A fine Western
Howdy again, e-pards. The revamped Jeff Arnold’s West is finally available. If you tap in jeffarnoldswest.com you should come upon the new format. Sorry we’ve been ‘down’ over the festive season. It took longer than I expected (that’s IT for you).
It’s still work in progress and I am aiming for further improvements but at least for the moment you can access the posts dating back to 2010. There are well over a thousand Western movies reviewed, for example. Click on Western movies near the bottom of the home page, then aaa WESTERN MOVIES AND TV SHOWS REVIEWED in the top right hand corner of the new page.
Western people at the bottom of the home page will take you to Western actors, both character actors and stars, and also to real Old West characters. I’ll be trying to refine this as we go on.
Anyway, today I thought that as it is still Christmas (there are supposed to be 12 days of it, right?) we might look at a Western set at Christmas in which a Christmas tree plays a symbolic part.
I myself have never been a fan of Charlton Heston in Westerns, as regular readers of this blog will probably know. I know he was a good actor and all but for me that was in other genres. Depending on your definition of Western, he participated in 12 features and 2 TV movies, between 1952 and 1995. Some of the early ones, such as Pony Express and Arrowhead in 1953, were downright bad, or they were rather dreary clunkers like The Far Horizons (1955). He largely stayed away from the genre in the 1960s, probably wisely, making only the admired/scorned Major Dundee for Sam Peckinpah in ’65 (I’m slightly in the scorned camp) until, in 1968, he made what is for me his only really good Western, Will Penny.
’68 was the year of the gigantic (I would say overblown) 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. The latter was a project spun off from an episode of The Westerner TV show, Line Camp (S1 E10, Dec 9, 1960), written and directed by Tom Gries. Gries was not a great figure as Western director; he helmed just four feature oaters, and only Will Penny and the fun 100 Rifles (the year after) were good. Mustang in 1959 was a romance with the wooden Jack Buetel and Breakheart Pass in 1975 with equally stolid Charles Bronson was more of a whodunit (and not a very good one at that) that happened to be set in the West. Still, Gries did a lot of Western TV work, being involved in one way or another in sixteen different shows, and back on the big screen he co-wrote The Bushwhackers in 1951 and was a producer on The Lusty Men, Nicholas Ray’s fine rodeo picture, in 1952. So he had some Western street cred. Trail cred.
One of the great merits of Will Penny is the casting. It 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 cattle drovers and their life, Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens were perfectly cast and did a great job, as they always did, great riders and ropers that they were. Anthony Zerbe was very convincing as Dutchy, I thought, 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!
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 continued: “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.”
Bruce Dern is good, as always, as the psychotic hillbilly son of the mad preacher. Jon Gries, the director’s son, who played the young boy, said that he was genuinely frightened of Dern on the set and that was good – the terror shows!
The tough and tender are marvelously blended and neither overdone. With a rough cowboy (Heston) 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 Jon as her boy Horace, as well as the writing.
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.”
Then again, the picture is visually splendid. With the great Lucien Ballard behind the lens and the Inyo National Forest in front of it you are bound to be in for a pictorially beautiful work and you are not disappointed.
The music is a bit ho-hum. But the only real weak point of the picture 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 Christmas tree plays a part because it is when Penny and the boy ride out in midwinter in search of a suitable one to celebrate the festival that they truly bond, and we imagine that Penny, the boy and his mother will form a new family unit (they’ll probably then set off for California; they usually did in Westerns). The tree in the house symbolizes family, and also hope for the future. When the bad guys burst in so crudely, one of the first things they do is throw the sapling on the fire.
History.com tells us that in fact Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans in the nineteenth century. The Puritans in Massachusetts had fined people for celebrating the sacred festival with ‘heathen’ symbols, and this disapproval lasted. But in England Queen Victoria and Prince Albert introduced the custom and in the latter part of the nineteenth century the Christmas tree gradually became ‘respectable’ in the US.
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 trashy 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.