Inexplicably, the true story of Old West lawman-moviemaker Bill Tilghman escaped telling until writer-director John Kent Harrison uncovered his epic tale, bringing it to the screen in “You Know My Name.” With a perfectly cast Sam Elliott as the remarkable figure who straddled centuries as ably as horses, Arliss Howard as his corrupt, cocaine-addicted law-enforcement nemesis and brilliant production design by Brent Thomas, “Name” brings the Oklahoma oil boom-town culture to life. Produced for TNT, pic is magnificently lensed by award-winning d.p. Kees Von Oostrum but hobbled by the constraints of small-screen literal dialogue overkill. A greater reliance on story-telling through potent images and atmosphere would have guaranteed this bracingly told classic a life on the bigscreen. Theatrical release is a long shot but small-screen honors and solid auds are sure bets.
Tilghman’s amazing life included a stint with the famed Earp brothers, which led him into numerous high-profile skirmishes with such frontier lawbreakers as Cattle Annie and Little Britches. Later in life, Tilghman slid into an ill-fated career producing his own Western films in the early days of cinema. A stickler for authenticity, Tilghman wanted his films to serve as an antidote to the fake heroics of early Western movie stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Unfortunately, Tilghman discovered that no exhibitors would play his “true life” Westerns without such stars.
The last chapter of Tilghman’s life begins with a call to bring order to Cromwell, Okla., described as “the most sinful town in America.” The shopkeepers, in classic Western tradition, are attempting to turn Cromwell into a decent place to raise families. Aligned against them are the prostitutes, drug dealers, bootleg booze-pushers and gambling den owners
The so-called “law” in Cromwell is federal agent Wiley, an out of control, wife-beating drug addict with a penchant for tossing suspects and witnesses to his foul deeds into the nearest oil well or tank. Backing his play to keep the status quo is corrupt businessman Killian (Walter Olkewicz), aided by loser Alibi Joe (James Parks), who is called on to do their dirtiest deeds.
Tilghman is a Quixotic figure as he arrives atop his steed, six-guns at his sides and rides into the clutter and black mud, the noise of oil rigs and model T’s. Nearly 70, he’s a character worthy of Peckinpah, a man of the West whose time has passed but who’s the last to catch on to that fact. He immediately confronts the ill-doers and sets about cleaning up the town. His only allies at first are Hugh (Jonathan Young), an idealistic lad who fancies himself a lawman but is barely able to draw a gun, and Real Arkansas Tom (James Gammon), a former outlaw-turned- friend. Hugh and Tom are only two of the many perfectly drawn and well-cast supporting characters that populate the film.
Along the way, Tilghman entertains the denizens with his Western films, subjecting him to charges that he’s more interested in grandstanding than lawmaking. There’s a method to his vanity, however, as his public relations campaign helps the townspeople attain a vision of their community that is several stripes above the grungy lawlessness they’ve come to accept. His end is a shocker and it’s to Harrison’s (and TNT’s) credit that no effort has been made to soften the blow or lighten the gravity.
Harrison seems to be swinging for an epic good vs. evil confrontation, and he does capture the ethical chasm between the two camps in a way that is consistent with the ethos of the time. What this loses, however, is the ambiguity and richness of characters that must have existed beneath their dime novel exteriors. Despite a thoroughly convincing performance by Elliot, Tilghman is just too white-hat-good and Wiley too fulsome a foe, without pauses along the way or narrative twists that could deepen Harrison’s presumably accurate version of history.
Just as Tilghman couldn’t overcome the early days of the star system, Harrison grapples with the limitations of the biographical telepic. To his credit, he’s brought a strange, fascinating character back from obscurity and painted a picture of America straining to make the transition from rural paradise to industrial power. Like the grim factory photos of Lewis Hine and the Depression era portraits of Walker Evans, “You Know My Name” paints a vivid and vital picture of life inside the brutal workplaces of our ancestors.