Go west, old Sam

You Know My Name and the plot

In 1924, a tall-hatted, big-mustached, slow-limping, long-gazing cowboy rides into the oil-boom town of Cromwell, Oklahoma, to help keep good folks safe from bootlegging gangsters armed with machine guns. Guess the ending. It's not hard. After all, there are only two types of Westerns: the kind that end with the hero winning, and the ones where the hero's death inspires others to do good. Take yer pick. You've got a 50-50 chance, pardner.

Nothing about the made-for-TNT movie You Know My Name is hard to guess. Sam Elliot (who's been playing old cowboys since the discovery of celluloid, it seems) plays Bill Tilghman, a real-life lawman who quit gun-slinging after many, many years to make films about his exploits as a marshal in Dodge City and Oklahoma. When he can't get his film booked in Los Angeles, the 70-something Tilghman decides, "What the heck -- I'll go risk my life fighting mobsters," and accepts the job in Cromwell. Supported by his reluctant wife, Zoe, and their two precious sons (um, what happened to the other five children he had in real life?), he takes his big reputation, his silent movie, and a former outlaw named Arkansas Tom to Cromwell, where he hooks up with some other old cowboys and a young assistant who wants to be a deputy because he likes the heroes in Western comics and film and because outlaws killed his family. Was there ever a deputy whose family wasn't killed by outlaws? Exactly. Nothing shocking here.

Tilghman gets bad-guy-trying-to-be-nice Alibi Joe to rat on the ringleader, a federal agent named Wylie Lynn (played by Full Metal Jacket's Arliss Howard). He's a true black-coat-swishing, cocaine-sniffing, greasy-haired Western bad guy prone to wigging out, shoving guns in people's faces, and flashing his badge around. Lynn has a network of crooked citizens, swindlers, and bootleggers, plus a pale-skinned, long-suffering wife and a beautiful, European mistress who, of course, runs a brothel.

"Hey marshal, tell me again why we're getting rid of the prostitutes and gambling."
"Hey marshal, tell me again why we're getting rid of the prostitutes and gambling."

The bad guys chase Tilghman through Cromwell's perpetually muddy streets and through the beautiful mountains and valleys (what part of Oklahoma is this again?). And, occasionally, they all get that far-off, pensive look that belongs to people who reckon that something bad is gonna happen unless everyone simmers down. Yes, the standard Wild West lingo is thrown in for good measure too. A long shot shows Tilghman looking especially troubled, or maybe it was just too many pieces of pie made by Ma Murphy, a tough former prostitute who found God and opened a restaurant. But then, just when the town decides to keep Tilghman around despite his unpopular tactics, Lynn goes on a drug-addled spree through town in a garish red scarf. He shoots Tilghman, who lives long enough to tell his family goodbye and to "take care of yer ma."

In a final moment of solidarity, the citizens raid the town with torches, kicking out the gamblers, prostitutes, bootleggers, and bad land dealers. With Tilghman's tragic death, they take his warning to stand up for what they believe instead of living on their knees. The credits assure us that everything ends all right and that Wiley gets his comeuppance. The only thing missing is the shot of cowboy riding into the horizon, silhouetted by a golden sun.

The big surprise about You Know My Name is that few people have heard of Tilghman, and that this is the first movie made about him. But even without any shocking departures from the standard fare, You Know My Name is a good piece of escapist Western docudrama, even when it begins to sound like the old nickel books and goofy silent film Tilghman made about his own life.

 
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