'Purgatory': a morality tale that wears spurs

Wild Bill Hickok may have "kilt" a few ornery cusses in his day, what with the Wild West so wild and all - same with Jesse James, Doc Holiday, and Billy the Kid. But maybe they weren't really such bad, bad guys after all. Maybe they all deserved a last chance to do right and be good.

Screenwriter Gordon Dawson thought so, and wrote a compelling probationary tale about these outlaw heroes for television.

"Purgatory" (TNT, Jan. 10, 8-10 p.m.; repeats seven times through January) might be the name of an old western town (there is a Purgatory, Colo.).

But in this brawny story, the town called Refuge really is purgatory - that place of the afterlife where sinners go to expiate their misdeeds: Dante rides into the Old West.

Dante's "Purgatorio," however, was not this civilized. 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 - or else. That "or else" is where the theology goes askew. Mr. Dawson says he made it up as he went along.

"I love westerns, I've worked on a lot of them," he says, "with [director] Sam Peckinpah, among others. And the words 'ghost town' came to me, and I thought, what if it were full of ghosts? And, why would there be ghosts? And what would be the stakes for the ghosts? So the religious angle came into it.... The biblical references are a wonderful part of drama."

In order to create a whole "world," Dawson grasped that the theology must have a logic of its own. God is far away and very stern. Hell is vivid and fiery. One last chance is all you get; if you can be good for 10 years, you get to "go home" to heaven. But if you lose it, it's hell.

In the end, the logic works well enough as drama and as cautionary tale. And it is a good, cautionary ghost story, though a more developed theological point of view might have helped make the ending clearer. Some story devices don't work, but this entertaining film is still engaging. The citizens of Refuge run a tight ship, as it were, until a pack of the meanest, grizzliest outlaws in TV western history ride in on horseback - murderous, sly, and evil to the quick.

Only one of them is a good man - young Sonny (Brad Rowe) is a novice in the outlaw trade, who quickly learns it's not for him. Sonny falls for pretty Rose, who brings out the knight in him (another traditional western theme). Sonny's real function, however, is to demonstrate what it means to be selfless - to be willing to lay down one's life for one's friends.

Bent on raising havoc, the evil outlaws square off against the second-chancers, who at first utterly misunderstand what God is asking of them. As it turns out, God is asking them to care for each other - selflessly. As the pale stagecoach driver tells them, "The Creator is tough, but he ain't blind."

Heaven knows it's no small feat to bring the western back as such a lively spooker, complete with all the icons of the (western) genre - from six guns and shootouts to horseback tricks and bank robberies. Wide-angle shots of outlaws chased by a fierce posse, guns ablazing, the chance to wear chaps and boots, to walk tall and to hide a world of meaning behind a tight, dry smile - these are not given to actors often. And then there's the script, with lines like "He's so mean, he'd shoot the eyes out of a dove for singin' too early." Or, "I don't think they got an ounce of bold 'twixt the bunch of them."

In fact, besides the ever-colorful script, the acting is the best thing about this "Purgatory." Sam Shepard plays Wild Bill, with Donnie Wahlberg as Billy, John David Souther as Jesse, and Randy Quaid as Doc. One of the most creative villains on the screen today, large or small, is Eric Roberts, who plays Blackjack Breton as if only ice water ran in his veins.

The theme may feel a tad European, what with hell lurking on the edges, but there is little of the spaghetti western about this film: It "reads" like an American allegory of good versus evil. "I always think [the western] is going to come back," Dawson says. "I think it has values everyone wishes were the values of today: goodwill, chivalry, love your neighbor...."

M.S. Mason's e-mail address is masonm@csps.com

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