The Big Picture
- Chemistry between stars is crucial in Western films, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Rio Bravo.
- The Shadow Riders offers a mature take on the post-Civil War era with humor and adventure.
- Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott play against type in The Shadow Riders, showcasing their versatility and bringing authenticity to their roles.
While movie stars like Gary Cooper and Clint Eastwood have proven that some Westerns need only one great hero at the center of the story, many of the best films within the genre rely upon the chemistry between their stars. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid wouldn’t have worked without both Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Similarly, Western Rio Bravo needed the combined efforts of John Wayne, Dean Martin, and Walter Brennan to become renowned as a cinematic classic. Finding a perfect duo can be a challenge, as co-stars need to complement each other’s skills, and show a different side to their respective personalities. It wouldn’t be interesting for two actors to be playing similar characters. In 1982, the underrated TV Western The Shadow Riders featured two of the greatest Western stars in a team up adventure. Although both Sam Elliott and Tom Selleck had appeared in great Westerns on their own, they were even more effective as a team.
‘The Shadow Riders’ Shows Post-Civil War Anxieties
The Shadow Riders is based on the novel of the same name by Louis L’Amour, who also penned Western novels within the Shalko and Sackett series. While The Shadow Riders first aired on CBS in 1982, it certainly didn’t feel like a stripped down and sanitized version of the genre. In fact, the film hailed from the veteran western director Andrew V. McLaglen, who had directed John Wayne in the Shakespeare-themed Western McLintock! McLaglen knew the genre well, and was able to take a more mature approach to a buddy adventure. While The Shadow Riders has an element of crowd pleasing humor and adventure, it features a more mature take on the post-Civil War landscape of the United States.
The film focuses on the brothers Mac (Selleck) and Dal Traven (Elliott), who served on opposite sides during the Civil War. Mac had taken up arms for the Union, but Dal had stayed loyal to his family in Texas, and fought for the Confederacy. Despite being on opposing sides, there’s never the sense in The Shadow Riders that either brother is particularly politically motivated. In fact, Dal shows a genuine disdain for slavery and the other Confederate soldiers in their hometown. In order to establish that Dal’s service to the Confederacy was only the result of his location, the film opens with a sequence of him being nearly gunned down by southern militia leaders. It takes a hasty rescue on Mac’s part to get him out of danger.
Although the run in with the Confederate sympathizers allows Mac to poke fun at his brother’s aptitude for getting into trouble, the two characters grow more serious when they learn about a dangerous kidnapping that recently took place. The Comanchero leader, Major Cooper Ashbury (Geoffrey Lewis), had led a devastating raid on their home, kidnapping their sisters, their brother Jesse (Jeff Osterhage), and Dal’s girlfriend Kate (Katherine Ross). It’s a surprisingly brutal moment for a television film. While The Shadow Riders certainly isn’t as intense revisionist Westerns like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford or No Country For Old Men, it manages to get away with a lot, considering that it aired on network television. This shocking kidnapping sets the two characters up on an epic journey, and gives them the motivation needed to kick The Shadow Riders into high gear.
Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott Play Against Type in ‘The Shadow Riders’
What makes The Shadow Riders such an interesting star vehicle for both Elliott and Selleck is that they are playing the opposite of what is expected of them. Anyone that has seen Selleck on Blue Bloods or in the Jesse Stone franchise may have expected him to be the downbeat, serious gunslinger with a strict adherence to the law. Surprisingly, Mac is more of the comic relief in the film. It opens with a prolonged scene of Mac and his girlfriend in bed, suggesting that he’s a bit of a womanizer. Mac continues to lampoon his brother throughout the film as they reflect on their shared inability to settle down. Mac’s jovial, even whimsical nature couldn’t be any more different than Jesse Stone.
Elliott would end up appearing in sillier action films later on in his career thanks to his roles in The Big Lebowski and Road House. However, Dal’s genuine affection for Kate serves as the source of the film’s tension. Dal believes that he and Kate could have a future together, and he’s disappointed that she didn’t “wait for him” while he was off serving in combat. Once the pair actually reunites, the conversations they share feel very authentic. Kate couldn’t have been expected to spend the rest of her life relying on Dal when he never discussed his feelings for her in the first place. Dal is used to war because he knew what to expect; a relationship with Katherine forces him to trek into unknown emotional territory. Although Elliott’s comments about The Power of the Dog suggest an unwillingness to modernize the Western genre, he brings a great deal of sensitivity to his performance in The Shadow Riders.
‘The Shadow Riders’ Was Ahead of Its Time
The Shadow Riders is considered to be an “underrated gem” and not a genuine classic because, perhaps because of its medium. In the 1980s, television was considered to be “lesser” in comparison to film. However, things have changed significantly in the last few decades, as more actors and filmmakers have used streaming services to work on their most creative projects. In fact, Elliott himself was able to give one of his best performances in years on the Yellowstone spinoff series 1883, and earned a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie. The versatility and emotional nuance he brought to the role simply wouldn’t have been possible in film. The Western genre has been revitalized on TV thanks to shows like Justified, Westworld, Godless, The English, and of course, Yellowstone. It serves as the perfect place for great actors to sink their teeth into the genre and give more thoughtful performances. While it may have seemed like an outlier at the time of its initial release, The Shadow Riders may have anticipated what was to come within the genre.
The Shadow Riders is available on Tubi in the U.S.