(director/writer: Robert Benton; screenwriter: David Newman; cinematographer: Gordon Willis; editors: Ron Kalish/Ralph Rosenblum; music: Harvey Schmidt; cast: Jeff Bridges (Jake Rumsey), Barry Brown (Drew Dixon), Jim Davis (Marshal), David Huddleston (Big Joe Simmons), John Savage (Loney), Damon Cofer (Jim Bob Logan), Joshua Hill Lewis (Boog Bookin), Jerry Houser (Arthur Simms), Jean Allison (Mrs. Dixon), Ned Wertimer (Mr. Dixon), Charles Tyner (Egg farmer); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Stanley R. Jaffe; Paramount; 1972)
“The ironic comical Western prides itself in taking on the Horatio Alger myth.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Revisionist Western that questions heroes and America as the land of opportunity, as is the want of many hipster films from the turbulent 1970s. It’s the directorial debut for the co-screenwriter with David Newman of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Robert Benton (“Kramer vs. Kramer”/”The Late Show”/”Nadine”), who again teams with the writer Newman. I thought this was the best film Benton ever directed, including his Oscar winning Kramer vs. Kramer, and he disappointed me by never coming close again to being as subversive and hard-hitting as he was in this film. The ironic comical Western prides itself in taking on the Horatio Alger myth by debunking the belief that going West would lead adventurers to the land of plenty, as it bitterly points out the harsh realities of life and that taking to the road will more than likely mean meeting with bad company and hardship rather than good company and fortune.
It’s set in 1863 during the Civil War. Drew Dixon (Barry Brown) is from the small-town of Greenville, Ohio and from a decent Christian family who lost their older son in the war and are fearful of losing another. They abet the strait-laced Drew in evading Union soldiers searching their house for draft dodgers, and give him $100 to escape to St. Joseph, Mo. where he hopes to head further West to Virginia City, Nevada and thereby be out of the Union army range. In St. Joseph, Drew’s robbed of all his money by the ruffian Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges) and then realizes he can’t make it on his own, so he surprisingly takes up the untrustworthy con artist’s suggestion to travel West with him and his young gang of misfits (one of them is a mere ten) and fellow deserters. Drew’s now in bad company and his decency is challenged, as the gang try to live off the land but to survive resort to stealing and bushwhacking and living like outlaws.
The naive kid gang have an assortment of adventures and all lose their innocence, as Drew in the end becomes the very image of the ruffian Jake he despised when he first met him and remains partners with him when the gang is gone because they both realize that they need each other to survive. They are robbed by a gang of inept marauders, are exposed to a farmer pimping off his wife, and in the end find that betrayal and tragedy awaits them at the hand of frontier justice.
The mock Horatio Algier adventurers are romanticized and their draft dodging story draws comparisons to the protest over the Vietnam War that divided the country at the time the film was released.
Also effectively cast were Jim Davis as the stern tobacco chewing hanging marshal and David Huddleston as the charismatic notorious leader of the marauding prairie thieves. Joshua Hill Lewis, John Savage, Jerry Houser and Damon Cofer are the other youngsters in the rag-tag gang trying to survive in the Wild West.
It was filmed in the flat prairie landscape in the Flint Hills area near Emporia, Kansas, in the eastern part of the state.The film is noted for it authentic sense of period detail, as the clothes were hand-made by costume designer Anthea Sylbert as exact replicas from that time period–the designs were lifted from old Montgomery Ward catalogs.
REVIEWED ON 8/6/2008 GRADE: B