Will Penny

Director: Tom Gries            
Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence

Despite the fact Charlton Heston long ago got superstar status from appearing in movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, and El Cid, there are a number of his movies that would be considered "unknown" that he made between that time and when he finally went crazy - and I'm not talking about his being diagnosed with Alzheimer's symptoms recently. Yes, I know the fact of such unknown movies being in existence won't be at all a surprise to almost everyone, and such a statement is kind of a lame way to start a review. But mentioning that was the only way I could think of to bring in that Heston/crazy/Alzheimer joke I cleverly thought of before actually starting to write this review. Anyway, I can at the very least connect that opening sentence with Will Penny, since it does appear to be an unknown movie, despite the fact that it was released around the same time as other superstar-driven westerns (Hang 'Em High and True Grit) that are still well-known to this day, and that it happens to be good enough to stand beside those westerns. So why isn't is as well known today as those other westerns? There are two likely reasons. The title character of Will Penny isn't as outwardly "tough" as the colorful Rooster Cogburn or the the vengeful-seeking character Eastwood played. Not only is Will Penny not the conventional kind of cowboy that many western audiences seek out, the events that unfold during the movie do so in an unconventional way.

Also, instead of spoon-feeding the audience in the first few minutes what this western will be all about, Will Penny is instead content to not only keep what's going to happen a well-covered secret for the longest time, but it "I have a plan... but you'll have to be the fall guy!"also chooses to not go down a well-worn path that will be familiar to even casual western viewers. In fact, for the longest time it seems like there will be no real story at all, and instead is a collection of vignettes surrounding Heston's cowboy character while he's on the move. We first meet the aging Will Penny while he and his fellow cowhands are finishing up their roundup of the cattle on the ranch they have been working on that particular autumn, hustling them to the train that will take them to market. After Will and the others get paid, he finds himself once again in that unenviable position of having to decide what to do next, once again being unemployed. He ultimately decides to hook up with fellow cowhands Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe, who starred in the immortal KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park) and Blue (Lee Majors). They all journey together for a while. They come across the maniac rawhider Preacher Quint (Pleasence) and his idiot kin, and they manage to drive them off after a brief but violent skirmish, though Dutchy is severely wounded in the process. Carrying the wounded Dutchy, Will and Blue start a long journey to find a doctor. Eventually they come to a stagecoach station, where they come across the journeying Catherine (Gries) and her song H.G. (director Gries' own son). But no doctor. They drink some whiskey, then move on, heading to the town nearest to them.

See what I mean about the plot not following any conventional sense? That is, if all that first half of the movie can be in fact considered a plot. To be more exact, these happening are just planted seeds that finally bloom in the second half of the movie. This also includes when Will strikes out on his own after he and Blue deliver Dutchy to the doctor, soon afterwards getting a job at a nearby ranch that requires him to stay alone out in the wilderness all winter to be the caretaker of the ranch's cattle. Though when he gets to the cabin that will be his winter home, he discovers Catherine and H.G. taking refuge there, having been abandoned by the guide that was going to take them to Oregon - and the shotgun-wielding Catherine makes it extremely clear that she and her young son are not going anywhere. Will doesn't get that much time to consider this problem, seeing how almost immediately afterwards he is jumped by Quint and company, stripped and brutalized, and left to die in the icy mountains. He is rescued from dying from exposure from Catherine, and he is cleaned up and nursed back to health.

There is still quite a bit of the movie to run from this point on. With that in mind, it is pretty likely most people will make an immediate guess as to what things subsequently happen to these three characters, including not just how everything "That wasn't the boogeyman... *I* am the boogeyman, hyuk hyuk!"ends up, but that it will more or less happen in a neat and tidy manner. But once again, Will Penny refused to go down the route most traveled. Oh, sure, the tough and grumpy Will slowly starts finding himself more attracted to Catherine, but for this particular cowboy it's much harder to even consider the idea that not only could he be falling in love, he could spend the rest of his life with a woman like this. For one thing, this woman in this particular movie happens to be already married, and though he develops a great attraction to her, he feels pursuing her would be wrong, and constantly disciplines himself to stay on what he feels is the right path. Equally interesting are the various revelations that suggest that even if Catherine wasn't married, he would still be equally reluctant to pursue him. Will Penny may be tough when it comes to cowboying and wielding a rife, but it's a completely different thing when it comes to self-confidence and interpersonal skills. In fact, there is a strong indication throughout the movie that Will unconsciously hates himself, and is ashamed of the life that he leads. Illiterate, he takes great strides to hide from the other cowhands his signing of "X" on a document, and he gets into a defensive rage if anyone should tease his almost 50 year-old self as being an "old man".

