The Invasion of Johnson County (1976)




Director:     Jerry Jameson. 

Starring:      Bill Bixby (Sam Lowell),  Bo Hopkins (George Dunning),  John Hillerman (Major Walcott),  Billy Green Bush (Frank Canton),  Stephen Elliott (Colonel Van Horn),  Lee de Broux (Richard Allen),  M. Emmet Walsh (Irvine),  Mills Watson (Sheriff Angus),  Alan Fudge (Teschmacher),  Luke Askew (Deputy Sheriff Brooks),  Edward Winter (Major Edward Fershay). 

large-ranch cattle men hire a private army to kill or hang the small ranchers, who they consider as "cattle rustlers" in Johnson County, Wyoming


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film.

Sam Lowell from Boston, Massachusetts comes to town on a train.  He has no money, so when he goes into the bar he bets the bartender that he can stand an egg on end in exchange for eating the egg.  Sam stands the egg on end and gets to eat the egg.  He then makes bets with the cowboy sitting next to him named George Dunning.  He has such success with winning his bets against George and then against other bar patrons that at night he is able to purchase a good dinner in the bar.  George keeps coming back to challenge Sam.  At times he gets mad and threatens Sam with death but after awhile the two men become good friends. 

Sam is losing at cards.  Sam indirectly accuses two of the players with cheating.  The bigger fellow threatens Sam with death, but George comes to Sam's defense and the two cheaters leave.  Then George shows everyone how the men were cheating. Sam treats George with a trip to the local bordello known as the Cheyenne Club.  In a private room inside the bordello the governor of the state and Major Walcott run a meeting of the Wyoming Cattle Growers' Association about getting together a group of men for some project. 

Sam and George wake up the next morning with hangovers.  They spent all their money.  George asks Sam why he came out to Wyoming.  Sam explains that his uncle cheated on his wife and got the woman pregnant.  In order to save his marriage, the uncle asked Sam to take the blame and Sam obliged him.  Sam's father, however, insisted that Sam be banished from Boston for fifteen years.  So Sam came out to Wyoming.  Sam then asks George what he, a man from Idaho, is doing in Wyoming.  George tells him that he is trying to stop a private army.  On the train in town are 21 hired guns from Texas.  They are setting up for an invasion of Johnson County, Wyoming.  The large-ranch owners want to get rid of the small ranchers in Johnson County.  They see the small ranchers as just a bunch of  cattle "rustlers".  He has seen the large ranchers' death list with some 70 names on it.  Among those to die are the sheriff, the mayor, the deputies and all the county commissioners.  George himself was hired as a gunfighter for the private army, but he grew skeptical of the goals of the group.  The train is heading to Casper.  Then then the private  army is to head north on horseback.  They will cut the wires to the town of Buffalo, Wyoming. 

Sam gets an inspiration from the news.  He can make a lot of money if he gets the news out to his cousin in Boston at the Boston Herald.  But George tells him not to do it.  It would put their lives in danger.  But Sam tells him that he will be able to telegraph his cousin without alerting anyone's suspicions.   Sam writes his message to his cousin in Latin, which the telegram sender does not know, but says he will transmit it word for word.  Sam is pretty pleased with himself, but then at night he gets knocked out by some men.  He awakens among the conspirators financing the private army.  They ask Sam:  "What is this coded message?"  When he doesn't cooperate immediately they hit Sam in the stomach.  Then Sam tells them a lie.  He says he has heard about the rustlers up in Johnson County and wanted to send the news to the Boston Herald about how justice will finally be meted out in that county.  He says that his newspaper is sympathetic to their problem and wants to tell the story about how something will be done about the lawlessness and thievery in Wyoming.  Major Walcott likes the idea of taking a friendly reporter along with them.  Sam realizes that these fellows don't consider themselves a lynch mob. 

Some of the supporters of the idea of invasion don't like Sam.  One fellow gives Sam a mean, nasty horse to ride.  Much to the surprise of the horse-giver, Sam is able to ride the animal successfully.  The private army sets out on horseback accompanied by supply wagons.  The wagons are even bringing wine for lunch and dinner for the leaders.  At night George loosens the wheels on the supply wagons.  Sam bets George that he can choose 25 cards out of the deck and make 5 "pat" hands out of them.   The magician wins the bet and Sam trades his wild horse for George's mild horse and $150 dollars. 

The wagon train does not make fast progress.  The wagon's lost their wheels in the night and Major Walcott and some of the men are lost.  When Walcott finally appears they decide to bed down for the night and push on the next morning.  A rider comes in who tells the Major that Nick Ray and 15 rustlers are holed up at the KC Ranch.  It is suspected that Nate Champion is with them.  Champion and Ray are at the top of the hit list.  Walcott wants to get these two men and thereby break the back of the small rancher rustlers. 

