Appaloosa: New Western by Ed Harris

When Ed Harris took a family horseback-riding trip in 2005, he brought Robert B. Parker's novel Appaloosa along for the journey. A character-driven tale about honor and camaraderie set against the backdrop of the Old West, the novel captured his attention.

“I was immediately drawn to the relationship between Cole and Hitch. After I read the first few scenes between these guys, I fell in love with their dialogue and their friendship,” says Harris. “These are two tough guys who've been riding together for more than 12 years and they just know each other. They don't have to talk about their feelings necessarily, there's an unspoken understanding between them. They're very comfortable with one another and respect each other, and they have a great sense of humor together.”

Executive producer Michael London also liked the source material. “I felt strongly about the novel from the first time I picked it up. There was something about the interplay between these two guys. There's a traditional buddy movie at the core of the story.” “What is most fascinating about the story is that it explores how Hitch and Cole's friendship deals with the unexpected,” says producer Ginger Sledge. “It examines the potential for good and bad in each character.”

Realizing Parker's novel was more than just a good read, Harris saw the cinematic potential and teamed up with Robert Knott to collaborate on the screenplay.

Expressive Friendship

“We explored the ways friendship could be expressed on screen through both the silence and banter between Cole and Hitch–how each of them played such an integral role in supporting each other along the way, how they dealt with the fear of death or lack thereof, and how they understood each other's needs,” remarks Knott, who also serves as a producer on the project.

Ed Harris Perfect for the Part

In addition to writing the script for “Appaloosa” with Knott, Harris made the decision to direct and produce the film, and to star as Virgil Cole. “Ed is absolutely perfect for the part,” says author Robert Parker. “He looks the way I thought Cole would look. He has this economy of movement that Cole has. Ed has a distinct sense of self-containment; he's never in a hurry, but he's still a beat faster than most people. He also has a 'he-does-what-he-sets-out-to-do' kind of attitude, which is not unlike the character of Virgil Cole.”

“Ed brings an amazing strength of character that's in every frame of the movie,” says exec- producer Michael London. “He has a very powerful, quiet presence, which he brought to the character.”

In “Appaloosa,” Virgil Cole is an expert gunman who is committed to his trade as a man of the law. “Whether it's the law that he brings to a town or the law of a territory, that is his life's work,” offers Harris. “He believes in justice and in treating people fairly. He has a bit of a temper, but he's also got a sense of humor about what he does. He's a very loyal individual, and you see this in his friendship with Everett Hitch.”

Viggo Mortensen

Harris's first and only choice for the role of Everett Hitch was Viggo Mortensen, with whom he'd shared the screen in “A History of Violence.”

“I had just finished reading Appaloosa when we shot 'A History of Violence,' and I gave it to Viggo and told him that I really wanted to make it into a film with him in it,” recalls Harris. “One of the greatest things about Viggo is his sense of loyalty. He's a man of his word. Once he committed to the project, he was completely on board.”

“We see eye to eye,” says Mortensen of his experience working with Harris. Mortensen was also drawn to the subtlety in the dialogue and the friendship between two lawmen in the Old West. “I think Cole trusts Hitch more than anyone else in the world, specifically because Hitch is very honest with him, even when it's difficult to bring certain things to Cole's attention,” says the actor. “That is my definition of a good friend: somebody who is brave enough to tell you the truth even when it's not what you want to hear.”

“Hitch is the reason that Cole's still alive,” says Harris. “The two met in a standoff between Cole and another gunslinger.” It was Cole and Hitch who lived to tell about it. “Hitch was originally trained at West Point, but he gave up the life of a soldier and wandered West. Then he met Cole, who was looking for a right-hand man in his peacekeeping business. Hitch saved Cole's life, and Cole, in return, has given Hitch a life.”

While they have spent the last 12 years bringing peace to lawless towns, everything changed in Appaloosa, “in part because it was time for things to change, but mostly because of the influence of Allison French,” Mortensen suggests.

Renee Zellweger

Oscar winner Renee Zellweger (Chicago) plays the role of Allison French, a beguiling widow who arrives in Appaloosa and immediately draws the attention of Virgil Cole.

“I was intrigued by the mystery surrounding the character of Allison French,” says the actress. “Just from reading the script, there's not a lot you can presume about her. Judging by the way she dresses and acts, you can probably guess that she's a city girl and that she's educated, but that's about it. She simply rolls into town with a dollar in her pocket and a story about a deceased husband. You don't know anything more, except that she plays piano and likes to be called Allie.”

Together, Cole and Hitch meet the young widow in a restaurant, but have very different impressions of the enigmatic newcomer. “Cole has never met anyone quite like Allie, so he becomes instantly fascinated,” says Harris.

Mortensen notes, “Hitch thinks that she's a bit too forward; a bit too inquisitive for his taste. As soon as she starts asking all these questions, Hitch becomes a little wary of her. But Cole is immediately taken with her. Cole is someone who's so dedicated to serving the law that he's somewhat of a workaholic,” continues Mortensen. “So despite Hitch's skepticism about Allie, he thinks it's nice to see Cole let loose a little and have some fun. But as Cole and Allie's relationship gets more serious, it becomes problematic. She seems to be too much of a distraction. And distractions can be dangerous for lawmen.”

Zellweger counters, “Allie is not all good or all bad, she's somewhere in-between. I think you can empathize as she stumbles along and tries to make her way. I've never played a character like that, and I found it very rewarding. I love Allie's determination. I love that she's so weak, and yet she's so determined to do the best that she can. She's a survivor. I've kind of assumed that Allie is a graduate of the school of hard knocks. She is doing the best she can based on what she's been taught during these times as a woman who's not attached and has come upon hard times.”

“Renee brings vitality and honesty to the role of Allie and her own unique way of being,” remarks Harris. “I don't believe that Allie is calculating. She's not someone who is dark and mean-spirited. She is who she is.”

Jeremy Irons

Another powerful character in “Appaloosa” is the local rancher Randall Bragg, who has gotten used to being above the law. Played by Oscar winner Jeremy Irons (Reversal of Fortune). “Bragg is a man who has a lot of connections and he's out West trying to make his fortune by taking over the local copper mines around Appaloosa,” says the actor. “In the course of taking over this area, he allows his men to run riot in town.”

The time period and setting in which “Appaloosa” takes place appealed to the English actor. “The frontier men spoke with their guns,” Irons notes. “This was a time when the West was just beginning to be developed and the law was coming. Laws were added and changed so fast that suddenly you had to do things a certain way, which doesn't sit well with a man like Randall Bragg.”

Mortensen adds, “It was a very interesting time. I looked into Southwestern history and the history of outlaws and lawmen, and there often appears to have been a very thin line between them. In fact, Cole and Hitch are not that far removed from the 'outlaws' that they're up against. There's not much difference between them in some moments; they both have displays of temper and violence.”

Timothy Spall

Rounding out the cast in “Appaloosa” are Timothy Spall, James Gammon and Tom Bower as Appaloosa's aldermen; Lance Henriksen as Ring Shelton, a rival gun-for-hire who allies himself with Bragg; and Ariadna Gil as Katie, an insightful working girl who befriends Everett Hitch. Additionally, Harris made “Appaloosa” a family affair by casting his father, Bob Harris, in the role of Judge Elias Callison. They had previously worked together on “Pollock.”