Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Old Henry (Shout! Factory, 2021)


Very good


I’ve wanted to see Old Henry for some time. It’s been up on Amazon Prime but unfortunately Amazon is too mean or too lazy to offer it in the original language here in France where I live (Netflix is much better in that regard and also doesn’t have confounded advertizing), so I put it off. I understand French alright and will happily watch a French film in French but I want to see an American film in American English. You lose so much in the dubbing: the accents, the vocabulary, even sometimes the characterization (the part of the son Wyatt is made much younger with the French voice). So all in all, 2 out of 10, Prime. But in the end I watched it anyway.



In writing this review, I have a basic conundrum to start with. Do I reveal the ‘surprise’ plot twist about the true identity of the title character? I will, though, because (a) any Westernista reading this blog will definitely already know at the outset, as I did, who a certain Henry McCarty is likely to turn out to truly be, (b) the picture is three years old now and we all know anyway, and (c) there’s another surprise at the end which I won’t reveal, thus my conscience is clear, ha ha.


So, yes, you already got it, Billy the Kid did not die under Pat Garrett’s gun in Fort Sumner back in July ’81. He survived to run a remote (and rather ratty) pig farm in Oklahoma in 1906. There’s has always been quite a little sub-genre of ‘the one that got away’ Western, in which famed outlaws did not perish as generally thought but escaped death and lived on. We think of Sam Shepard’s Butch Cassidy in Blackthorn, for example. William H Bonney (let’s call him that for the moment) often got away with it. This was especially true in cheaper programmers but even in bigger-budget versions Bonney does not die. In the first extant version, MGM’s 1930 picture, Garrett deliberately misses and gives Billy and his lady-love a horse to escape on. And as for the utterly trashy The Outlaw in 1943, well, let’s not even go there.


Old Henry is in fact very good. Non-Western-loving film critics (for some such career failures do exist) knocked it for rehearsing many Western clichés but they should understand that this is exactly what endears the picture to us. And in fact they aren’t clichés: they are more affectionate quotations.


It stars (and he’s outstandingly good) Tim Blake Nelson, playing the title character tough and straight, without a touch of his previous Oh Brother/Buster Scruggs humor. His whiskers alone deserve an Oscar.




He’s holed up on a remote rural homestead, his wife buried up on the hill, his teenage son getting to the bolshie stage (reminding me a little of the boy in the 3:10 remake). Gavin Lewis did very well in the role, I thought, despite the bad dubbing. He’s generally mild and obedient but when push comes to shove (and it sure come to shove) he is less docile. Henry’s past remains hidden from this son – literally, in a secret compartment of the shack – newspaper cuttings, an old pistol and so on. The lad doesn’t know who his father was.



The father and son’s daily pig-feeding grind is interrupted one day when they find a riderless horse (Michael Curtiz would have called it an empty horse) with blood on the saddle, and, riding out, Henry finds a badly wounded man (Scott Haze) and brings him back to the farm for some prairie surgery. He also finds a satchel of money and (after hesitating) brings that back too. Into the secret compartment it goes.


Curry not a well man


He’s suspicious of the fellow, though. Is he the lawman he says he is? His name is Curry. Of course I thought of outlaws. Henry’s even more suspicious when three heavily-armed men wearing badges turn up looking for Curry. But these guys don’t feel right either. They don’t look like lawmen to Henry. Their garrulous and arrogant leader, especially, who goes by the name of Ketchum, does not seem a law-abidin’ chap at all. His name, Ketchum, should also have been a clue. And this introduces the noir/whodunit vibe to the tale, which becomes increasingly strong.


No right to that badge


This chief villain is played by Stephen Dorff, in his first Western. Mr Dorff has won the ‘Best Villain’ prize at both the MTV Movie and Blockbuster Entertainment Awards – who knew there even was such a thing. But he is pretty villainous in Old Henry, and, in the last reel (if movies these days still have reels) he is also pretty reluctant to die.


I also thought Ketchum’s sinister tracker (Max Arciniega) was pretty good, in his long white coat. I counted him the second-most dangerous of the (later larger) posse, and I thought Henry should have gunned for him first when the showdown came.



