A fine Western
1968 was the year of the gigantic Once Upon A Time In The West but actually the better Westerns of the year were smaller, more intimate films such as The Stalking Moon and, in particular, Will Penny. Will Penny is an outstandingly good movie, probably Charlton Heston’s best Western work. It also benefited from superb acting in the supporting parts: as it is a cowboy film in the proper sense of the word, by which I mean a tale of drovers and their life, Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens were perfectly cast and did a great job (as they always did). Anthony Zerbe was very convincing as Dutchy and Lee Majors solid as Blue. The cowboy scenes come across as authentic and the distressed costumes and real nineteenth century firearms all help. We see how tough and harsh life on the frontier really was. There is no glamor. And it’s cold!
Bruce Dern is good, as always, as the psychotic hillbilly son of the mad preacher. Jon Gries, who played the young boy, said that he was genuinely frightened of Dern on the set and that was good – the terror shows!
The movie was both written and directed by Tom Gries - and both writing and direction are first class. The tough and tender are marvelously blended and neither overdone. With a rough cowboy befriending a mother and child this could have become sentimental or mawkish. That it was neither is a tribute to fine acting by Joan Hackett as Catherine and the writer’s son Jon as her boy Horace, as well as the writing. Gries had written and directed an episode of The Westerner TV show, “Line Camp”, and this movie is a kind of expansion of that.
You so want Heston and Hackett to get together, you are willing them on. But the ending is right. Will Penny is a truly decent man. He has no graces, is gauche, illiterate and has, tragically, no experience of building and sustaining relationships. I don’t think Heston has ever done anything finer. He himself said that he thought it was his best performance. He once said, "The script for Will Penny was one of the best I ever read, it made a marvelous Western." I actually don't much care for Mr. Heston in Westerns, I'm afraid. He always seemed so sour somehow and he was in some really bad ones - like Arrowhead and Pony Express. But he is excellent in Will Penny, far and away his best Western work.
With Lucien Ballard behind the lens and the Inyo National Forest in front of it you are bound to be in for a visually beautiful work and you are not disappointed.
The music is a bit ho-hum. But the only real weak point is Donald Pleasence. He overacted in a number of Westerns, including some spaghettis, and he sure doesn’t hold back in this one. His scenery-chewing performance as psychotic father-figure with almost as nasty sons seems to have been modeled on the Cleggs in Wagonmaster, only there it was well done.
The late Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, always a perceptive critic, said, “What we forget is that fairly few people in the old West were engaged in striding down Main Street at high noon or shooting it out with Wyatt Earp. Most of the people in the West were cowboys, and most of their time was spent in the company of cows.”
That is true, of course, and in Will Penny we feel we are seeing the real West.
Ebert continues: “Another fact -- one that has gone unrecognized in every Western I can remember -- was that most of the cowboys were new arrivals in America, and spoke with a variety of European accents. Dodge City was probably as much a polyglot collection of recent immigrants as the Lower East Side of New York. Will Penny occupies this land of 'real' cowboys most convincingly. Its heroes are not very handsome or glamorous. Its title character … is a man in his mid-40s who has been away from society so long he hardly knows how to react when he is treated as a civilized being.”
There’s a nice little reference to Shane at the end, and indeed the ending is quite moving – until the spell is broken by a rubbish song warbled by Don Cherry. Never mind, it’s an excellent film and certainly the best offering of ’68. Put it on the must-see list, boys and girls.