae Jones told me that she and many of her friends had Marvin to thank for their later roles on TV and in film.  In recent years he was best known for squiring the great ladies of cinema’s golden age to events at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, UCLA screenings, and autograph shows.  Word that he was at an event was quickly followed by the question, “Who is he with?”  The answer was likely to be Jane Russell, Anne Jeffreys, June Lockhart, or another star of that ilk.


Next week I’ll have, among other things, a review of TREASURES 5 – THE WEST, a wonderful collection of films from the National Film Preservation Archives!

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright November 2013 by Parke – All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the informative and entertaining articles. I listened to the narration for Comanche Stallion didn't sound like James Arness to me. But I'll take your word for it. I'm looking forward to watching Shadow on the Mesa. Thanks Again...
    Jim Meals