Posse (1975)


(director: Kirk Douglas; screenwriters: from the story by Christopher Knopf/Christopher Knopf/William Roberts; cinematographer: Fred Koenekamp; editor: Charles Wheeler; music: Maurice Jarre; cast: Kirk Douglas (Marshal Howard Nightingale), Bruce Dern (Jack Strawhorn), Bo Hopkins (Wesley), James Stacy (Hellman), Luke Askew (Krag), David Canary (Pensteman), Beth Brickell (Mrs. Ross); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Kirk Douglas; Paramount; 1975)
“This superior western is superbly scripted by Christopher Knopf from his story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This superior western is superbly scripted by Christopher Knopf from his story; William Roberts is co-writer. It offers more substance than the usual western, as it throws out warnings that a politician’s actions usually have an ulterior motive that is suspect. Its post-Watergate reflections seem just as relevant at the start of Bush 11’s second term of office as when it was released some 30 years ago. If the film has any flaws, and it does, it’s in the direction by the film’s star Kirk Douglas, who made his debut as director and sometimes has it too slow-paced, stylized with one freeze-frame shot too many, and laden with too many fillers. Otherwise this is an enjoyable quirky western that even manages to be slightly subversive and quite a bit different from the usual oater. Kirk allows Bruce Dern, as the ruthless and ornery outlaw, to steal the pic.

The narrative is framed ironically around the opening and ending quote: “To the polls, ye sons of freedom!”

Texas marshal Howard Nightingale (Kirk Douglas) rides with a hand-picked posse that always gets its man. The ambitious Nightingale sees the job as a stepping-stone to the U.S. Senate. The posse has just disposed of the gang of Jack Strawhorn (Bruce Dern) and burned the $40,000 they stole, but the cunning leader has escaped. Attuned to the realities of politics, the marshal knows he must capture the outlaw to get elected. This he soon does in a typical western shootout at the gang leader’s mountain hideaway, and then triumphantly parades him into the dusty town of Tesola to celebrate his triumph. The marshal poses for photos, the posse take some of the wives and daughters of the local businessmen as the spoils of victory–upsetting one businessman greatly. A puffed up Nightingale, who is backed by the railroad, uses their private train to transport the prisoner back to the city jail, figuring this good publicity is all he needs to win. But Strawhorn escapes and overtakes the marshal, holding him hostage in his own bracelets. Strawhorn makes the posse steal $40,000 from the town, money he says is owed to him when they raided his premises. The outlaw gives whatever money is recovered to the six posse members to divide up amongst themselves, more money than they will make in three years in the posse–thereby transforming them from law officers to his new gang. The outlaw correctly surmises the posse’s discontent that when Nightingale is elected he will abandon them. In fact, Nightingale has already told them he got them positions as railway guards for less money than they’re now receiving.

Jim Stacy, who was just in an accident and lost an arm and a leg, on the insistence of Douglas is given the part of the crusading small-town newspaperman who sees through Nightingale’s promises and warns in his editorials that the candidate has been bought by the railroad.

It’s a typical 1970s type of radical venture, where the authority figures are tainted. It pictures a more naive America where baseball and industrialization were in its infancy, as were the roots of its current political corruption. Its cynical political message and the connecting of the lawmen and the gang as birds of the same feather seemed far too simplistic to fully be believed, but the smoothly drawn narrative goes down rather easily as a sensible action-packed western and is excellently photographed by Fred Koenekamp.