The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979)

Article 3496 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-10-2011
Posting Date: 3-11-2011
Directed by Burt Kennedy
Featuring Robert Conrad, Ross Martin, Paul Williams
Country: USA
What it is: TV show revival

James West and Artemus Gordon are called out of retirement to investigate the substitution of several world leaders by uncanny replicas. They discover it’s part of a plot by the son of their old arch-nemesis Dr. Loveless, who has also created the first atomic bomb.

If there was any TV show from my childhood that I would call “mine” (a personal favorite that I felt and still feel very strongly about), it would be “The Wild Wild West”. The adventures of cool secret service agent James West, the antics of his sidekick Artemus Gordon, and the nefarious schemes of their primary foe Dr. Miguelito Loveless were one of the passions of my childhood. As you might imagine, I’m a bit of a fanatic about the original show, and I hate anyone messing with it; I avoided the movie update featuring Will Smith because I knew it would have little in common with the original series. However, I did catch this late seventies TV-Movie revival of the series, overjoyed to see my old favorites back on the air… and I ended up hating it, finding it a betrayal of all I loved about the series.

I fully expected to vent my spleen about this movie when I watched it for this series, but I found it much more palatable this time. For me, the main concern was whether it would capture the ambiance of that series, and watching it now, I can say that it managed to do it for about half the time. It stars the original leading men, and they still had good chemistry. Paul Williams makes an acceptable son of Dr. Loveless (though I hated him originally for the simple reason that he wasn’t Michael Dunn), and the story more or less is an appropriate one for the series. It does miss a few points; there’s precious little gadgetry on hand (the old James West always had something up his sleeve, in his belt, or in the heels of his boots to help him), and the wild fight scenes where West would take on several assailants at once are missing, except for a disappointing one near the beginning.

Where the movie doesn’t succeed is why I hated so badly when I was younger; though the original series was a satire of sorts, it wasn’t, save for some of Gordon’s comic characters in disguise, played for laughs or camp; the show did it all with a straight face. This one plays for laughs. Sometimes it works, such as during the scene where West encounters a beautiful woman in a saloon only to discover that she’s the daughter of an old lover; in scenes like this, the humor is appropriate and character-driven. For the most part, though, it plays too broadly, especially in the scenes involving Harry Morgan and Jeff MacKay as the head of the secret service and his nephew. Artemus Gordon’s scenes in disguise were always a highlight of the series for me, but here, when he dresses up as a female barroom dancer, it’s done for no discernible reason and played purely for laughs. It was scenes like this which fueled my ire back then. Now I can at least appreciate the ease with which Robert Conrad and Ross Martin handled the comedy, and I can accept the movie for the moments when it works. But it does make me wonder whether any remake or update of a TV series will ever really be able to tap fully into the ambiance of the original. Quite frankly, I have yet to see that happen.

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