Based on a novel written by the late, amazing Elmore Leonard, and first published in 1959, this made-for-TNT TV movie, directed by Dick Lowry from an screenplay adaptation by Ronald M. Cohen, stars Tom Selleck as a man named Paul Cable.
The year is 1865, the Civil War still rages on in the United States, and we meet up with Cable as he rides back to his family in Texas after several years away fighting for the Confederacy. His loved ones were notified that he was killed in action and died a hero, but the fact is that he was merely wounded, catching a bullet in the backside, and has given up on the war. It’s still being fought, but Cable knows that it has already been lost. He comes home to children who barely know him, even discovering that one of his children fell ill and died while he was away, and to a wife who is very bitter that he volunteered to leave them and go off to war. She has done her best to pass on her bitter feelings to their son and daughter.
Cable’s family has been staying with his wife’s father during his absence, but now that he’s back and gradually reconnecting with them, he proceeds to move his wife and children back to their homestead in Arizona. Upon reaching their land, they find that it has been confiscated by the Kidstons, ranchers providing remounts to the Union Army.
While Cable fights to wrest back control over his property from the interlopers, a fight which already has enough hard feelings, gunfire, and bloodshed involved, the owner of the local store, a one-armed former Confederate soldier named Edward Janroe, stokes the flames even further.
Janroe’s store doubles as a way station for shipments of guns that are smuggled in from Mexico with the ultimate destination of arming Confederate soldiers. If he can manipulate the situation to get Cable to kill off the Union collaborators in town, it would help Janroe’s gun-running business run more smoothly…
Last Stand at Saber River isn’t the type of movie we’ve come to expect to have Elmore Leonard’s name attached to it. There’s no trace within this film that its ideas came from the same author who wrote the source material movies like Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, and Out of Sight are based on, none of his usual character types or dialogue exchanges. But before he started writing the sort of crime novels he’s most well known for today, Westerns were Leonard’s bread and butter.
As one would assume given the Saber River novel’s original year of publication, the story is a good old fashioned Western. Its simple set-up provides good old fashioned types of Western conflicts, with some turns along the way that causes the situation to escalate while also taking it in unexpected directions.
Selleck gives a reliably strong performance as Cable, and Westerns are a good fit for the actor. He’s paired with a great supporting cast that includes Suzy Amis, Lumi Cavazos, Tracey Needham, and Harry Carey, Jr., with a young Haley Joel Osment as his son. The characters that antagonize the Cables are played by the likes of Keith and David Carradine, Patrick Kilpatrick, Rex Linn, and David Dukes. Good casting all around.
The production made good use of the New Mexico countryside that stands in for Arizona and Texas, and when the required gunfights ensue, the sound of shots echo through those wide open spaces nicely.
Saber River doesn’t break any new ground and isn’t going to convert anyone who didn’t like Westerns in the first place, but it’s a solid entry in the genre that fans who miss the old days when Westerns dominated the screen will likely enjoy watching.