The first fake lawman to bite the dust is fed to the pigs in a way reminiscent of Mr Wu in Deadwood. But the others return with reinforcements, eight, I think, and if so, one too many, seven being, as we know, the Mystical Western Number. They have brought along Henry’s brother-in-law, Al, whom they have tried to intimidate into blabbing but he is bloody but unbowed. Now this was a bit of a surprise for me because Al was played by Trace Adkins – a surprise because I’m afraid I have not been too complimentary about Mr Adkins in Westerns before, and indeed he has been in some pretty cruddy ones, notably the worst-ever version of The Virginian in 2014. But here he was really rather good, I thought, in his small part.


Bloody angry


Henry now sets about demolishing the entire gang. We’ve seen before, in other genres too, how a seemingly mild character has hidden depths and, once riled, will single-handedly dispose of any number of opponents with great efficiency, and that’s the case here. More I shall not say.


The picture is very nicely shot (as modern pictures so often are) in Tennessee locations by John Matysiak, his only Western. Though a small (and, I would guess, modest-budget) picture with limited cast and sets, it does have decent production values, and the characters in their clothes don’t look like historical re-enactors in costume, as they so often do in modern Westerns.


It was written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli (who apparently also has a couple of other Westerns in pre-production). It wasn’t only the use of Nelson that gave his film a slight Coen brothers tinge, I think, though Coens without the (dark) humor.


Potsy at the helm (and script)


The picture was premièred at the Venice Film Festival. I don’t know what the intellectuals going back to their hotels in gondolas afterwards thought of it. But I’d go so far as to say that this is a must-see, at least if you are even half a Western fan. I look forward to seeing it in English.



5 Responses

  1. I fully agree with you about the films dubbing. I must admit though that I have discovered many of the classic westerns in French at first sight as a Child. Hearing Wayne, Cooper, Stewart, Fonda, Peck and so forth with their french voices (sometimes from great actors) can bring up some nostalgia of course (Cimarron has been shown in French at Institut Lumière on purpose for the baby boomers reminding them when they were watching the Sunday afternoon western on TV…) but I could not stand it anymore after having watched the Magnificent 7, Liberty Valance, Broken Arrow or High Noon for the 1st time in english as a teenager.
    These silly platforms do not have a clue about what their clients like. I have SFR Box but when watching the films in replay they are in French only or without subtiles when staying in English. You have to watch them “live” to get English with or without subtiles.
    Stephen Dorff is especially excellent in True Detective 3rd season 3 along with Mahershala Ali. I did not have no doubt he could be as good in a western.

    1. I’m sure many French people prefer a Western dubbed into Fraech, rather than in VO with subtitles, and that’s fine by me. But why not give the choice?

      1. I remember reading an article a long time ago about the ‘German Jimmy Stewart’, the dubbing actor who dubbed Stewart in all his movies’ German releases, so Stewart had a consistent voice as well as face for that audience. It was an aspect of how Hollywood stardom functioned in non-English speaking markets that I confess hadn’t occurred to me before.

        A completely different languages problem, as a UK viewer, is buying (often nicely-priced) European DVD releases of older Westerns and sometimes- far from always – finding that while you can always watch in the original English, you can’t remove the subtitles. This seems to happen with some French and Spanish releases but never with German ones. For example, I can’t remove the French subtitles from Way of a Gaucho and Law and Order (the 1932 version- was definitely worth buying that one though as it’s one that never seems to turn up on British movie channels, which show quite a lot of ’40s and ’50s Westerns, so it’s the only way I could have seen this rather interesting and rather good movie).

        1. When I lived in Italy in the 1980s and 90s, when films in the original language were very rare, at least on TV, I got used to the Italian John Wayne, Emilio Cigoli. It was actually a great voice and the consistency, from picture to picture, helped a lot. The Italians were also very good technically, at lip-synching and so on (not in spaghettis because they were too cheap). But however good the dubbing, it’s never the same.
          It’s a bugbear with the otherwise rather good Sidonis DVDs (pic quality excellent) that you can’t turn the subtitles off.
          The 1932 LAW AND ORDER was aan excellent movie, amazingly considering its very ordinary director, but I think it was the WR Burnett/John Huston writing and the great acting.

  2. I remember having watched Rio Bravo a very long time ago as a kid in Val Gardena ski resort. I still remember John Wayne speaking in Italien. It was a shock as I knew his French voice only…

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