A first-class cast, beautiful locations and a smart script take this Western beyond the restrictions of the genre. But rushed conclusion gives the impression that “Last Stand at Saber River” easily could have been a miniseries, allowing auds more time with Arizona mustanger and Civil War vet Tom Selleck, granite-strong frontier wife Suzy Amis and their prickly yet loving relationship.
Filmed in New Mexico by Brandman Prods. Executive producers, Michael Brandman , Tom Selleck; producers, Mary Ann Braubach, Thomas Kane, Steven Brandman; director, Dick Lowry; writer, Ronald Cohen; based on the novel by Elmore Leonard; Cable (Selleck) returns to Texas just before the end of the Civil War, having been wounded in battle. His wife, Martha (Amis), had received a wire that Cable was killed, and the family, including two kids, is quite unprepared for his homecoming – especially Martha, who’s still bitter over his volunteering in the first place.
But the whole world’s changed for Cable: He’s been away from his family so long that he didn’t know his youngest child had died, and he realizes that his cause – the Confederacy – is dead, too. And like most vets, Cable’s scars are internal as well as external; Martha can’t get through the shell he’s built after seeing the horrors of war. He simply wants to resume his pre-war life as a mustang rancher in Arizona. Martha, too, longs to see her Arizona birthplace again. The family had relocated to Texas after the war broke out to be with Martha’s father.
So the Cables pack up the wagon and travel back to the Arizona Territory to reclaim their ranch, but the political and philosophical forces of the war dog them all the way, threatening the family and peace in the community in which they live.
“Last Stand’s” first hour focuses on the soul-searching a man like Cable must do: He fought for a cause he thought right (it’s made very clear that it wasn’t slavery he believed in, but states’ rights) and witnessed intolerable acts of murder in the name of war. He can’t explain his pain to his wife, and his kids barely know him.
At the old homestead, Cable and Martha struggle to rebuild their relationship. But the community, which sides with the Union, harbors a secret Rebel sympathizer (and ex-Reb soldier), Edward Janroe (David Dukes), who knows about Cable’s military stint and tries to enlist the now-neutral Cable in his fanatical cause.
Pressure on the Cable family builds as ex-Yankee soldier Duane Kidston (David Carradine), who had acquired the Cable ranch after the outbreak of war, uses violence in trying to reclaim it.
Much of the action is limited to a couple of small gun battles, and the last half-hour brings rushed, unlikely alliances and a melodramatic ending. Some plot points are not followed up on, to jarring effect.
But the issues that “Stand” tackles – personal freedom, the philosophical differences between Yankees and Rebels and, especially, the relationship between Cable and Martha – give this TNT telepic a compelling heft.
Selleck is excellent as the soul-searching Cable. Because his character is a man of few words, the actor conveys much of his emotions with body language and in his eyes. He also looks great on a horse.
Amis, though, steals the show as the strong Martha, a woman of many talents – gunsmith, schoolteacher, expert marksman. Amis, with her straight-shooter eyes, is perfect as an independent frontier mom.
Rest of cast, including Dukes and David and Keith Carradine, are given thinner characters but make the best of them.
There’s excellent use of New Mexico locations, and cinematography by Ric Waite is lovely. David Shire’s score, though, overloads on the melodrama.