When it comes to Charlton Heston in Westerns it’s a mixed bag for me, having a few classics to his name. Known more for his Biblical work which suits him more, or his more just readily associated with them, either way I’m really got in the saddle with Will Penny (1968). Initially thinking it was going to be like Monte Walsh (1970) which again looked at aging cowboys who were coming to the end of the lives in the saddle, or so we thought. I was quite taken with the film, taking two of the genres bigger supporting actors are given this quiet film to relax and get comfortable.
Looking at Will Penny you can see it’s definitely a precursor to Walsh who follows on from the earlier. Focusing on Heston’s film for now I want to look at how he has made this cosy domestic Western. For a cowboy we see very little of the rugged open country that we associate with the genre. At the opening of the film we see cows being driven to a station, rounded up ready to go off to slaughter. We only hear of the promise of the train, which we wait for, whilst wages are paid out to the men. It’s virtually unseen to have the bureaucracy of the cattle drive on display. It’s generally get the cows the market, blow off some steam and see how much money’s left over before you join up on another drive.
It’s the next job which we focus on, where the men are heading off to. Two men Blue and Dutchy (Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe) are making plans to find another drive before winter sets in, another cowboy is wanting to get the train to see his father one last time. There’s no place for having a good time here, it’s about keeping the money coming in, not spending it as fast as you can. The realities of Frontier life without any of the Hollywood trappings. Penny (Heston) is one of the more experienced men on the drive, who can’t easily being driven to violence before losing his job, he just wants to survive and do his job. Now Penny’s supposed to be playing older than he is, in his mid 40’s he still looks too young, relying on grey hair dye and the elements to age him up. It’s true life expectancy wasn’t that good in the frontier, however Hollywood is pushing it slightly.
He eventually rides off with Blue and Dutchy who we next see camping when an Elk’s spotted in the distance, fresh meat for the taking that leads only to trouble. The three men fight over it when an unscrupulous Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his boys who claim the game for themselves. One played by Bruce Dern in an early screen appearance setting the tone for his career. The gang lead by the fathers twisted interpretation of the good book taking the eye for an eye passage too literally. The death of his son he wants to avenge along with his sons who wont give up their quest for “justice”
Being a rare domestic Western there was more time given to Dutchy’s self inflicted gunshot wound. He’s not left for dead – for long anyway. Taking him to a small farm where the Penny and Blue want to get him to a doctor. Advised by the farmer best to let him die, come and have a drink instead. There’s little drama in these scenes, its pure conversation. Dutchy romanticses his accident to passing mother Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and son whose shocked at the story, taking his boasts at face value, painting Penny in a poor light. All moving at a steady pace, with no sense of urgency before they reach the town of Alfred where he does finally get care, where we leave him and Blue for a long time.
The focus now on Penny who finds himself a job, after bringing back the dead predecessor, again no drama, only that implied by the dialogue. Employed by Alex played by Ben Johnson whose settling into the older roles comfortably. We think that Penny can rest easy now for the winter just around the corner, his troubles are just about to begin. With the appearance of Mother and son once more in his own cabin, he wants to go easy and fair on them before his return. Even after she held him at gun point. Reflecting how hard it must have been for traveling families to defend themselves out on the frontier. Meeting himself with a bloody encounter with Quint and his boys. The group aren’t the hardest of men I’ve seen in the genre, acting like Native Americans would have been depicted, jumping around, throwing Penny around. Pleasance is strangely suited to the role known for the playing the bad guy this looks like fun for him. They leave Penny for dead in the now snowy Rocky’s, its survival time for him.
Arriving back and taken into his cabin, nursed back to health, we discover a more vulnerable side to Penny and the predictable build up of a romance between him and Catherine. It’s these scenes in and around the cabin that make it takes us into the home and the family dynamic like never before. Of course there have been many families, either warring against one another or all grown up, dysfunctional and feuding. Here these a sense of new love and discovery, without even knowing it. Brought to an abrupt end by the arrival of Quint and his boys, disrupting the dynamic, Penny now a prisoner, Catherine a sexual object to be played with. I’m reminded of the forced dance scene in Day of the Outlaw (1959) when the passing renegade soldiers lead by Burl Ives men who are finally allowed to let off steam, treat the most desirable woman Helen Crane (Tina Louise) as little more than a rag doll, showing no respect for her. The scene is drawn directly from. It’s just as painful to watch as the woman can do little or nothing about it. Made worse by a woman who came with the men who does nothing to stop it.
Falling back into the rules of the genre the hero has to save the day, if only to save his dignity and self-respect, with the help of Blue and Dutchy who appear out of nowhere its time to get the guns out and finally sort the Quint family out. Allowing domesticity and reality to set back in, Alex and his men ride into view and the mother and son have to face reality, not just of where they live, but with who. Penny is reluctant to settle down, feeling his life has not allowed him earlier to do so has left him emotionally at a disadvantage. Unsure if his own skills could support a family, knocking his confidence greatly, he has to carry on alone, riding off into the wilderness, this time out of choice, he had the option to make a family, a life on a farm. His own inadequacies, perceived or real hold him back. A more honest ending, for the film and the man who would have rode away with her, decides not to. A mature and hard decision to make narratively and emotionally for the audience. With reluctance I accepted his decision, nothing in his life has prepared him for a family, running away scared, better off he may think, still he leaves a potential family and lover to survive alone.