"Wild Times" moves at a mosey rather than a gallop, but this four-hour TV version of the Brian Garfield novel has an affable, crusty romanticism about it. It may be particularly appropriate viewing for a nation in an increasingly reactionary mood.
The film, which airs in two parts tonight and tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 5, belongs to the revisionist-revisionist school of backward glancing. Once, we happily accepted myths of Western heroes as honorable scouts who lived by codes. Then movies like "Little Big Man" said that the myths were lies and that Gen. Custer, for example, was really a genocidal maniac.
Now after years of occasionally pointless debunking comes a rebunking. Fictional hero Hugh Cardiff, in "Wild Times," is just your average, decent, sharpshooting, hard riding, yup-nope frontier existentialist tall in the saddle and tall out of it. He gets turned into larger-than-life legend, though, by "the media" of the day, a hack journalist who writes dime novels, and soon either life is imitating art or art life and, well, what the heck is truth, anyway?
Cardiff even wears a white hat, and when a pretty young thing (Penny Peyser) all but throws herself at him while he bathes in a creek (discreetly still wearing his pants and suspenders), he resists the temptation out of respect for the girl's father, even though he doesn't appear to have partaken of sexual communion in some time. Yessiree, it looks like white hats are coming back.
Sam Elliott, taciturn and hirsute to self-parodistic extremes, plays Cardiff very, very close to the vest, and the cast is enhanced with hombres as welcome as good old Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Bruce Boxleitner as the villain of the piece, and L. Q. Jones as Wild Bill Hickock.
Pat Hingle, chewing less scenery than usual, is the writer who put Cardiff into dime novels, and an engagingly laconic and laid-back Timothy Scott plays Cardiff's shy pal Caleb Rice.
Writer Don Balluck and director Richard Compton try to impart the nomadic independence of Cardiff's character and of the free lance range riders of the time, but unfortunately they aren't able to keep the narrative from lapsing into aimlessness in the process. The wide open spaces are mostly in the storyline; occasionally the film degenerates in to a nap.
Most of it was shot in what is for television refreshingly little-used country around Santa Fe, N.M., but Compton takes little advantage of the scenic terrain except during a spectacular buffalo stampede. It seems Cardiff is a stone-age ecologist, in addition to all his other qualtities; he and his partner stampede the herd to save it from hired gunmen after hides.
"Let's go save some buffalo," he says.
The lengths to which the director either chose or was forced to go to avoid showing violence become risible in part one when Cardiff brands an Indian who has been caught shooting cattle. The branding is shot in closeup, with the director cutting from Cardiff's face to the Indian's and back. This leaves too much latitude in trying to determine precisely where the branding iron was applied.
"Wild Times" is the first major dramatic production from Metromedia Producers Corporation, and unlike the "Operation Prime Time" sagas from Universal, "Times" at least has a flavorful atmosphere and a discernible sensibility. It could even be that some thought went into it, and any trace of thought in TV production is to be cherished and encourage.