Selleck is the Full Monte
I have neither read Jack Schaefer's novel on which "Monte Walsh" is based or watched the 1970 big screen adaptation and so it's impossible for me to compare, although to be honest comparing a TV movie to a big screen version is quite an unfair comparison to start with. But what I will say is this 2003 version of "Monte Walsh" is not bad, a pleasant tale of the changing west and the swan song of an aging cowboy as he sees his way of life diminishing in the name of change and improvement. But "Monte Walsh" is a movie with a problem and whilst you have this tale of Monte and the changing West it then lacks a strong secondary storyline to give it some purpose. It does have that secondary storyline but it almost feels like an after thought only coming to the fore for maybe the last quarter of the movie and so during the first three quarters you begin to wonder if it will ever be anything more than a lament to the changing West.
Monte Walsh (Tom Selleck - The Love Letter) and Chet Rollins (Keith Carradine - Andre) have been cowboys all their life, living life working job to job at various ranches with their only possessions being a gun and a saddle. But as the 20th century approaches times are changing with ranchers struggling to keep things going and big businesses buying out those who can't survive. It's not just those who run the ranches which are changing as the open range is being fenced off and trains are becoming a way of life. All of which makes Monte question whether he has a future as a cowboy especially when his friend Chet settles down and finds work in a hardware store. But when his friend Shorty (George Eads) is let go from his job and finds himself not only becoming a cattle rustler but also a killer Monte must use all his skills as a cowboy to go after the young man.
So as already mentioned there are two sides to "Monte Walsh" with the first side being all about the changing face of the West as we are taken back to 1892 and into the world of Monte Walsh. We watch as following a winter up in the snowy mountains he returns with his friend Chet to discover that not only has the winter caused some ranchers to close but big business has moved in to take over struggling cattle ranches. And so we see how things change from them trying to run cattle ranches by the financial numbers through to the imposing power of the train lines and the fencing off of the open range. Now to be honest these are almost stock elements which can be seen in any western which is aiming to be a Cowboy swan song but there is more.
Alongside this look at how things are changing on an almost visual basis there is the depth to how it affects those few remaining cowboys. We watch as Chet decides that being a Cowboy has no future especially for an older man so looks to settle down and work in a hardware store whilst Monte he himself debates whether he should do the same with his lover Martine. We also see how with times changing that the simplest thing such as a brawl between cowboys makes them feel like men again and so much more. And all of this eventually leads to young cowboy Shorty forced to go on the run when he ends up killing people and Monte is forced to go after him.
Now here is the thing, whilst all of this eulogy to the west is pleasant, especially for a western fan, it doesn't seem to be going anywhere till eventually you have the story of Shorty killing someone. And sadly this part of the movie comes closer to the end and whilst not feeling like it's been tagged on could have done with coming earlier. It just means that for almost the first three quarters "Monte Walsh" drifts, taking its time to explore every aspect of the changing West but not having any real excitement going on which in many ways is what it needed. If only the story of Monte going after Shorty had come earlier then maybe it wouldn't have started to become a little dull in places.
Despite this Tom Selleck delivers one of his strongest performances in a western and is in many ways perfect to play the aging cowboy who sees himself being left behind in a changing world. It's so easy to empathise with Monte because this is a man who knows how to live life one way and even though he attempts to embrace change just can't because he can't be unfaithful to who he is. It also helps that in his friend Chet we have Keith Carradine who at times looks exactly like his father John did in his western days and it strangely gives "Monte Walsh" that almost nostalgic feel. And Tom Selleck and Keith Carradine are not the only good performances as Barry Corbin, James Gammon, Isabella Rossellini and William Devane all put in good performances to make watching "Monte Walsh" a pleasure.
What this all boils down to is that "Monte Walsh" is a very enjoyable western and is much better than what you may expect from one made for TV. It is both well cast and well acted as it tells a tale of the changing face of the west and the demise of the cowboys. It has just the one problem and that is whilst there is more to it than just the changing face of the west the second story ends up coming during the final quarter leaving the first three quarters to just be about how things are changing and it needed that something more earlier on.