Charlton Heston scored an enormous hit in 1968 when he starred in Planet Of The Apes, but his real benchmark that year was a lesser known Western called Will Penny. Written and directed by Tom Gries, the film stars Heston in the title role of a cowhand, hired to be a “line man” for a rancher. He’s supposed to ride up into the mountains for the winter and keep and eye on the cattle, but he finds a woman named Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) already living in the line man’s winter quarters with her young son (Jon Gries). Penny knows he should drive out the woman and her son, but he allows them to stay. As winter sets in, the three begin to form a family, at least until Penny’s past catches up to them in the form of a psychopath named Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his sons (played by Bruce Dern and Gene Rutherford) who are after Penny for killing one of the Quint boys in a gunfight near the beginning of the film.
Will Penny is very nearly a perfect Western. Its cast (which also includes Slim Pickens, Ben Johnson, and Lee Majors) is flawless. At the very least, it passes my Bruce Dern Rule which stipulates simply that any movie featuring Bruce Dern is worth seeing.
The real MVP here though has to be writer/director Tom Gries. Though he worked mostly in television throughout his career, here Gries made one of the most beautiful Westerns I’ve ever seen. The film is in love with the snowcapped mountains of Inyo County, California, but it never comes close to being a travelogue. Tonally, it owes more to the gritty violence of Anthony Mann than it does to John Ford’s more romantic vision of the West—though really, this film belongs in a category by itself. It’s neither a Western adventure nor a dark tale of neurosis on the plains. While it has a lot of action and comedy, at heart the film is a gentle character study and an attempt to create an authentic portrait of frontier life. Gries gives the film a palpable physical reality—boots clump heavily on floorboards, winds blow constantly across the mountains, characters shiver from the cold and squint into the sun, and violence has consequences. Heston sustains a cut on his face midway through the film and the cut never goes away. This isn’t to say that the film is Western neorealism—like most films of the era, when people bleed in this movie the blood is an absurd bright red—but it should be noted that Will Penny is not an adventure film. It’s a drama about a man, a woman and a young boy.
Here is where the film really succeeds. Heston, so often the stolid hero of bloated epics, is completely believable here as a middle-aged, illiterate cowboy surprised to find himself having his first real conversations with a woman. He’s even more surprised to find himself forming a fatherly affection for the boy. There’s a beautiful scene where the woman and the boy sing a Christmas song, and the old cowboy stands by shyly, unsure of what to do with himself. When the boy hugs him goodnight, Heston’s face nearly falls into a sob. The scene isn’t the least bit sentimental. It simply seems real.
The young mother is played by Joan Hackett in what is surely one of the best performances ever given by an actress in a Western. She’s smart, funny, and tough. The scene of Hackett gently, but firmly, informing Heston that he needs a bath is one of the best of its kind. Women often function as symbols of domesticity in Westerns, but here both the actress and her writer/director find an emotional truth rather than going for the cliché.
That last point bears explication, but the best example of it really occurs at the end of the film—an ending I don’t want to give away. I will simply say that when all the violence is done and the bad guys have been vanquished, the film ends with a conversation between Will and Catherine. It’s a fine piece of writing, acting, and direction. It could go wrong in many different ways and fall into clichés, but it doesn’t. Instead, two people talk, talk about who they are and what they hope and fear, and then we get our ending (though, to be honest, the filmmakers step on a perfect ending by cranking up a lousy ballad too soon and breaking the spell of the last shot. Oh well).
Will Penny is a great Western—well acted, exciting, funny, and emotionally resonant. It’s one of the best.
Another word on Heston: more than any actor, except for John Wayne and Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston is a performer defined in the minds of many people by his politics. Since his politics leaned rightward—especially in the latter part of his life when he switched parties and became a Republican, and then became the leader of the NRA—many left-leaning movie geeks (which is to say most movie geeks) shun him. It doesn’t help that he was Moses and Ben-Hur, and many movie geeks have long since consigned the genre of biblical epic to the cheese-bin of history. Having said all that, Heston is an actor worthy of attention. He made some good noirs, and one great one, and a handful of other perfectly nice films. He could be an effective performer in the right role and nothing shows this better than the role of Will Penny.