Sunday, March 9, 2014

Will Penny (1968)

Director: Tom Gries                                         Writer: Tom Gries
Film Score: David Raksin                                 Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern

After having gone through a lengthy epic film phase in the fifties and sixties with the likes of Cecil B. DeMille and Anthony Mann, Charlton Heston finally came into his own in the late sixties in films like Planet of the Apes and this western, Will Penny. It’s also a very interesting post-Leone western that harkens back to the traditional style that emphasizes character and relationships. After the almost Expressionistic look and feel of the Eastwood westerns he made with Leone, this film seems to be striving for a realism that separates it even from classics in the genre and looks ahead to films like Eastwood’s own Unforgiven. The film is written and directed by Tom Gries who had paid his dues directing dozens of television series in the fifties and sixties. Will Penny was his first feature film and he went on to helm several more westerns and TV movies before his untimely death of a heart attack at age fifty-four.

The film begins in a very interesting place, the end of a cattle drive. G.D Spradlin is the owner of the cattle and he pays off all of the men. Charlton Heston plays an aging cowboy who knows almost nothing else. Most of the men go their separate ways, but Heston tags along with Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe. Along the way, however, they run into a ragged family of thieves run by a crazy preacher Donald Pleasance and his sons, one of whom is Bruce Dern. In the ensuing battle one of the Pleasance clan is killed and he vows revenge. The three men then meet up with Joan Hackett and her son on their way to California, after which Heston heads out on his own and gets a job on a ranch as a line rider. Later he discovers Hackett and her son squatting on the ranch for the winter, and warns them off before riding on. But when he’s attacked by the Pleasance clan and left for dead, he manages to make his way beck to Hackett where she nurses him back to health. And eventually the three become a sort of ad hoc family.

The character of Will Penny is not a typical western hero. He’s an illiterate who takes half a dozen baths a year, whisky and prostitutes when the he reaches the end of the trail, and has neither shame about what he is nor the ambition to become something more. And in that respect the Donald Pleasance character is a bit incomprehensible. Everything in the film is realistic except the villains, over the top caricatures that don’t seem to belong in this film at all. Joan Hackett is also not a typical western woman, and her character seems more prescient in the way that it looks forward to those films that would come along in the next decade. Lee Majors, in his pre-television days is adequate, but little more, while Anthony Zerbe’s look and accent seem more French than German. In addition, the score by David Raksin seems oddly out of place as well, a bit too romantic when the music kicks in, but strangely absent for much of the film.

In his essay in The B List, David Sterritt attempts to put the film in its historical context, as the last American western before The Wild Bunch changed things. For Heston this was his favorite film, and that makes sense considering the emphasis on his character throughout rather than being part of several subplots. Ultimately it’s difficult to tell from the essay exactly why this film merits attention other than the realism. The downbeat ending, although it is refreshing compared to most, is responsible for some of the cool reception of the film at the time. Heston also blamed the new regime at Paramount who was more interested in promoting new films made under their guidance rather than ones that had already been produced under the old. Will Penny is definitely an interesting western but hardly one that merits more than passing praise.

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