(director/writer: Tom Gries; cinematographer: Lucien Ballard; editor: Warren Low; cast: Charlton Heston (Will Penny), Joan Hackett (Catherine Allen), Donald Pleasence (Preacher Quint), Lee Majors (Blue), Anthony Zerbe (Dutchy), Jon Francis (Horace Greeley Allen), Bruce Dern (Rafe Quint), Ben Johnson (Alex ), Slim Pickens (Ike Walterstein, trail cook), Clifton James (Catron), William Schallert (Dr. Fraker), Gene Rutherford (Rufus Quint), Anthony Costello (Bigfoot), G.D. Spradlin (Anse Howard), Robert Luster (Shem Bodine); Runtime: 108; Paramount; 1968)

“One of the most underrated Westerns ever made.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Charlton Heston as Will Penny gives, arguably, his best performance ever in this magnificent Western on an aging cowboy, a loner, and an illiterate, who is faced with the prospects of a dim future. Penny is someone who realizes that he can’t do anything else but what he has been doing all his life, as he chooses to be a drifter rather than face the responsibilities of family life. Written and directed by Tom Gries. He achieved critical but not commercial success with this demanding psychological character study on the hardships of a cowboy’s lonely life, one of the most underrated Westerns ever made. Gries never made a film again of the same quality.

Will Penny sees the railroad tracks on the prairie while he works the range, indicating that time is running out for his cowboy way of life. Razzed by a young cowboy for being ancient he refuses to fight back until the work is completed, not wanting to hurt his hands. When the cattle drive is over he has no trouble beating the younger cowboy. The boss, a fair man, Anse Howard (Spradlin), rewards him with a job to tide him over for the winter. But another cowboy gives him a hard luck story and Penny gives him the job. Penny rides off with two other cowboys who think they might know of a place to get some work.

Seeing an elk in the woods Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Zerbe) go to shoot it, but before they can fire, someone from across the river kills the elk. When they go retrieve it, a preacher, Quint (Pleasence) and his three sons, tell them that is their elk. The two sides shoot it out as Penny joins his friends and kills one of the preacher’s sons. The preacher then goes into a biblical Old Testament rage about “An Eye for an Eye,” promising to hunt down the killer. Penny calls these men “rawhiders.”

Meanwhile, Dutchy, who is not handy with a gun, during the fight shoots himself in the gut and seems to be dying. The men try to find a doctor but to no avail. At the first town they come to, the saloon keeper tells them that the nearest doctor is too far away to reach in time. They leave Dutchy in the wagon and go have a few drinks. Also at this rest stop, is Catherine Allen (Hackett) and her young son Horace (Francis). They are going from their Ohio home to their new home in Oregon to meet her husband, who went ahead of them to get the farm started. Her husband paid for a driver (Luster) to take them there.

They eventually get Dutchy to the doctor, who is the town barber. He tells them that by keeping him in the wagon in a cold state that they actually prolonged his life. After spending the night in a hotel with a whore and taking a bath for the first time in months, Penny rides off to the Flat Iron ranch to get work without waiting to see if Dutchy made it. He takes the place of the man he finds on the trail who probably died because his horse bucked. Penny’s job will be as a lineman for the big spread Montana ranch, where he will spend the winter in a shack and keep the cattle from straying and make sure no one squats on the land.

Penny’s first surprise is that he meets Catherine and her boy living in the shack. Penny tells them that the boss who hired him, Alex (Ben Johnson), told him there was to be no squatters, that he’ll give them a week to leave before he returns from going around the spread to see where all the cattle are. But on the trail he is jumped by the psycho preacher and his subhuman sons, Rafe (Dern) and Rufus (Rutherford). All the rawhiders give over-the-top performances, with Pleasence’s being as maniacal as it gets. They knife Penny and strip him of all his possessions leaving him there to die, but he somehow gets back to the shack and is nursed back to health by Catherine.

The cold and foreboding shack becomes a warm place as the two gently fall for each other, without Penny doing anything dishonorable. The chemistry between Heston and Hackett was magical. The cowboy is attracted to her but respectful of her marital status. Penny manages to relate to her son and teaches him how to be a cowpoke. But it is all shattered during Christmas when the rawhiders come again to torture Penny, and now include Catherine and her son in their sick biblical revenge.

After their rescue by the big spread’s ranch hands, Catherine renounces her husband and wants to live with Penny. But Penny tells her he is almost fifty and that he can’t change his way of life, and the two part company.

The script captures the nuances and local flavor of the stoical cowboy on the trail in an authentic and moving manner. The direction was superb; the lucid cinematography added to the splendor of the story. An elegant Western, exemplified by truly subtle performances by both Heston and Hackett.

Will Penny Poster