Purgatory: Sam Shepard leads a bunch of immortal Wild-West-heroes into one last gunfight in this very inventive & enjoyable supernatural Western

Purgatory(1999) is a TNT original supernatural Western film shot on 35 mm by director Uli Edel. The film stars Sam Shepard, Eric Roberts and Randy Quaid in lead roles, and it explores the line between reality and myth in relation to the legendary old-West heroes.

Mixing film genres is always a difficult task. More often than not, the tropes of one genre maybe in conflict with the other, so one may never achieve a seamless marriage between the two. But a marriage between ‘Western’ and ‘Fantasy’ feels almost redundant, because Westerns (and by that I mean a pure traditional Western), by their nature, are folklore- fantastic retellings of Old-West events that may (or may not) have occurred; old-West in these films is a ‘fantasy world’ in itself, in which the heroes are walking, talking, fighting gods, and the villains are nothing short of demons. But Uli Edel, the director, best known for ”Last Exit to Brooklyn,” (and notorious for the Madonna starrer “Body of Evidence”) and who has directed episodes of ”Twin Peaks” and ”Tales From the Crypt” attempts exactly such a genre hybrid; and with “Purgatory,” manages to make a very innovative, enjoyable and thought-provoking film that follows all the genre tropes of a Western, but also makes sly commentary on the genre, especially its tendency for mythologizing the old-West heroes. The film could be broadly defined as “High Noon (and “Tombstone” and “The Wild Bunch”) meets “The Twilight Zone.” Of course, when a film calls itself “Purgatory,” then it’s a dead giveaway that this is a film featuring the ‘undead’ waiting for redemption, So, I guess, i don’t need to throw in a “Spoiler Alert” warning while discussing the twists in the film, so be warned, this piece will be discussing the all important twists that takes the Western into supernatural\fantasy territory. In the film, the titular Purgatory is a town called ‘Refuge‘ existing in a lush green valley bathed in golden light, and secluded from the arid, rocky, dusty, desert wilderness surrounding it. The time period in which the film takes place is circa the late 1880s, and Refuge is populated by (what is described in the film as) the “marginally good” souls plucked from the incorrigibly wicked. In other words, those great gunfighters, cowboys, outlaws etc. of the old-West who may have committed some terrible sins in their lifetime, but whom the lord regards as not-totally-lost, and hence redeemable; because the maker believes that some of their evil deeds were due to their circumstances, and others were the result of them momentarily giving in to pride, temptation, or other sins. Men like Wild Bill Hickok (Sam Shepard), Billy the Kid (Donnie Wahlberg), Jesse James (J.D. Souther) and Doc Holliday (Randy Quaid) – who are now dead and have reached refuge – these are flawed men, and not purely evil, and they are given one final chance for salvation in ‘Refuge’ (one legend missing from the list is Wyatt Earp, but as you know he died in 1929, so he has not yet reached here).

And in Refuge, the reformed outlaws have put away their guns, attend church every day, and never touch liquor. They learn to live in a community and to control their tempers. They all have different identities and occupations now, which is different from their former lives: Wild Bill Hickok is Town Sherriff Forrest; Billy the Kid is now his Deputy Glen; Doc Holliday is now Doc Woods, an M.D. not a dentist, and he doesn’t have tuberculosis anymore; and Jesse James is Store owner, Brooks. All these people are given one last chance to be good, and a very stern ‘God’ is watching them very closely from afar; and if they can be good for ten years, then god will give them the passport to board the stagecoach to heaven. But if they lose this one chance and indulges in any sinful acts then ‘The Gatekeeper’ (in the form of an old Native American) is waiting to take them and dump them into ‘Hell’- represented here as a giant, deep, fiery pit. The citizens of Refuge are leading an idyllic (after)life, rigorously following their daily regimen, warmly receiving new arrivals, and patiently waiting for the day when they will ascend to heaven. That’s until a pack of the meanest, grizzliest outlaws – straight out of the most violent spaghetti Western – lead by Jack ‘Blackjack’ Britton(Eric Roberts, who looks and dresses up like Klaus Kinski from “The Great Silence”) accidentally stumble up on this otherworldly town while escaping from a posse- after a botched bank robbery. Unlike the residents of Refuge, these are the ‘incorrigibly wicked’ bunch: evil to the core and beyond redemption who would certainly be thrown into the pit of hell, and will never gain entry into ‘refuge’ after their deaths. Seeing the gentle, non-violent nature of the residents, the newcomers believe that they can take over the town in no time. They start raising havoc in the town, forcing Sherriff Forrest aka Wild Bill Hickok to intervene, but the evil bunch cannot be subdued peacefully. Things get further complicated when the lone good guy from Blackjack’s gang, Leon ‘Sonny’ Miller(Brad Rowe), falls in love with one of the town’s residents, Rose / Betty McCullough(Amelia Heinle), and decides to stand up against Blackjack and the gang. So what will our legendary wild west heroes do? will they watch silently from the sidelines as the gang kills Sonny and destroys the town?, or will they bring out their six-shooters and do what they did best in their mortal life, and risk going to hell?. It’s this moral dilemma that provides the dramatic thrust to the film’s epic climax.

