A labor of love for the husband-and-wife team of Ed Harris and Amy Madigan, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE took ten years to produce. The completed frontier parable shows every ounce of nurturing artistry that went into it.
Hectored by self-righteous church elder Pastor Dyer (G.D. Spradlin), Cottonwoods rancher Jane Withersteen (Amy Madigan) defies the religious dictates of the late 19th Century by refusing the hand of her suitor, Deacon Tull (Norbert Weisser). Dyer's congregation intensifies the war of attrition by
trying to run Jane's ranch-hand, Bern Venters (Henry Thomas), out of town. Intervening for no readily apparent motive is roving gunslinger Lassiter (Ed Harris), who rescues Bern and stands by Jane as Pastor Dyer cooperates with cattle thief Oldring (Jerry Willis) in the rustling of Jane's herd.
Bern is forced to kill Oldring in self-defense. He regretfully wounds Bess (Robin Tunney), one of Oldring's riders, and nurses her back to health. Jane learns that Lassiter is avenging a dead woman named Millie who had been kidnapped to Cottonwoods by three hired guns in league with Dyer.
Unfortunately, Lassiter's mission of vengeance is complicated by his growing love for Jane.
After Dyer's disciples kill one of Jane's crew and arrest Bern, Lassiter reveals that Millie was his sister, that he has already slain three of her abductors, and that he's trying to find her abandoned child. Jane confesses that her late father ordered Dyer to kidnap Millie in order to gratify Mr.
Withersteen's sexual desires. Millie ultimately committed suicide after killing Jane's father to avoid being raped by him.
During a climactic gun battle, Lassiter kills Dyer. Tull escapes and regroups with a posse. With Bern and Bess serving as decoys to draw the posse away, Tull closes in on Jane and Lassiter, but they crush him with a rock slide. His vengeance complete, Lassiter is finally, happily reunited with his
long-lost niece, Millie's daughter Bess.
Evocatively filmed in scenic Moab, Utah, this classically designed Western not only outshines made-for-television Westerns like LARRY MCMURTRY'S STREETS OF LAREDO (1995) and CHILDREN OF THE DUST (1995) but also compares favorably to plangent theatrical releases like THE UNFORGIVEN (1960). Although
unusually plot-heavy for a Western, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGE maintains a full gallop by humanizing its genre-ready characters. If RIDERS is flawed, it's due to the expository glitches in the retelling of Millie's complicated history and the screenplay's failure to give the Bern-Bess subplot the
same weight applied to the redemptive love story between Jane and Lassiter. And even if the film errs by soft-pedaling the identity of Jane's tormentors (Zane Grey made it clear in his novel that they were Mormons), the nameless church's evil is incisively rooted in a power-money base determined
to maintain its status quo by marrying off independent women such as Jane.
Fiercely acted sans showy histrionics by Madigan and Harris, the Jane-Lassiter relationship is one of the most complex to be found in the genre; one doesn't encounter this kind of equal partnership in a John Ford Western. Actor-turned-director Charles Haid exhibits a freewheeling cinematic brio
not seen in his previous lackluster efforts (IRON WILL). Impassioned and provocative, RIDERS presents characters whose life-and-death revelations are accessible to contemporary audiences without having to rely on an anachronistic veneer of modern psychology. (Violence, adult situations,profanity.)
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