The range is strewn with oaters that just don’t float, but Hallmark Channel gets it right with “Johnson County War.” Clocking in at four hours, the miniseries-that-isn’t — it’s airing on one night — does its best to revive the small-screen Western, a genre that hasn’t seen a classic in some time. Along with its collection of minor stars such as Tom Berenger and Luke Perry, pic has enough machismo sunsets and gunplay to keep viewers hooked despite its extended running time. The problem, however, is that Hallmark just doesn’t draw ’em in.
Like the novel it’s based on, Frederic Manfred’s “Riders of Judgment,” “Johnson County War,” co-written by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, is inspired by a 19th-century Wyoming cattle battle between wealthy, secluded land owners and self-sufficient farmers who eked out a living by organizing collectives and securing whatever livestock they could corral. The only industry in the late 1800s in which both barons and paupers took part, ranching had become too lucrative for the millionaires to allow the independents to participate.
That’s the case with the family Hammet, a rough-and-tumble band of three who go to great lengths to protect their livelihood. Cain (Berenger) is the wise older one, a cautious and diplomatic leader whom everyone in surrounding towns admires from afar for his bravery and work ethic. In the middle is Dale (Adam Storke), a kindly cowpoke who talks tougher than he is, and whose wife, Rory (Michelle Forbes), thinks is a pansy for not avenging her father’s death at the hands of dastardly Marshal Hunt Lawton (Burt Reynolds). Cain and Dale are both trumped in charm and looks by Harry (Perry), a young thief who’s left for dead one day by the land tycoons (but eventually saved) after attempting to rustle livestock.
The Hammets are up against Lord Peter, a discredited nobleman who hires henchmen like Jesse Jacklin (Jack Conley) and Mitch Slaughter (Silas Weir Mitchell) to do his business, which involves doing away with the little men of Antelope by any means necessary. At first they offer a job to Cain, but it’s clear he wants no part of them, so he becomes enemy No. 1. While turning their sights to killing Cain and his posse, Lord Peter and his high-society friends at the Cheyenne Social Club raid whomever they can in order to clear out the locals and have the valley all to themselves.
That includes the hanging of prostitute Queenie (Rachel Ward), who warned the Hammets about the roundup, and friends of Cain who simply want to help and maintain a modest lifestyle. The prosperous industrialists take matters into their own hands and join the battle, even though they have zero frontline experience. Realizing they can take advantage of that, the Hammets and the small army they’ve been able to rustle up do what they can to fend off an attack that proves too powerful.
Directed by David Cass, “Johnson County War” is well-paced and patient, a testament that telepics on the whole are too rushed at two hours and often serve viewers’ needs better when stretched out. Characters are developed, motivation is appropriate and there’s time to take a breath between shootouts and meaningful dialogue, which McMurtry and Ossana have down pat.
To that end, Berenger is right on as the cowboy who’s conflicted about not being more vengeful. Overtly masculine, he’s the sympathetic, aging loner who would rather not do the things he has to do in order to guard his siblings’ legacy. Of his brothers, Perry is the draw — he’s used to limited though good effect as a live wire who should keep his mouth shut more than he does — while Storke is great as a caring husband who challenges Lawton to no avail. As for the evildoers, Reynolds scores as a quiet, squinting murderer without remorse, and Conley and Mitchell are terrific as the detectives with itchy trigger fingers.
Filmed in Alberta, Canada, everything about the production, from the humming streams to the snowcapped hills, is gorgeous, which makes lenser Doug Milsome’s task seem easier than it is. Glenn Farr’s editing is thankfully leisurely, and the era’s evocation is completed by Ken Rempel’s production design and Joanne Hansen’s costumes.