The Texas gunfighters are beginning to have doubts about the expedition.  They have not yet seen the actual warrants.  They begin to wonder if the expedition is really legal.  Sam tells George that they have to warn the people of the KC Ranch and then head out north for Montana.  So they change places with two Texans ordered to ride out with the night rider that came in with the message about Nick Ray.  But as Sam and George try to ride out, they are stopped and brought in to speak with the Major.  The Major asks the two men what they think they are doing.  Quick thinker Sam explains that the Texas are complaining; questioning the legal status of the expedition.  They were just taking the place of two of the biggest complainers.  Walcott believes Sam, but warns Sam that there will be no more countermanding of his orders.   He tells his fellow conspirators that Sam is a little odd because he is a Boston Brahmin, but he will have two men keep an eye on Sam and George anyway. 

The private army surrounds a cabin where they believe Champion and Ray are staying.   They capture two trappers who just stopped over at the cabin to rest.  They tell the two men to get out of the area.  The men leave.  Sam secretly chases after the men and catches up with them.  He tells the guys that he is a Pinkerton agent tracking the expedition because they have no warrants.  He adds that he wants them to get the information to the sheriff in Buffalo.  The men agree to tell the sheriff.

Back at the cabin Nick Ray comes out.  Sam jumps up to see Ray more clearly and gets knocked out by one of the men assigned to watch him.  The army opens fire on Ray and badly wounds him.  Nate opens the door to help Ray get back into the cabin.  Nate holds off the army so they set the cabin on fire.  When Sam wakes up he discovers that the cabin has been burned to the ground.  He asks what happened and learns that Nate put up a hell of a fight, but when he had to make a run for it because of the flames he was shot dead.  The men hang a sign on Nate's body saying: "cattle thieves beware."   They find Nate's journal.  He was writing the journal entries with one hand while keeping the entire army pinned down with the other hand.  His last entry was:  "Good-bye boys if I never see you again."

Suddenly the private army is informed that the town of Buffalo has been warned.  Some 250 men are headed their way.  So the leaders of the expedition decide to fall back to the TA Ranch.  The order is to withdraw and fortify.  At the ranch the men split logs and hammer them in place around the ranch buildings.  The men from Buffalo arrive and surround the TA ranch buildings.  The towns men then capture the wagons loaded with dynamite headed to the ranch.  Major Walcott decides to take 20 men and attack the towns men.  But some of the other leaders say it is out of the question.  So they send Wade Halsey to go after the two trappers to kill them before they can be possible witnesses against them in court. Walcott lets Sam leave with a fellow named Allen who wants to leave the expedition.  Walcott tells the men that they will have Wade Halsey kill Sam too.  Before leaving Sam tells George that he hopes he will see him again.  (Sam transcribed the diary into Latin and then threw Nate's journal away so he wouldn't get caught with it.)  Sam and Mr. Allen to to Buffalo, but are arrested there as part of the expedition.  Sam tries to talk his way out of jail.  He tells them that he knows Major Forshey of the local army fort.  He says they went to Harvard together. 

Back at the TA Ranch the private army is getting low on ammunition.  And now there are about 300 men outside.  In Buffalo a lynch mob wants Sam and Mr. Allen.  Major Forshey arrives and vouches for Sam.  They did go to school together, after all. 

At the TA Ranch the leaders of the expedition start to question what went wrong.  The whole county turned out against them.  Major Walcott says that they didn't come in sufficient force. 

Sam tells the 6th Cavalry that they have to come to the rescue of the private army.  He says that they are a band of lunatics holed up at the ranch and someone has to save them.  Sam also says that he has a good friend that is trapped at the ranch.  Colonel Van Horn  says no, he will not intervene in a civilian matter.  Sam then starts trying to change the Colonel's mind.   He tells him that the two Wyoming senators will be mad at him.  They will be accused of helping the Wyoming Cattle Growers' Association.  The Colonel changes his mind.  The cavalry arrives at the TA Ranch.  Both sides stop firing.  Major Walcott agrees that he and his men will go with the cavalry to the fort as long as they will face a trail by the civil authorities.  George breaths a sigh of relief.  There were no deaths on either side.  The Colonel is relieved when he receives a telegram from the President of the US ordering him to do what he already did.  He tells Sam:  "This telegram brought me here, not you!"  Sam agrees that this will be the story.

Sam seeks for George who is alone in the barn.  George tells Sam that he is going to turn himself in to the sheriff of Buffalo.  He adds that he is going to write the whole story down for the authorities. 

Sam Lowell filed his story; Colonel Van Horn became a General; and George Dunning wrote his eye witness report, which is now a part of western history.  But the cattlemen were never turned over to the sheriff of Buffalo, nor ever brought to trial.  And it is something they still talk about in Wyoming. 


Pretty good movie.  The mood was lightened by a lot of humor, but given the seriousness of the situation (an invasion of a county of Wyoming by a private army) at times the film didn't seem to call for humor.  Bill Bixby was good as the fast-talking easterner from Boston. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


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