Tom Conti and Kate Capshaw costar in an HBO movie based on the Louis L’Amour novel.
Sam Elliott stands tall and shoots straight in The Quick and the Dead, a 1987 HBO-produced western based on Louis L’Amour’s novel of the same title. (No, this movie has nothing to do with that other The Quick and the Dead, the 1995 western starring Sharon Stone.) It’s available for rental or purchase on Amazon Prime, Google Play and YouTube.
Elliott, a lean and leathery actor who was born to wear buckskin, is perfectly cast as Con Vallian — what a name! — a taciturn, steely-eyed stranger who comes to the aid of would-be homesteaders in the wild Wyoming Territory of 1876. Tom Conti, who neither disguises nor explains his Scottish burr, plays Duncan McKaskel, a mild-mannered Civil War veteran who no longer has a stomach for violence, and Kate Capshaw is Susanna McKaskel, Duncan’s wife, a loving and lovely woman who can't quite repress her growing attraction to Con.
The McKaskels, traveling in a covered wagon stuffed with fancy furniture, are real greenhorns — when they stop for lunch, they spruce up their table with a lace tablecloth. Naturally, they need Con’s help to survive in the wilderness.
The story begins in a tumbledown town where the McKaskels and their son, Tom (Kenny Morrison), make the acquaintance of a slimy varmint named Doc Shabitt (Matt Clark). Doc takes a look at the McKaskels’ horses, and avarice fills his heart. Red (Jerry Potter), a member of Shabit’s gang, takes a look at Mrs. McKaskel, and he, too, is excited. “It's been a long time,” Red notes, “since I had me a woman I could smell something of besides garlic and sweat.”
Things look bad — for the horses as well as for Mrs. McKaskel — until Con steps in. “If you gotta shoot,” he warns Duncan, “shoot to kill. Wounds won't impress 'em — they’ve all been shot before.”
Duncan feels he has seen enough of death to last him a lifetime. Still, he picks up a gun once again, if only to defend his wife, his son — and, of course, his horses. But he must rely on Con’s help during a face-off with Doc Shabitt. And he must continue relying on Con as Doc and assorted other galoots pursue the McKaskel clan across some very picturesque countryside.
The Quick and the Dead doesn't have a lot of surprises up its sleeve, but it does give us characters we come to care about a lot. Elliott dominates most of his scenes with a quietly brooding reserve that frequently explodes into decisive action. But Conti more than holds his own, engagingly playing Duncan as a complex character with unexpected reserves of strength. Capshaw evidences her own fair share of grit, proving that not all western heroines need be helpless damsels in distress. And Matt Clark is one of the sleaziest owlhoots ever to ride the range.
The dialogue is effectively terse and often quite colorful. Scorning Duncan's apparent belief that the meek will inherit the earth, Con snaps: “The meek ain't gonna inherit anything west of Chicago!” Later on, the tables are turned when Duncan must dig a bullet out of Con’s side. To ease the pain, he offers Con a shot of whiskey. But he warns the gunslinger: “It's 190 proof. I use it to clean the rust off my tools.”
That's OK, though: Con drinks it anyway. Because a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.