We look back at the satirical 1969 western comedy starring the great James Garner.
Editor's Note: Throughout the month of October, C&I is celebrating the golden westerns of 1969, a year that changed the game for the beloved film genre. Check the Entertainment tab each day to see a different film recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for the upcoming November/December 2019 print edition, which prominently features one of the 25 greatest films of 1969 on its cover.
During the golden age of TV westerns, Maverick was a standout among the shoot-‘em-ups because of its irreverent approach to clichés and archetypes associated with the genre. Even during face-offs and showdowns, the show’s underlying impudence was deftly underscored by James Garner’s sly and subtly dry-witted performance as the resolutely anti-heroic Bret Maverick. After leaving the series, Garner evidenced more grit than wit in a pair of violent big-screen westerns (Duel at Diablo, Hour of the Gun). But he fared better with critics and audiences when he reinserted his tongue into his check for Support Your Local Sheriff, a shrewdly clever spoof that the late, great actor (and most of his fans) always ranked among his best movies.
Garner stars to perfection as James McCullough, an easygoing drifter who’s good with a gun when absolutely necessary, but reluctant to flaunt his capacity for badassery. (“What would I want with a reputation? That’s a good way to get yourself killed.”) Even so, he’s the right man in wrong place at the right time when he wanders into Calendar, a rowdy Wild West boomtown in desperate need of a sheriff who can stay alive long enough to keep the peace.
Directed by western specialist Burt Kennedy, Support Your Local Sheriff is a hugely enjoyable mix of broad comedy and smart satire. There is a plenitude of wink-wink, nudge-nudge visual and narrative references to classic sagebrush sagas — most notably Rio Bravo, High Noon and My Darling Clementine—and a great deal of funny business involving stellar co-stars Walter Brennan, Jack Elam, Harry Morgan and Bruce Dern, all of whom take unmistakable delight in overplaying characters similar to ones they memorably portrayed in more traditional horse operas. Garner enhances the hilarity by sauntering through the proceedings with all the smooth moves of an astute straight man who gets the joke, but doesn’t try too hard for laughs.
McCullough wields snark like a blunt instrument; when a bad guy warns him to “remember my name,” he brushes off the threat with straight-faced sarcasm: “That’s about all I’ll do the rest of my life, go around remembering your name.” And while he’s quite capable of rough stuff, he is easily bored by the repetitive demands of derring-do. At one point, he starts to chuck rocks at gunslingers hired to kill him, simply because he’s tired of outdrawing them. Hey, whatever works.