Western Religion is set in Religion, Arizona, where gunfighters from the far reaches of the globe come to compete in a poker tournament where their very souls are on the line.
The film opens in Arizona Territory in the year 1879 with a number of scenes that intermingle to provide glimpses of a handful of the main characters and their backgrounds— Saint John (Gary Douglas Kohn) who is hanging from a noose like a dead man yet still very much alive; the gunslinger Anton Stice (Claude Duhamel) who kills four men over an insult; Chinaman Dan (Peter Shinkoda), a wanted bank robber; and the multifaceted dandy Salt Peter (Louie Sabatasso), a cardsharp looking for the next big game, in this case the tournament in the dusty tent city of Religion.
Town entrepreneur Harvard Gold (James Anthony Cotton) hosts the “first annual” poker game as a means of drumming up business for himself and putting Religion on the map. On hand to memorialize the thrill of the game is New York Times reporter Edward James (Tony Herbert). The game is held at the Last Chance Saloon, owned by Southern Bill (Peter Sherayko, Tombstone). As the date approaches, dozens of gold seekers – including a spiritual “half injun” named Waylin Smith (Miles Szanto) and his Apache guide (Sam Bearpaw), magician Raven McCabe (William Moore) and carpenter Bobby Shea (Sean Joyce) – arrive from far and wide, happy to imbibe Bill’s hospitality of “beds, booze and broads” when not playing cards. The madam of Bill’s house is Bootstrap Bess (Holiday Hadley), a woman not to be taken lightly who has fashioned her own designs for the tournament prize—a large ornate cross made of pure gold.
The tournament begins and tempers flare. Stice cozies up one by one to his fellow players, offering them the gold cross as if it is his to give. Only with Saint John, a reformed outlaw turned itinerant preacher, does Anton take a different tack, reminding John that the time is coming when they will have dealings once more...when he will offer John a chance to regain what he once lost in his shadowy past. Claude Duhamel as Anton Stice
Peter Shinkoda as Chinaman Dan
Miles Szanto as Waylin Smith
Louie Sabatasso Salt Peter
James Anthony Cotton as Harvard Gold
Gary Douglas Kohn as Saint John
Holiday Hadley as Bootstrap Bess
Sean Joyce as Bobby Shea
Merik Tadros as Prince Zain Mohammed
William Moore as Raven McCabe
Peter Sherayko as Southern Bill
Sam Bearpaw as Ironwolf
Melissa Strom as Roberta Gold
Scott Donovan as Marshal Stone
Tony Herbert as Edward James
The story of the production was first picked up by Variety in 2013 as the filmmakers looked to overcome the government shutdown of all national parks just weeks before their scheduled shoot at Paramount Ranch.
To remedy the situation, O’Brien and his producing partner Louie Sabatasso of 3rd Partner Productions enlisted the aid of Peter Sherayko, known for delivering the historical detail in Tombstone. Together they built their own Hell on Wheels style wild west tent city from scratch in the mountains of Agua Dulce, California.
Sherayko, who played Texas Jack Vermillion in Tombstone, is featured in the film as Southern Bill, along with Louie Sabatasso (Wish You Were Here) as the colorful Salt Peter, joining an ensemble cast which includes Merik Tadros (Munich), Holiday Hadley (Gone in 60 Seconds) James Anthony Cotton (Phenomenon) and Ireland's Tony Herbert (Speed Dating).
Western historian Henry Parke made a special visit to the Western Religion set and wrote an article on the making of the film, followed later by a review of the completed work.
The independent film was completed on schedule and within budget, despite hurricane winds destroying the sets and the coordination of a massive international cast in the remote territory of Agua Dulce.
O’Brien engaged London-based composer Ram Khatabakhsh (Capsule) to create the original score.
Western Religion had its world premiere at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Automatic Entertainment signed with the film for worldwide sales, beginning at the Cannes Film Festival. The film was bought by Screen Media Films for North America following its world premiere. It was released theatrically in the fall of 2015 and in home entertainment in early 2016.
Western Religion was one of 15 films in competition at the 2015 San Diego Film Festival and kicked off its US theatrical release at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood October 9–15, 2015.
The film embarked on a 'Wagon Trail' national tour. Its first stop after Los Angeles took place at the historic New Strand Theatre in West Liberty, Iowa. Western Religion had its Midwest premiere at the New Strand on November 20, 2015. There were horses, cowboys and Indians on hand for the premiere, with TV coverage by NBC Universal, ENT1 Las Vegas and PATV18 out of Iowa City. The film ran theatrically at the New Strand until November 25.
The next stop on the Wagon Trail national tour was the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, at Slaughter Lane on December 3, 2015, followed by a premiere at Landmark's Sunshine Cinema in the East Village of New York City on January 11, 2016. Western Religion completed its national tour at Narberth Reel Cinemas 2 in Pennsylvania at a sold out show that broke the house record, while playing alongside Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Screen Media Films released the film on video on Demand on January 1, 2016, and slated the DVD release for March 1, 2016.
Western Religion was compared favorably in reviews to both John Ford and Sergio Leone in its use of a mythical narrative, while staying true to western archetypes. Denise Marie Siino of Life in LA Magazine wrote: "Not since John Ford’s 3 Godfathers has a western film taken a Biblical myth and, along with a host of plot twists and a cadre of colorful characters, successfully reincarnated it for the box office." Martin Tsai of the Los Angeles Times described it as "a one-dimensional movie painted in painfully broad strokes and whizzing, hurry-scurry action sequences". Nick Schager of The Village Voice called it "a fiasco of frontier-wide proportions" Adam P. Cray wrote in Rokvu that "O’Brien establishes a theme of eerie isolation from the get-go and successfully carries it through his western’s steadily-paced 105 minutes." And western historian Henry C. Parke, film reviewer for True West Magazine, wrote: "As a screenwriter, O’Brien deftly intertwines the lives and personalities of his blurring array of characters, avoiding clichés, taking them in unexpected but convincing directions."
In the review of the DVD release, Ray Nyland of Atomic Movies, wrote that "Western Religion is not your average western. Sometimes, unexpectedly, films can surprise you. Western Religion perhaps should not work as well as it does. That it succeeds is due to the lightness of touch of writer / director James O’Brien. The music and widescreen images of the landscape and tented mining town have an epic tone and feel, but this is not a gritty or bloody film. The characters and acting on a whole are interesting, the dialogue poetic rather than realistic, with Claude Duhamel very watchable. And just when you think the film is over, it adds a climax that is both unexpected and satisfying."