Despite the film veering off into metaphysical territory by the second act, the film remains a proper, traditional Western right up to its end, with all the icons of the western genre intact – the shootouts, bank robberies, horseback rides through the western wilderness captured in majestic long shots, outlaws being chased by a fierce posse, an old-West town under siege, a town Marshall who has to make a devil’s choice (literally here), an outlaw who has a spiritual transformation after he falls in love and joins the good guys, and, of course, the last stand and the final showdown between the perfectly delineated good guys and bad guys- ‘The final march’ as in “High Noon” (or “Tombstone”) is perfectly replicated, where the good guys (fully armed and ready) walks down the town’s main street to confront the bad guys before the all-important gunfight. The film even puts a ‘divine’ spin on the ‘good guys riding into sunset’ trope that closes any Western; here the good guys literally riding into the sun. There’s great inventiveness displayed here in the marriage of Western and Fantasy, or rather, the film brings out how much a traditional Western depends upon the elements of fantasy in its successful execution. The film makes strong ‘meta’ commentary about the Western genre, and its ability to transform old-West heroes into gods. The lead protagonist, Sonny, through whom the story is told, is an obsessive fan of the dime novels that romanticizes the heroes and events of the old-West. He’s a greenhorn, who, through the course of the film, comes of age: he takes part in his first big robbery, he gets his first kill, and he falls in love for the first time, and then he becomes his own man, who’s capable of taking his own decisions and decides to stand up for his woman against his own gang.

He’s also the first (and only one till the climax) who notices that the mild-mannered storekeeper looks a lot like Jesse James, and the non-violent Sherriff look exactly like Wild Bill Hickok etc. etc.; because he had seen their pictures and read about them in the novels. But since he knows that all those heroes are dead they can’t be who they look like. But later, it’s revealed to him that they are exactly whom he had guessed them to be; and here he’s struck by the contrast between myth and reality; the myth that’s created by literature (and cinema), and their reality when they’re now in an ‘undead’ state. These heroes were immortalized (for their violent heroics) during their lifetime (and long after their death) through these literary and audio-visual mediums. But in their immortal state, they are forced to live a life that’s a complete opposite of their ‘real’ lives. Sonny (and the audience) has a tough time reconciling with this disparity, and this disparity extends to their appearances too: the ‘Refuge’ inhabitants look very well groomed; Hickok is devoid of his massive mustache and long hair, the same with others too. It’s a very strange subtext at work here: the heroes look and dress like moviestars, or rather characters in a Western movie, but they do not indulge in the heroic stuff that’s expected of them. But not for long; just like the ‘reluctant hero’ trope that’s a mainstay of classic Westerns: Gary Cooper in “High Noon,” Kurt Russell in “Tombstone” etc.; heroes who would rather live peacefully than fight, but in the end is forced to fight to protect the weak & innocent, and preserve civilization, our heroes too pick up arms. Without bothering about the hellish consequences to their souls, they go out and do what we expect of them. It’s also interesting to note a “Purple Rose of Cairo” or “Last Action Hero” kind of twist at the end: Sonny gets shot and dies, and becomes part of the town folk, taking over as new Sherriff from Hickok- which is kind of every fanboy’s (who has grown up playing cowboys & Indians, and fantasizing about these old-West heroes) dream come true: to be sucked into that fantastic old-West world (created by dime novel & movies) inhabited by his heroes.

