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THE DAKOTAS: THE COMPLETE SERIES (WB Archives)

By • May 4th, 2015 •

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After such mega-tube-hits as MAVERICK, SUGARFOOT and CHEYENNE, WB TV and Exec Producer William T. Orr finally came a cropper with this 1962 series pilot. Aired as an episode of CHEYENNE, “A Man Called Ragan,” was directed by Richard Sarafian who helmed episodes of the other WB series, as well as the occasional GUNSMOKE, LAWMAN, and TWILIGHT ZONE. It is a staggeringly heavy-handed, unmotivated, clichéd piece of work on which to launch a series. Three of its four protagonists are uncharismatic, its music is bereft of any memorable themes, and if it weren’t for Jack Elam, it would be a flat out disaster. Elam, a veteran of 207 acting credits, here as a quasi-antagonist/protagonist amused by his own rudimentary ethical code, is the best I’ve ever seen him, and I’ve seen him play it straight in JUBAL, silly in SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF!, iconic in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, and nostalgic in PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID. Countless Elams in countless incarnations, but never in my experience has he displayed the range he does here, with shifting expressions on the surreal terrain of his face that can send the emotion of a scene in a different direction with remarkable ease. He, alone, almost saves this debacle. But can he keep the series afloat, or will the ensuing screenwriters and directors miraculously vanquish the show’s grievous flaws?

The actual series begins with the episode entitled “Return to Dryrock,” which was aired on January 7th, 1963. And in a mind-boggling turn-around – the equivalent of the emotional whiplash one felt when Ali turned the tables on Joe Fraser late in the Manilla heavyweight fight in ‘71, the show fixes every flaw that plagued its dreadful pilot. I can’t remember the last time I saw a rescue this dramatic.

First of all, – and it was the right and only choice considering the uphill battle the series faced – the opening episode focuses on Jack Elam’s character. Still dressed in black, a black that dominates the tone of the episode, he returns home, where he is neither appreciated nor wanted, where his preacher father is still at emotional/moral odds with him, and where he takes down four men who come gunning for him, but one of them might have been innocent and just got in the way [what weird overtones this has to recent police activity in the US!]

Secondly, no longer is there the omnipresent mallet-on-the-skull script-writing that bludgeoned the pilot effort; the writing here is clever, thought-provoking, and full of unexpected twists. It’s a fine job by Cy (THE 4D MAN, THE VIRGINIAN) Chermak. Similarly, the direction by Stuart (CHAIN LIGHTNING, STORM WARNING, I DIED A THOUSAND TIMES) Heisler is balanced and cunning, with quietly spectacular uses of spatial design.

Three: Although there are four men depicted on the show’s graphic, they dropped 6’ 5 ¾” Michael Greene from this installment, which was like losing Zeppo Marx from the MGM comedies.He was a wimp, and actually unpleasant to watch. Smart move (though he will return in the next episode, his persona less cowardly) And Larry Ward, as nominal lead Marshal Frank Ragan, lost the dumb eye-patch he flaunted in the pilot episode.

It goes on.The lifeless music by Howard Jackson is replaced by a rousing, more original score by William Lava. Casting includes Richard Hale as Reverend Smith, looking like Max Shrek from NOSFERATU, which makes for some wild profile shots. Robert Ellenstein is formidable as a ‘hanging’ judge. And Edward Binns is quietly commanding as a former colleague of Elam’s who comes across as somewhat weak, but with mucho subtext to be found.

So: a complete reversal, from a weak start that made me barely able to give it another try, to one of the best series episodes of its time. Is there anything that bothered me? Just to give the review a twinge of balance, I must confess to disliking Elam’s choice of pants. The candy-stripe pattern, while it might have impressed the wardrobe department as befitting his character, struck a decidedly foolish note with me.

Well, it was too good to be true. The second series show, “Red Sky Over Bismarck,” slides back into the heavy-handed histrionics. Even Elam wasn’t that good. However, there was something weird about the narrative that was very INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS. Really odd. And there were a couple of strong twists and surprises. Hard to sit through the high-decibel thesping, however. The director was Stuart Heisler who rescued the previous episode from ignominy, so I’m mystified. The one clue is that this one came from a book by Harry Whittington, same as the pilot did, but not the previous episode. Could Whittington somehow be the weak link?

“Mutiny at Fort Mercy” really asks for trouble, by leaving practically the first two acts in the hands of Chad Everett and Michael Greene, the two least gifted members of the foursome. Greene, who has had a long, respectable career, just can’t act yet. Chad Everett, right behind Greene in thespian skills, manages to keep the show afloat by being hung up to die in the sun stripped to his waist. The beefcake must have appealed to some viewers.

At the 34+ minute mark, Ward and Elam finally show up and exert authority over an insane fort commander played by George Macready, emoting as if he’d stepped out of his role in Kubrick’s PATHS OF GLORY, and was now five years more unhinged. He’s also given a bunch of unsettling close-ups.

The inner logic of the script doesn’t hold, nor does the ability of the story to go the 51 minutes without feeling redundant.

“The Chooser of the Slain” is a good episode, fourth from the last in the series. A windstorm filled with dust, a thunderstorm, lightning, it’s got it all, components of a Greek tragedy transposed into a Western milieu, something that’s been done before, and done well. Such larger than life melodramas lend themselves to the larger-than-life terrain of the genre.

In this version, the person who goes down from a bad case of hubris (her character is named Katherine Bigelow!) is played by none other than Beverly Garland, an actress capable of handling the hyperbolic style of this series. She’s really good at playing bad, and she must have seen WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? the previous year, because there’s more than a little Bette Davis in her delivery.

Chad provides the regimented dose of beefcake, Greene is still struggling with the concept of acting, and Ward and Elam appear a few acts in, something they’re want to do. Claude Akins is his solid self, and delivers some deft reaction shots.

Interestingly, and I don’t know when it happened, but somewhere along the way Elam’s name now comes second instead of third in the end titles, which is where it appeared in the initial episodes. He certainly is the life-blood of the show, which has its ups and downs but is intriguing enough to give a look-see.

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