When Western fans discuss their favorite heroes from motion pictures, I’ve noticed behind the firmly-fixed John Wayne comes Clint Eastwood (though some generations may reverse these two), followed by, in no particular order: Randolph Scott, James Stewart, Alan Ladd, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, Audie Murphy, and a whole host of others. Most big Western names were cemented well before the end of the twentieth century and only a few actors since, like Kevin Costner and Sam Elliott, have made any kind of dent in the pecking order. But when I get down to the nitty-gritty with fellow Western aficionados, there’s a name that gallops fast to the top, and that cowboy is none other than Tom Selleck.
Over the course of a forty-year television and film career, Mr. Selleck may be best known for playing the part of Thomas Sullivan Magnum, P.I., in the ’80s, then his more recent television roles as troubled police chief Jesse Stone (a Robert B. Parker character) in the self-named movies and as police commissioner Frank Reagan in Blue Bloods. However, sprinkled throughout that notable crime resume are quality Western offerings like The Shadow Riders, The Sacketts, and Quigley Down Under, in which Selleck garnered deserved attention for his roles. In 2010, he was inducted into the Hall of Western Performers and said in an interview, “I seem to be stuck in preference in the cowboy era and I like that.” So, for fans who’d appreciate the strong character-driven parts with heart-pounding action he selects, I’ve prepared a short list of four films to begin with.
Quigley Down Under (1990): The poorly-named but uniformly outstanding film is regarded by many as Selleck's best. The plot revolves around his character Matthew Quigley, an American sharpshooter hired to go to Australia to hunt dingoes. Soon after his arrival, he learns the real, nefarious reason for his employment: to kill aborigines. Appalled by the revelation, Quigley declines the job offer. He’s beaten and left for dead in the outback along with a woman (Laura San Giacomo) who has a shocking past of her own. Together, they have to overcome unsurmountable odds to get out of Australia alive and in one piece.
If there’s a starting point to appreciating Selleck’s Westerns, then this is a good place to hang your hat. The film’s director, Simon Wincer—who directed Lonesome Dove, as well as the three other movies on this list—has an eye for striking scenes (a la John Ford) where the land becomes as much of a part of the story as the actors. And Selleck has an excellent antagonist in Alan Rickman, their tense final showdown standing tall among the finest in any Western classic.
Last Stand at Saber River (1997): This film is based on the Elmore Leonard novel of 1959. The complex plot—what else would one expect from an E.L. classic?—follows Paul Cable, an ex-Confederate cavalryman who’s returning home to resume his quiet life on the homestead with his wife and three children. When he gets there, things have changed. His youngest daughter has passed away, and his wife’s heart has hardened. But there are even more trials ahead with two ex-Union soldiers (David and Keith Carradine) who have taken over his land, and a rogue Civil War vet who has no intention of letting the battle between the states end. And it doesn’t end there as Mexican highwaymen cause trouble for Cable, and a fetching blonde is gunning for his affection. All these threads head toward a grand final face-off.
Selleck’s performance in Saber River is commanding. There is a pivotal scene where the bad guys have him trapped behind a rock, he’s running out of bullets, and his horse is just out of reach with a loaded rifle. The expression on his face of whether he will go for it or not, knowing he’s probably as good as dead either way, is some of the best acting the star has turned in. He’s just damn good. And that includes his supporting cast, several of them and the crew won Western Heritage Awards, and it’s easy to see why with such fine performances, including that of a young Haley Joel Osment.
Monte Walsh (2003): In this remake of the 1970 Lee Marvin film, Isabella Rosselini, playing the part of “Countess” Martine, says to Tom Selleck’s Monte Walsh: “Monte, as time goes by, we all have to take the best we can get. Perhaps one day you will find that the same applies to you.” Monte replies, “Well, I ain’t changing.”
It’s a familiar plot: the 19th-century cowboy having trouble accepting the inevitable fact that times are indeed passing him by. Writer Jack Schaefer explored a similar theme in his earlier and more famous Shane. However, at the end of that classic, the hero rides off into the night and fade-out. In a way, Monte Walsh picks up where that film left off and follows the story of what became of men like Shane. Hardships abound as Monte continues to try to make a living when fewer and fewer options remain as railways, barbed wire, etc., become more widespread. A defiant Monte tells a fellow hombre that as long as there is one cow and one cowboy, it ain’t over.
Crossfire Trail (2001): Based on a classic Louis L’Amour novel, this is as multilayered as the previously mentioned films. In this story, Rafe Covington promises to look after his dying friend’s wife and ranch. Virginia Madsen plays the widow and Mark Harmon her unscrupulous suitor, who, unbeknownst to her, ran her husband off and stole the land out from under her. The cast is marvelous, with Brad Johnson turning in an exceptionally fine villain performance. Another smart, sophisticated Western with a touch of humor.
So I’m making the call once and for all: Tom Selleck, top ten Western icon. When you get a chance, watch one of his splendid films and see if you don’t agree… and I look forward to meeting you on the trail.