Christmas Mountain: The Story of a Cowboy Angel (1981)

I'm not at all clear whether this Christmas western/fantasy from 1981 was made for TV or if it was released theatrically. I assumed the former while watching, as it looked formatted for that media, but I came across something implying this may have been due to higher-quality versions being lost (at least for a time). Regardless, this feels like a television movie from the '80s, though - for what it's worth - a relatively good one. Take that as a compliment or insult, depending on your impression of TV from the era. I should note the movie occasionally appears listed as just Christmas Mountain OR The Story of a Cowboy Angel, though both appear on the title screen. There also appears to be a little confusion over the date, with some sources listing 1980 and others 1981. The latter seems more reputable and matches the stamp on the streaming site carrying it, so that's what I'm going with. 

The movie appears to have mainly been the creation of western star Mark Miller, who appears as the lead and wrote the film. Slim Pickens is featured as well as the titular cowboy angel, though he only shows up in a handful of scenes.

The plot centers on Miller's cowboy, named Gabe Sweet, a somewhat bad (but not actually that bad) drifter who's arrested in a town right before Christmas. The townsfolk seem irritable and uninterested in helping others, though a group are guilted into putting together a care package for a pregnant immigrant widow living on Christmas Mountain (yes, that's the mountain's actual name). She lives with another widow (both their husbands were killed in a landslide at some point the prior year). Since the trip to their home is somewhat difficult, the townsfolk agree to release Gabe in exchange for him delivering the gifts.

At first, Gabe approaches the matter very dispassionately, refusing to eat with the family and sleeping in their barn. But that night he's visited by Slim Pickens's character, the spirit/angel of his only friend. The angel wants to earn his wings and help Gabe avoid a dismal fate in the afterlife (more in line with Marley than traditional depictions of hell). Between all that and the setting, this kind of feels like it's trying to fuse A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and The Three Godfathers into a single story. That's kind of neat, as is the scene. The follow-through... not so much. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Gabe immediately connects with the family better after the angelic intervention. He takes the boy hunting and helps out around the house. He even agrees to stay through Christmas and assist any way he can. The next night, the angel returns and instructs him to go into town to teach the people there the meaning of Christmas. The pregnant woman asks him to go in, as well, and to take along an heirloom as a present for the townsfolk, despite the fact their gifts to her were extremely cheap (stale bread, old clothes, and the like). She's going to have the baby soon, and wants the doctor, though he's previously refused to come.

Gabe is weirdly scared of addressing the townsfolk, but the angel shows up again and prods him. Eventually he does so, delivering a speech in church in which he shames them for their xenophobia and lack of kindness, particularly at Christmas. As you'd expect, parallels are drawn between the birth of Jesus and the pregnant widow. He returns to Christmas Mountain, and of course the doctor follows behind. Then, soon after, the whole town shows up with better gifts.

I was a little surprised Gabe didn't stay and marry the widow: they were kind of implying a mutual interest, and the older boy more or less looked up to him like a father. Instead, Gabe heads out to take care of some unfinished business (possibly to make amends for a theft he committed in another state). He does imply he might return some day, though.

It's difficult to discuss the quality of this in any sort of objective sense without context on how much it cost and whether it was produced for television or theaters. For a TV movie, it's really not bad: there are some good ideas, a few fun moments (such as when Gabe is subdued at the beginning by an old woman hurling objects at him), and even some decent performances. But if I'm ranking this as an actual movie, the slow pace and lack of payoff are pretty serious flaws.

The schism between Gabe's mission being presented as meaningful and the lack of any real obstacles is notable. Gabe just has to deliver a speech, one we're even told in advance will be divinely inspired. Really, he just needs to stand in front of a bunch of people and start talking. For whatever reason, the movie treats this as something profoundly difficult and frightening, and moreover something Gabe should be commended for achieving.

That said, I kind of like that by shifting the significance from Gabe's actions to the heirloom, the movie ends up subverting the "white savior" cliche a bit. Literally anyone could have done what Gabe did, while the widow's act of faith in humanity required insight. It's also worth noting the movie never explicitly tells us whether the doctor's presence really made a difference. The widow obviously wanted him there and was naturally relieved when he showed up, but it's unclear if there were any complications necessitating medical intervention. Arguably, Gabe did less for the family than the town by helping them come together as a community and grow.

The movie has plenty of faults, but the message isn't one of them. It's explicitly anti-xenophobic and anti-racist, and it's pretty direct in condemning Americans for failing in their responsibilities to the less fortunate. Needless to say, this is still relevant.

In terms of interesting ideas, I already mentioned the angel's introduction and explanation wove in elements from multiple sources cleverly. In particular, they found ways to allude to Dickens subtly and using dialogue in line with this genre. In addition, the movie sort of upended a common trope by depicting the town as facing a catastrophe due to ongoing inclement weather. In essence, they wanted a break from winter, as opposed to the usual desire for a white Christmas. This of course also ties into the winter solstice and the return of the sun. I was surprised they didn't really follow this up or resolve it: you'd expect some indication the cold broke after everyone came together (to drive the cold winter away and all), but if there was a line to that effect, I missed it.

Regardless of how this was made, it's passable as a TV flick, provided you have a high tolerance for slow-paced movies. I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone hurry out and track it down, but my guess is fans of Slim Pickens and this style of western would probably enjoy it well enough. Just don't set your expectations too high.