Television took over the Western and gave us things like The Shadow Riders. A TV movie originally aired in September of 1982, it stars Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, and Katharine Ross. It's on DVD for the first time now, but in light of the majesty of Westerns past, it isn't worth investing in unless you absolutely love cowboy movies or one of those three performers.
One of the many Western productions based on a story by Louis L'Amour (The Quick and the Dead), The Shadow Riders takes place at the tail end of the Civil War. Mac Traven (Selleck) heads home after fighting for the Union, and so does his brother, Dal (Elliott), a Rebel. When they reach their parents' house in Big Springs, Texas, they find that some friends and family members have been kidnapped by a group of renegade Confederates who plan to sell them as slaves and whores in Mexico. Two Traven daughters and one son, Jesse (Jeff Osterhage), have been taken, and so has Kate (Ross), Dal's girlfriend.
The Traven brothers immediately team up and take the law into their own hands, tracking down the Rebels, who have a few days' start. Soon, their party grows to three as Jesse escapes from captivity and joins them, and then they are able to free Kate early in the adventure. She, of course, goes with them because we need time for some romantic drama. The crew is rounded out by the Travens' scoundrel of an uncle, Black Jack (Ben Johnson, who could still ride a horse in his 60's better than you ever will), who can help them navigate throughout Mexico, where the Rebels ran.
The Shadow Riders has a decent story and good acting, but it just isn't that compelling, right on through its feel good ending. There are a couple of action scenes, which of course are Western staples, but there are no duels. (Pity. I honestly have always preferred the Westerns that hold the gunplay on a pedestal as something to be revered.) The most potentially interesting part of the story, the issue of how two brothers, raised together, can choose to fight on two opposite sides in a war and then still love each other is whisked over. The Travens essentially say, "It's over now, so it doesn't matter," and we never even learn why they chose the sides they did. Mac and Dal get along perfectly for the whole movie, so there turns out to be no point to their differing allegiances. The movie suggests that people have to fight for what they believe in, but we never learn what the main characters did believe in.
A lot of Westerns made since the genre's heyday have tried to legitimize themselves by either using old Western stars, or by utilizing the genre's vocabulary of themes and visuals in a modern or postmodern way. The Shadow Riders is no different; its strongest connection to the tradition of the past is icons from the past. Harry Carey Jr. cameos as Pa Traven, the family Patriarch. His role is short, but I always like spotting him. Johnson's appearance reminds one of some truly great Westerns, like Shane or The Wild Bunch. And Ross, of course, is still ravishing 13 years after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. She can cast a spell on the viewer, just as her character seems to mesmerize every single male character in the film. As for Selleck and Elliott, their performances vary little from anything else they've ever done.
As it should be, The Shadow Riders has some excellent stunt work, something Westerns have always had (remember the stuff in John Ford's Stagecoach?). I still don't know how they filmed the convincing stampede scene in Shadow Riders without somebody getting killed. But the seeming invulnerability of the protagonists really takes away from the excitement of the action; you never genuinely fear that any of them are going to be killed in a gunfight.
Also, The Shadow Riders has some embarrassingly poor production values at some points. The few nighttime scenes don't look anything like night. I'm assuming they were shot with the day-for-night technique, but the filter wasn't strong enough because the scenes could still be mistaken for daylight. Only the chirping of crickets informs that it's nighttime.
The directing and editing constantly reminds that The Shadow Riders is a made-for-TV movie, culminating in the freeze frame under the end credits. The fades to black are very abrupt, and the stupid music is put under every scene, even when silence would have served better.
The video on this DVD is surprisingly good, especially upconverted. Unfortunately, since The Shadow Riders was shot for TV, it was made in 1.33:1, so this looks disappointing on a widescreen TV. But considering the source, the image is bright and colorful. There's not an artefact to be found, but with the unimpressive black levels, that doesn't say much.
The disc contains stereo tracks in English and French, only. The music by Jerrold Immel ("Dallas") reminded me of The Rockford Files and other 80's TV shows. It is edited into weird spots in weird ways, such as that darn, annoying barn dance music during the action scenes.
The (Not So) Special Features
Other than a couple of ads for other Westerns, there are absolutely no special features on this disc.
With how spiffy the DVD case is made to look, one would think this is a big budget Hollywood Western. It's a good thing DVD Talk is here to tell you the truth. If you're a fan of made-for-TV Westerns, then this DVD is for you, but its lack of special feature, as well as the mediocrity of the movie itself, give this one a "Rent It" at best. But, hey, a Western's a Western.