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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Will Penny

Ok, I have to say this first, this is a, great, great western and in my opinion Charleton Heston's finest western role in the eponymous Will Penny.

I've been working on Hurled into Eternity in a diligent manner, and as I often do, I watch westerns for inspiration. In searching on that man's man (Heston) I thought about where he appeared in the genre, and aside from his cameo in Tombstone (see below) I was hard pressed to name amy of his western roles. IMDB was invaluable in pointing me in the right direction, but I had never heard of Will Penny before.

So I rented it off the AppleTV (plug, plug) as it's not easy to find on DVD let alone BluRay. Then I promptly fell asleep watching it, not because it was boring, but because I was that exhausted. The great thing about AppleTV is once you start watching something you can watch it anytime over the next 24-hours. I made it home with an hour to spare before it expired and got to watch the whole thing, I'm glad I did.

I'll admit this was not a movie I knew a lot about and it's not not one of the most well known of the genre or at least one that will immediately come to mind when a western is talked about. Then when one thinks of Heston it's Ben Hur, or one of his equally epic roles.

Charlton plays Will Penny, an aging cowhand, rather then a gunfighter which is a departure from the traditional role of a western leading man. He is even tempered and reliable, a man that can be counted on to do his job and see it through. I can't understate this enough, he's not a gun hand. In the genre of westerns that's huge, rather he is cast as a everyman.

The story starts out just as a trail drive of cattle is ending. With no family and no job lined up he is unsure of what to do. He settles on setting out with Blue, a younger but sturdy cowhand played by Lee Majors and Dutchy. The action starts off fast enough; a day or two after leaving the trail job. After rising early one morning Blue and Dutchy are out stalking a deer before it all goes south of cheese.

The villain of the story makes his appearance, the unhinged clergyman of sorts, Preacher Quint who is played most excellently by Donald Pleasence. His startling wide eyes and rants really set him up. My only regret is that he would have had more screen time because he was fantastic in this role. Quint and his sons set upon Will and his friends early on setting the stage for problems later. In the immediate sense a gunfight erupts over a deer and just who it belongs to.

"My eyes are even crazier in the movie!"

This particular scene oozes with character! After a brief shootout where several of Quint's men are slain and Dutchy is wounded; Blue and Will set out for the nearest town in hopes of getting Dutchy to a doctor for his gunshot wound.

Along the way they stop at a roadside inn/tavern where the two encounter the dark haired beauty Catherine played by Joan Hackett and her son Horace (aka Buttons) on the way out west to join her husband. After her meeting with Dutchy, wounded in the back of the wagon, she forms a decidedly negative view of Will. And just like that she departs with her son being guided by a rather unreliable man.

From there after making it to town and having dropped off Dutchy, Will departs looking for work, or perhaps simple wandering. After recovering a corpse and bringing it to the local ranch he takes work as a line rider. A line rider worked a section of a range herding cattle back to a particular area especially during winter. In almost every case it's solitary work for months at a time. His boss Alex informs him of but a few rules one of hem is to keep settlers moving through the ranch and not letting them stop, of course this will factor in later.

Oddly enough having finished up my read of the Boot Hill Module BH4- Burned Brush Wells at nearly the same time as I watched Will Penny, I was pleasantly surprised to a see a minor nod to a "line rider" in one of the random encounter tables.

In his establishing his shack and hauling up supplies he is started to find Catherine and her son holed up after their guide abandoned them. He is able to talk Catherine down and doesn't immediately kick her out of the cabin.

While out Will is ambushed by Quint and his sons who leave him in the wilderness to die. He somehow manages to make it back to his cabin. Eventually Will returns back to health nursed by Catherine. This being a western of course a romance has to develop. I must say I was pleasantly surprised. At no time did the action drag in my opinion, in fact even during the scenes where they are setting up the romance between Will and Catherine. It moved along well. At first it is clear she is intrigued by him, and he is clumsy about the whole thing. Eventually the two are drawn closer and closer as the form a sort of family with Button. As it mounts Will delivers one of the best lines of the entire movie: "It's just a case of too soon old and too late smart." In a sense we can feel for Will given his upbringing as a orphan working as a boy in the saloons of San Francisco. I often wonder if Will Penny is even his name?

Of course all of this can't last as Quint and his sounds return at the most inopportune time. The shoot outbids brief and Blue and a recovered Dutchy help save the day. I'm glossing over the final fight as that's not what makes the movie, it's what comes after is what makes the movie.

More so then any movie I've seen recently, certainly a western, it does not have a "Hollywood ending" where everyone lives happily ever after. Will knows what his heart is telling him, what he wants to do, but his logic rightly points out that at nearly 50 "he doesn't have that kind of time". In the west, living a hard life outdoors in the rain, snow, heat and dust 50 was ancient. People didn't have life expectancies like we do now. At best he might have another 10, maybe 15 but one filled with hard work.

All too often movies seem to have a contrived ending and the couple is brought together in equally contrived ways. Not so here. Had that happened the movie certainly would have been poorer for it. In a way that's what makes it a great western. I have no issue with giving this 4.5 out of 5 stars; in all its a solid movie.

Some random notes
  • The movie also introduces us to Lee Majors which is cool as in 6 years before his Six Million Dollar Man TV show. This was one of his first major roles.
  • While not his first western, it is probably Charleton Heston's best. The last western he would appear in "Tombstone" as a rancher named Hooker in one of his last onscreen roles
  • On scene in particular I liked was the Christmas scene where Catherine and her son Horace (aka Button) singing "Oh Tanebaum" in German. All to often with the filters of our modern life and especially a seeming reluctance to acknowledge America's past we forget that America was awash with immigrants in the 19th century. Likewise many of us have lost touch with our ancestors. Now I engage in genealogy for my family and have German roots so this spoke to me in a way that it might not to others.

One final thought, Charleston Heston says (according to IMDB) that out of all of his many roles, this was his favorite... It shows.

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