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john cribbs


Dunne's last appearance was a "miniscule part" (as she described it in a letter to a fan) in The Shadow Riders, a TV movie directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, whose work includes a couple John Wayne westerns (McLintok!, Chisum, The Undefeated, Cahill) and the star-studded The Way West. Most notably though he may be the most prolific maker of "ragtag team on suicide mission" war movies: he directed The Devil's Brigade (a flawed but interesting Canadian Dirty Dozen), The Wild Geese, The Sea Wolves and sequels to The Dirty Dozen and Bridge on the River Kwai.* So Shadow Riders, a western saga adapted from Louis L'Amour's novel about a ragtag team of cowboys on a risky mission, was right up his alley. But despite his credentials and a notable cast headlined by the power teaming of Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott, the movie's fairly clunky and not nearly as fun as it should be.


It opens promisingly enough with Confederate soldier Elliott about to be executed even though the war has just ended. Indignant about being shot, he asks what he's accused of: when he's told that they suspect him of blowing up a bridge he responds in that great gruff Elliott tone "Of course I did ya dumb knobhead, I'm a soldier!" He's saved at the last minute by a group of fellow Rebs led by Geoffrey Lewis (of Clint Eastwood's late 70's/early 80's stable of actors) and returns to his home town where he's immediately nearly executed a second time! This time he's saved by brother Tom Selleck, a womanizing roustabout of a soldier who fought for the other side. The pair head back home only to discover that their two sisters and Elliott's old flame have been kidnapped by the same band of soldiers that saved his life the first time he was under the gun. Turns out a defiant Lewis has refused to let the effort die and is holding the girls on a beach in Texas**, intending to trade them for guns and ammunition with which to stage a second coming of the South.


That complicated and hugely coincidental plotline shapes into a sort of adventure-comedy with Selleck and Elliott putting together a group of hardened riders to rescue the innocent young girls; one of the two sisters (finally getting to it) is Dominique Dunne. Really the script only calls for her to hang out on the beach, but I guess that's not too far from what Sharon Tate was asked to do in Don't Make Waves*** and, in all fairness to her minor role, a Colonel Sanders-looking villain singles her out as the prettiest of the lot. Lewis initially makes for a threatening baddie and Dunne does a serviceable job of looking alternatively scared and exasperated, but the story never really achieves the high level of danger her predicament should inspire: it's like a Disney version of The Searchers. Although the issue of female inferiority in a post-war climate is touched upon it's largely ignored in favor of some good old rootin' tootin' fun in the saddle with our heroes getting into all sorts of Old West high jinx. McLaglen really works the "ragtag team" formula into the mix when the guys break their uncle out of jail so he can join them on the mission – utilizing inmates for a good cause is the go-to gimmick of these kind of flicks. There are some cute moments and it's not entirely soft (it's not too often you see the good guys lock the bad guys into a cantina and throw in a stick of dynamite, these dudes play dirty!) but it's hard to get past things like a tense escape attempt that's scored by goofy banjo getaway music. I kept expecting Selleck and Elliott to jump into the General Lee and haul ass down the road. Needless to say Dunne doesn't fulfill the same role of audience delegate in Shadow Riders that she did in the previous film: it's just too silly.



I don't buy into the whole Poltergeist "curse," but the killing of Dunne and subsequent tragic death of 12-year-old Heather O'Rourke give the film an air of mournfulness. Just this year, Lou Perryman (a Hooper regular who had a small part as the cameraman) was also senselessly murdered in his home.  At the same time these losses give Dr. Lesh's speech to Robbie a poignance that's almost life affirming: you want to believe that the souls of the dead find the light and an equity of mind and spirit is achieved. At the end of a trial during which the defense attorney was able to block damning testimony from friends of Dunne and his old girlfriends, Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter rather than second degree murder. He served only 2 1/2 years before being released and immediately landing a new high-paying gig at another famous restaurant. Dominique's mother and her brother, actor Griffin Dunne, stood outside the restaurant giving out fliers to patrons which read "The hands that prepared your food strangled Dominique Dunne on October 30, 1982." Sweeney was fired, forced to relocate and change his name. A small retribution, but hopefully one that affords fans of her short career, if not her immediate family, some kind of closure.


* He was also behind the camera for the Joe Don Baker epic Mitchell, a genuine classic for fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”


** Although it is clearly a beach on coastal California.


*** Also appearing in Riders is Katherine Ross, who beat out Sharon Tate for the 1968 "Best New Star of the Year" Golden Globe award.

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