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Laramie Movie Scope: Chiefs (1983)

Southern fried mini-series with a serial killer

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 1, 2011 -- A friend loaned me a videotape of this 1983 200-minute TV miniseries about three generations of police chiefs in the small southern town of Delano, Georgia. It is a pretty heavy-handed presentation on racism and social change in the south over the 40 years from the 1920s to the 1960s notable mainly for its remarkable cast. It is also a reminder that even in the early 1980s it was possible to get some top-notch Hollywood acting talent to do a TV miniseries.

Based on the novel of the same name by Stuart Woods, the story has some threads that tie these three police chiefs and their stories together over many years, the strongest being the presence of Delano businessman and politician Hugh Holmes (Charlton Heston, easily the biggest star in the show, starring in such notable films as “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur” and “Planet of the Apes”). Heston's voiceovers and presence throughout the miniseries keeps it from falling apart. Holmes becomes the political mentor to young Billy Lee (Stephen Collins of “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and the “Seventh Heaven” TV show), the son of the town's first police chief, Will Henry Lee (played by Wayne Rogers of the “M.A.S.H.” TV show). Billy Lee's father is tragically killed in a shooting just as he was about to arrest a serial killer, Foxy Funderburke (played by Keith Carradine of “Nashville”). This is just one of Foxy's many lucky breaks. Funderburke, Holmes and Billy Lee span the entire series.

Funderburke, a World War I vet, had applied for the job of police chief, but was considered a bit too flaky by the town council. Through a series of bizarre coincidences, Funderburke keeps escaping capture as he kills more than 40 young men, mostly hitchhikers, over the years, and buries them on his remote property which is just over the county line from the jurisdiction of the Delano police chief. Just as the second police chief, Sonny Butts (Brad Davis of “Midnight Express”) is about to arrest Funderburke, he once again slips away, thanks to Butts' extreme carelessness.

The third police chief in the story is Joshua Cole (AKA Tyler Watts) a local boy who made good in military service. Watts (Billy Dee Williams of the “Star Wars” movies) becomes the first black police chief of Delano, who is promptly arrested by one of his own men, Newt 'Tub' Murray (John Goodman in an early role long before he became Fred Flintstone, or one of the Blues Brothers, or a star on the “Roseanne” TV show) for driving too nice a car (racial profiling) before he is introduced to the squad as the new chief. Watts, aided by case notes left by the first two police chiefs, soon draws a bead on Funderburke, but is waylaid by the racist county sheriff, Skeeter Willis (Paul Sorvino of “Reds”) who finds him too uppity to be allowed to live in the old south he wants to preserve.

Willis has Watts arrested on a trumped-up charge and is in the process of turning him over to the KKK for execution when he is rescued in a way which is pretty close to impossible to believe. The rescue involves a New York Times reporter, a Kennedy-era liberal politician and an old-school Roosevelt-era Democrat. It might have been more believable if Watts had been rescued by aliens from another dimension.

What the show lacks in believability, it makes up for in solid acting performances by a very talented cast, including Victoria Tennant (“L.A. Story”), Danny Glover (“The Color Purple”), Tess Harper, “Tender Mercies”) and a number of other well-known movie and TV actors. It seems American drama tends to veer between simplistic morality tales like this where the good guys eventually triumph, and dark, nihilistic tales where evil triumphs, like “Rosemary's Baby” and “No Country for Old Men.” I prefer dramas which lie in between these two extremes. This movie rates a C.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2011 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)