Lee Marvin and Jeanne Moreau in Monte Walsh (1970)


(director: William A. Fraker; screenwriters: David Zelag Goodman/Lukas Heller/based on the novel by Jack Schaefer; cinematographer: David M. Walsh; editors: Richard Brockway/Robert L. Wolfe/Ray Daniels/Gene Fowler, Jr.; music: John Barry; cast: Lee Marvin (Monte Walsh), Jeanne Moreau (Martine Bernard), Jack Palance (Chet Rollins), Mitch Ryan (Shorty Austin), Jim Davis (Cal Brennan), John Hudkins (Sonny Jacobs), Michael Conrad (Dally Johnson), John McLiam (Fightin’ Joe Hooker), Allyn Ann McLerie (Mary Eagle), Ted Gehring (Skimpy Eagans), Tom Heaton (Sugar Wyman), G.D. Spradlin (Hal Henderson); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Hal Landers/Bobby Roberts; National General Pictures Corporation; 1970)

“The elegaic Western paints a bleak picture of the Old West coming to an end and of a group of cowboys desperately trying to hold onto an era.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

All things considered, a fine directorial debut for cameraman William A. Fraker (“The Legend of the Lone Ranger”). It’s in the same vein as Will Penny (68), but seems more contrived and less heartfelt. Writers David Zelag Goodman and Lukas Heller base their screenplay on the novel by Jack Schaefer. It’s set in the Old West (filmed in Tucson), in the dusty cattle town of Harmony, in the 1880s. The elegaic Western paints a bleak picture of the Old West coming to an end and of a group of cowboys desperately trying to hold onto an era. It’s imbued with the romantic mood of a Charles B. Russell painting of the West and the desolate landscape look of a Frederic Remington painting of the West. Mama Cass belts out the ironical main song, “The Good Times are Comin’,” to open the film.

It suffers as a good watch because it takes a long time to develop, as it drags its feet offering a slow take of life on the ranch for these fun-loving cowboys who are kids at heart and love playing pranks on each other. It then offers us the usual ho-hum conventional clichéd bunkhouse and saloon fights. After taking its sweet time setting a bleak mood of how the Old West dies because of those darned unseen Easterners and their capital, it finally kicks in with an exciting climax that makes its ‘death watch’ story bearable.

Two aging cowboys, Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance), ride into the town of Harmony after spending the winter as linemen for a ranch that no longer exists. Manager Cal Brennan (Jim Davis) tells them during the winter all the ranches went under and that an Eastern financial group, with a different idea on how to run a ranch as absentee bosses from a long distance, now own the Slash Y Ranch. The two accept work there but soon their carefree mood dampens as men keep getting laid off. The boys’ bronco buster friend Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan) loses his job and becomes involved in a saloon brawl where he kills the marshal. When it seems evident that the days of the cowboy are numbered, Chet marries the “hardware widow” (Allyn Ann McLerie) and becomes a storekeeper. Monte goes to nearby Charleyville and asks his longtime foreign girlfriend, Martine (Jeanne Moreau), the saloon hostess/whore, to marry him and she responds by saying “I like it. Of course marriage is a common ambition in my profession.” When the Eastern accountants decide to fence in the land, even the skilled cowboy Monte is out of work. Monte realizes he’s in no position to get married and after leaving Martine with the promise of soon seeing her again, on an impulse he tames a gray bronc no one else could handle. The owner of a Wild West Show witnesses this nighttime ride, which tears apart a big chunk of Main Street (that in the crowded area unbelievably no one comes out to see), and offers him a steady job. But Monte turns him down by telling him ‘I ain’t spittin’ on my whole life.’ Things darken further when Monte learns that Shorty joined a gang rustling horses from the Slash Y Ranch. With Shorty, a desperate man on the run, refused a stake by Chet, he fatally shoots him with a shotgun in what turns into a store stickup. While chasing after Shorty, Monte learns from former cowhand Sugar that Martine is sick and visits her, only to find that she died of pneumonia. He then obsessively hunts Shorty down to avenge his best friend’s death and catches up with him for a well-choreographed shootout in an abattoir.

Though the film had plenty of atmosphere and the usual good performances by both the iconic Marvin and from Palance in a more gentle role than usual, the story was too listless to be moving. Most of the film tried too hard to make a relevant statement about the realities of the Old West and the harder it tried the more dull, pretentious and artificial it seemed.