Gary Cooper is a name almost lost to time but from the late 1920s through the late 1950s he was box-office gold and Hollywood royalty. In 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, back when a decent steak dinner at a restaurant would set you back 50 cents, Cooper earned half a million. He was big business. Known for playing ‘Mr Average Joe American,’ Cooper was famously laconic on screen and in his own words: “I looked it at this way. To get folks to like you, as a screen player I mean, I figured you had to sort of be their ideal. I don’t mean a handsome knight riding a white horse, but a fella who answered the description of a right guy.”
His speciality was the understated hero, a man of good conscience and decency who stood up for what he believed to be right, often at the cost of personal happiness and social acceptability. This pretty much sums up the character of Walt Longmire, elected Sheriff of Absaroka County Wyoming.
Walt, played by Australian Robert Taylor (are there no authentically rugged American males left?), says little and is virtuous to a tee, much to the annoyance of the big local players all of who would prefer a Sheriff like Jim Wilkins (Tom Wopat from Dukes Of Hazzard) from neighbouring Cumberland County, one who is a little more amenable to rule bending and cash being passed about under the table. “Walt is holding us back”, is the clarion call, “and he’s gotta go.”
Walt is assisted by a small team of deputies that include Vic Moretti (Katee Sackhoff from Battlestar Galactica), a police professional from the mean streets of Philly who ended up exiled to the middle of nowhere after exposing a corrupt colleague. She is Walt’s dependable right hand. She’s all passion and fire and don’t even dare think of her as Walt’s pretty deputy, because she’ll rip your face off.
His left hand is a more problematic kettle of fish. Branch Connally is nephew to Walt’s immediate predecessor Lucian (Robocop’s Peter Weller in fine form) and son of one the more reactive local captains of industry, the psychopathic Barlow (an enthusiastically crazed Gerald McRaney). Branch is fundamentally a good guy who is hampered by his narcissism, ambition and choice of girlfriend, Walt’s only child, local lawyer Cady. She’s the one who has just nursed him through the tragic death of his beloved wife, the foundation stone of one of the series major story lines. Yep, her death is not as it seems but that’s a plot spoiler so on we go.
Longmire boasts an exceptional cast of seasoned pros but of all the players it’s Walt’s best friend Henry Standing Horse who stands out the most. Former Hollywood brat Lou Diamond Phillips offers a performance that is decidedly eccentric but one that grows. Henry is carved from the same kind of granite as Walt. He’s as dependable and decent as the day is long and like Walt, is prepared to go that extra bit further in the pursuit of justice. And he does indeed go a long way. Bookmark this name: Hector.
And here we mostly have it, a good old-fashioned morality play wrapped up in a whodunit. At its heart Longmire (adapted from the novels by Craig Johnson) is all about good virtue and no, this is not some trite exposition of white bread American values. Longmire tends toward gritty and is not afraid to tackle some big social issues, notably the plight of the Native American.
Absaroka county is slap bang against a vast Indian reservation (Cheyenne and Crow) and pulls no punches as it examines the situation of a marginalised minority worn down by dispossession, violence, drugs and prejudice.
The ‘Res’ as it is called has its own police force and is off limits to Walt who made a lot of enemies when he took down the Cheyenne Nation’s entrenched and deeply corrupt Chief of Police, Malachi Strand (a deliriously evil Graham Greene), a man who haunts Walt like a bad day that never ends. Malachi is out for revenge, a convoluted affair that is not resolved until Season Six, but hey… I have already said too much .
The Native American cast includes Zahn McClarnon (Chief Mathias), the actor who almost stole the show from Pierce Brosnan in recent Texan western The Son – reviewed here on Witchdoctor. This series features a hefty dose of Native American sub-plot, one that left me hungry for more, which is how I ended up at Longmire.
Recommended by some algorithm thingy, Longmire started out looking like it was going to be a middle of the road kinda whodunit aka Matlock but ended up somewhere else altogether. That somewhere includes the compelling Jacob Nighthorse, CEO of the local Indian casino and a figure of obsessive interest for Walt. Walt does have his faults and his ‘misguided’ obsession with Nighthorse is one of them, or is it?
Among the many other thrilling story arcs is a retelling of the same ‘based on a true story’ that framed one of 2017’s best films, Wind River, the actual name for the Indian Reservation that features so heavily in Longmire. Every year hundreds of Native American women disappear, often victims of rape and murder. Longmire and Wind River expose the conditions that have allowed such grievous harm to stalk First Nation women. It ain’t pretty, but its essential educative viewing.
Walt is like a gnarly willow tree beset by a howling wind – tough and obstinate, he bends but never breaks. Walt stays true to his heart and remains a self-sacrificing hero to the end, and an end there is.
Longmire recently completed its sixth and final season and though the legend has been put to rest, the spirit of the show continues on in the form of Longmire Day, an annual event held in the Wyoming town of Buffalo (aka Absaroka County). Attracting upwards of 10,000 fans a year, it is celebration of rising proportions.
Longmire is one hell of a series and everything about it gets better with each passing season except Robert Taylor. With barely a complete sentence escaping his lips, he is pitch perfect from day one till night’s end.
As for Walt’s spiritual template, Gary Cooper, he died of cancer aged only 60 in 1961. The obituary in the L.A Times described him “as American as buckwheat cakes” (What weird America was that?) Among his best films are the two for which he won Academy Awards – Sergeant York (the highest grossing film of 1941) and High Noon (1951).
Both films are about self-sacrificing everyman heroes, unlike the central figure in one of Cooper’s more interesting films, The Fountainhead.
Adapted from the novel by the high priestess of neo-liberalism, Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead is a paean to rugged individualism. Cooper’s Howard Roark is the mythological ideal of the self-made American (G.O.P styles). Lurid, ideological and utterly bonkers, it is well worth a look if just to experience the audacity of it all.
* The Internet and ‘TV on Demand’ has revolutionised the way we watch TV shows. No longer beholden to television networks and their programming whims and scheduling, we can watch back-to-back episodes of new and old shows to our heart’s content without those annoying advertisements interrupting the narrative flow. TV viewing has suddenly become more accessible, democratic and a hell of a lot more fun. ANDREW JOHNSTONE scours the available channels and finds the best of the best, so you don’t have to.