The film is written by Gordon T. Dawson, who was a close associate of Sam Peckinpah, and he had worked with the legendary director on such films as “Bring me the head of Alfredo Garcia,” “The Getaway” and “The Wild Bunch.” So, it’s no surprise that “Purgatory” begins with a stylish and violent shootout reminiscent of the opening gunfight in “The Wild Bunch”; where a lot of the townsfolk become collateral damage in the shootout between Blackjack’s gang and the soldiers. Of course, the limited budget of a TNT film does not allow them to indulge in those trademark slow-mo action scenes of Peckinpah. Despite that the three major action scenes in the film is some of the best action I have ever seen in a Western. The opening bank robbery is followed by an even more spectacular horse-back chase and gunfight in the dusty desert where the posse chases the gang. Then there is final shootout, which is as good as any climactic gunfight in a Western. While Peckinpah’s Westerns are downbeat and pessimistic, with much of the violence taking place in a godless world, Pierce has crafted an extremely optimistic and upbeat Western- almost a Frank Capra Western – where the heroes does their best to please the gods. But it appears that, for most part of the film, the heroes have misunderstood what God is asking of them. Non-violence, temperance and decency is all fine, but most important is selflessness and taking responsibility for others; this is something that the heroes learn only by the end. It’s Sonny who teaches them this, when he shows his willingness to sacrifice himself for Rose. This makes Hickok realize that, though he has been following god’s laws diligently, he has been extremely selfish: in his desire to go to heaven, he is allowing an innocent man to be killed and the town be destroyed. That’s when he strap on his arms, gets his comrades together and confront Blackjack & his gang. This is again something straight out of the finale of “The Wild Bunch,” where Pike Bishop and his bunch marches out to Mapache’s den and demands the release of Angel- even though they know it’s suicide. By the end of “Purgatory,” when Blackjack has been dispatched to the bottom of hell by ‘The Gatekeeper,’ Hickok and his comrades fully expect to follow suit and they’re ready to go to hell, but the maker springs a surprise: ‘the Stagecoach to Heaven’ arrives and the driver tells them that by their willingness to sacrifice their souls to protect the others, they have secured a place in Heaven; the pale stagecoach driver is played by none other than Peckinpah regular, R.G. Armstrong, who gets to speak the ‘punchline of the picture’: “The Creator is tough, but he ain’t blind.

When the film premiered on TNT in January, 1999 it was a ratings blockbuster, with several encores. The film has since been released on DVD, and it’s available on Amazon Prime. Having watched this film more than a couple of times, I must say that it’s hard to believe that this is a ‘made for television’ film. The photography and the production design is superlative, and it does not betray its low budget and tight-schedule roots (most of the film was shot on the Warner Bros. studio lot). Apart from that, the writing and the direction is magnificent: though the plot is very predictable, the filmmakers manages to build up suspense regarding how things are going to unfold, and successfully keep us riveted. The actors too do a great job of embodying their characters. Eric Roberts makes for a sufficiently cold & creepy villain, while Peter Stormare as Blackjack’s Number two man, Calvin Guthrie, is in his full-on eccentric mode and provides the requisite craziness to the crazy character. Randy Quaid looks rather miscast as Doc Holliday- a role that his brother Dennis played much better in “Wyatt Earp (1994).” Amelia Heinle  and Shannon Kenny lends their feminine presence to this masculine drama, while Brad Rowe is adequate as Sonny. But ultimately, it’s Sam Shepard who anchors this film with his terrific performance. Shepard is one of the true modern renaissance artists; he’s an  actor, playwright, author, screenwriter, and director; he was a Pulitzer winning writer long before he became a charismatic movie star through films like “Days of Heaven” and “The Right Stuff”- where he was described as the new ‘Gary Cooper.’ And he brings that ‘Gary Cooper’ quality to his role(s) here; he even dresses up like Cooper (in “High Noon”) for the climactic gunfight. He’s equally adept at portraying the tenderness, decency and vulnerability of Sherriff Forrest, as well as the badassery of Wild Bill Hickok. The transformation he affects from the gentle Sherriff, who tries to reason peacefully with Blackjack, to the mythical gunslinger packing his six-shooters and intimidatingly walking down the street is startling and very very convincing. Shepard was drawn to the film because he felt that that director Edel being an European could bring a fresh perspective to the Western, which ultimately he did. Another striking aspect of this film is Brad Fiedel’s music. Fiedel, who’s most famous for his iconic score for “The Terminator” films, retired from scoring films in the late 1990s and now focuses primarily on creating original musicals. “Purgatory” was one of his last film scores, and he provides a perfect score that complements the film’s unique mixture of Western and supernatural themes.


4 thoughts on “Purgatory: Sam Shepard leads a bunch of immortal Wild-West-heroes into one last gunfight in this very inventive & enjoyable supernatural Western

  1. I was at Warner Bros. when this film went into production and I used to go out to the backlot to watch the film (and that great cast) at work. Most of it was shot on what was then the last standing western street on the lot, so, the ghosts those actors played on screen were surely watched by, maybe even influenced by, the ghosts of all of the movies that had been shot on those same dusty streets for so many years. This location added to the movie, I think, a degree of unity with other westerns that wouldn’t have been possible had it been shot on a new set in Canada or someplace equally inappropriate. Incidentally, its no longer technically possible to make a western on the Warner Bros. backlot at all. The set used in “Purgatory,” and a thousand other horse operas, is now itself a ghost — visible only in reruns, having been bulldozed in 2003.

    Liked by 1 person

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