A Canadian Western starring an Australian as an Irishman adopted by French-Indians, on trial for killing a Scotsman, SHOWDOWN AT WILLIAMS CREEK recounts a grim tale, liberally based on fact, from the Gold Rush days of the old Montana Territory. The picture opens at Fort Benton in 1870, with John George Brown (Tom Burlinson), nicknamed "Kootenai" by the...read more
A Canadian Western starring an Australian as an Irishman adopted by French-Indians, on trial for killing a Scotsman, SHOWDOWN AT WILLIAMS CREEK recounts a grim tale, liberally based on fact, from the Gold Rush days of the old Montana Territory.
The picture opens at Fort Benton in 1870, with John George Brown (Tom Burlinson), nicknamed "Kootenai" by the local Indians, facing the gallows. Trial testimony tells his tale: Brown came to British Columbia from Ireland in 1863, settling in the boomtown of Williams Creek, a locality teeming with
fortune hunters, swindlers, whores, scavengers, lunatics--and a dangerously charming rogue named Eben Campbell (Donnelly Rhodes), also called McTooth, who wins a major part of Brown's fortune at a crooked card game. Brown and fellow immigrant Arthur Vowell (John Pyper Ferguson) join up with Jim
Blessing (Brent Stait), owner of a promising gold-panning operation. Their dreams crumble one day at the local saloon, when Blessing dies during gunfire between gamblers. The shaken Vowell leaves town, and Brown joins with McTooth for a grueling trek to nearby goldfields.
On the way Brown takes an arrow in the back from a hostile native tribe, and McTooth leaves him for dead. But the young man is nursed back to health by the Metis, a friendly band of French-Indian ancestry, and he even marries one of their women. Then the dreaded McTooth returns and talks Brown
into a job at a remote trading post that takes furs from Indians in exchange for potent liquor. An alcohol-induced massacre ensues, and the pair flee. McTooth hangs onto Brown and his family like a leech, until Brown discovers his treacherous companion stealing their stock of furs. That does it;
he blasts McTooth before horrified onlookers in Fort Benton.
In the courtroom Brown's fate looks bleak--until dramatic, last-minute testimony from Arthur Vowell, now a civil servant. He admits what he witnessed during the saloon shootout years before: in the confusion McTooth himself killed and robbed innocent bystander Blessing. The jury, now convinced
who the true villain was in this case, vote to acquit Brown, who eventually becomes a Canadian national park ranger. Vowell, the epilogue tersely notes, later committed suicide.
SHOWDOWN AT WILLIAMS CREEK amounts to a superior, albeit jaundiced historical drama. The Gold Rush trail depicted here is a place of human predators and prey, vicious parasites and their pathetic hosts. The script repeatedly makes the point that Brown, an immaculately groomed, well-mannered young
soldier back in Ireland, came to the New World so he could improve himself. But when first seen, glowering in his cell, he's a bitter, buckskin-clad outcast, the product of frontier hardship, greed and betrayal. It's the scheming McTooth who hammers home the irony in platitutdes that recur
throughout the story: "We're civilized men! We're gentlemen, we're not wild beasts!" This particular outburst comes shortly before he coldly murders yet another partner who's too much of a liability.
On more than one occasion the material succumbs to polemics. Indians, especially the friendly, virtually assimilated Metis, are labeled savages by hypocritical whites, who regard Brown as a halfbreed-by-association. There's even a wink at environmental concerns. The buffalo are nearly gone, and
settlers using strychnine have poisoned the wolf population. Such obvious injections of politics weigh heavy on material that really doesn't need it.
Burlinson, best known as the boyish cowboy hero of THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER and its sequel, sheds the matinee image for a haunting portrayal. Donnelly Rhodes scores a fine scoundrel with McTooth, a villain who on some strange level actually likes Brown but prides himself on the ability to cheat
his own friends. One ill-considered touch has McTooth missing another eye or limb every time he reappears, a gag traceable to Martin Balsam's con-man character in 1970's epic anti-Western LITTLE BIG MAN. Guest star Raymond Burr chews the scenery as an Indian-hating hanging judge who can barely
wait to string Brown up, and grumbles bitterly when twelve good men dismiss the defendant.
Although a worthy addition to the Western genre, SHOWDOWN AT WILLIAMS CREEK is not for young children. It may also cause problems for misty-eyed prairie romantics, the sort who adored DANCES WITH WOLVES. Outbursts of brutality are graphic and unsparing, with the arrow in Brown's back extracted in
excruciating detail. One melancholy sequence at the trading post shows a white boy teaching an Indian lad how to play the harmonica--just before violent death shatters the tentative friendship forever. (Violence, substance abuse, profanity, sexual situations, adult situations, nudity.)
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