By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Returning to his wife.
Harry (Peter Fonda) and Arch (Warren Oates) having been wandering the American West for many years, but Harry has grown weary of it. He informs Arch and their younger companion Dan (Robert Pratt) that he plans on going back to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) whom he abandoned many years before. Arch is not happy with this decision and tries to talk him out of it, but eventually relents and after the untimely death of Dan decides to head back with him to Harry’s former homestead. When they arrive they find that Hannah is still working the farm with her young daughter Janey (Megan Denver). Hannah is not pleased to see Harry as she had informed Janey that her father had died many years earlier. Harry tries to make amends, but Hannah resists only allowing him to stay as long as he agrees to become a hired hand and help with the chores. Both Harry and Arch agree to this, but when Arch decides to eventually head west alone and then gets abducted by a crooked sheriff (Severn Darden) Harry leaves Hannah to help save his friend much to the anger of Hannah who feels he’s again abandoning her.
This film was the product of Universal Pictures’ new policy of allowing independent pictures to be made under the studio system as Easy Rider had done well with a low budget, and no studio meddling, so they hoped to replicate that success with more films like that one. Besides this one the other movies included: Silent Running, Taking Off, The Last Movie, and American Graffiti and were all made with each director given $1 million to work with and then allowed to use his artistic freedom to create the kind of film he wanted without studio interference.
Unfortunately this movie did not do well at either the box office, or with the critics. Variety labeled it as ‘disjointed’ while Time described it as ‘pointless’. With the bad press and poor profits the studio decided to end its ‘independent movie’ division and films like this were no longer made, at least under the Hollywood umbrella. While this movie sat in near obscurity it finally found an audience in 2002 when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and has since acquired many admirers.
What I liked about it is how it goes against the western narrative where life in the old west isn’t portrayed as being about gunfights and saloon brawls, but instead quiet and slow paced. Harry and Arch spend their time raising livestock and doing other farm chores as just keeping the crops growing and animals fed was a mighty challenge enough. The acting by the entire cast is superb, but the real stars are Bruce Langhorn and his wonderfully unique music score, Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Frank Mazzola’s brilliant editing where he mixes in a lot of montages and overlapping still photography.
There are a few gunfights, but unlike shoot-outs in the conventional westerns this isn’t about tough brave men with nerves of steel. Instead the gunfights are seen as happening when goofball idiots, much like today, get their hands on a weapon after being triggered over something insignificant and shooting wildly before killing himself. Most westerns will prolong these moments, but here it’s quick lasting only a couple of minutes, like in real-life, and when it’s over all you see are dead bodies lying about making it seem more like a needless waste of life.
Harry and Arch’s long travels together through the desolate, lonely west are what really stands-out. You get a true sense of what the world was like back then where you might not see other people, or homes for days on end. You also get a good understanding for why Harry becomes so attached to Arch and willing to risk is life at the end to save him because for such long periods during their travels Arch was, at least from his perception, the only other person on the planet with him and this then created an indelible bond.
When it got broadcast on NBC in 1973 a 20-minute deleted scene featuring Larry Hagman as a sheriff was edited back into the film. This segment had gotten cut-out when director Fonda felt, after viewing it in the editing room, it wasn’t needed and didn’t really help propel the story. The footage can be found on the 2003 DVD issues from Sundance as a bonus extra. I watched it and enjoyed Hagman’s performance as, like with everything else in this movie, goes against the grain of the conventional western. Most of the time sheriffs where portrayed as stoic figures, but Hagman comes-off as nervous and jittery and not completely in control of the situation. I would think most lawmen back-in-the-day with dangerous outlaws roaming the countryside and invading small towns would behave much more like Hagman does here, so in that respect I felt these scenes were insightful, but ultimately agree with Fonda that they didn’t add much to the story and the film flows better without it.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: July 16, 1971
Runtime: 1 Hour 30 Minutes
Director: Peter Fonda
Available: DVD, Blu-ray, Plex