Though he may be defensive about it, it is slowly revealed that Will himself thinks he's old and incapable of change. Early on, he dismisses the hard work he and his fellow cowhands are required to do by muttering, "Better than pushing a plow", but later on, after seeing cowhands like himself getting their legs broken in accidents, fighting rawhiders, and working long periods of isolation in utterly miserable weather conditions, such a lifestyle can't be easily defended. Finally late in the movie he finally admits the truth in a monologue, that he does cowboying because it's the only thing he's ever done, and the only thing he knows how to do - and now he's afraid to even think of changing. It's a superb piece of writing, filled with emotion yet gets right to the point without lingering longer than it should. Though the script of Will Penny might be meandering and almost unsure of what to be about, at no point do the unfolding events loosen their grip on your interest, many times because there is an element of truth that viewers can identify with. We know what a harsh and cruel place the western frontier could be, so we can believe you'd occasionally come across someone twisted enough by this environment who would kill you almost for the hell of it. But we can also identify with feelings of helplessness and loneliness, and being faced with making a big decision that will affect the rest of your life.

And though we've all been in unenviable situations, even we will admit that occasionally some humor can still emerge deep in them that can even be funny to us while we're desperately trying to claw our way out. Such occurrences happen every now and then in Will Penny, and they help Heston tried everything to keep his brains inside his head. Needless to say, it didn't give the events a little bit of extra authenticity, as well as some welcome comic relief. Even Heston gets into the act, whether its trying to explain to Catherine what he means when he proposes using "chips" when the availability of firewood is questioned, or the hilarious comment he makes after he milks a cow for the first time. When it comes to handling his share of the movie's gentle humor, Heston does a marvelous job, convincingly giving off a bewildered mood as he handles these things that are out-of-the-ordinary for his character, in an understated way that gentler and more believable than stammering or double-takes. In fact, Heston is great everywhere else, making an almost natural evolution from a hardened cowhand to being moved to tears when Catherine's little boy surprises him by running up to give him an unannounced hug (a great scene, by the way.) He's also backed up by some other seasoned professionals in the cast. Long-time cowboy actors Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens make a welcome appearance in a couple of small roles. And while Donald Pleasence may be one of the last people you think about when picturing major stars on horseback in a western, he actually does pretty good here. It is a bit embarrassing in his initial appearance to see him hamming on with his Bible-laced threats of judgment and revenge. But his later appearance compensates for this by suddenly moving to a more understated temperament, and his preacher character then becomes truly creepy with his threats coming across in an almost casual way, as if he's currently repeating this particular diabolical scheme for the umpteenth time.

There is also a great contribution made from the less seasoned people  associated with the movie. In the breakout role that made Hollywood really sit up and notice her is Joan Hackett as Catherine. Though her role looks deceptively simple at first, it's a masterful performance because Hackett has to play a simple woman. She has the task to be believable as an ordinary frontier woman, yet one at the same time that we can both identify with and take to our hearts despite her plainness. Not only does she take that on without breaking a sweat, she also holds her head up high next to Heston, and there are some great scenes where Heston engages her in conversation; she catches what he's thrown and send it back each time without a hitch. Playing her young son, Jon Gries (billed here as Jon Francis) also has a natural feeling to his performance; he plays the boy as curious, not precocious; young, but not naive. A far cry (for the better) than the smarmy brat you might expect for a Hollywood movie.

The biggest contribution from a newcomer, however, comes from writer/director Tom Gries. Though he had dabbled in TV directing a few minor feature "Keep your hands away from me, you damn dirty ape!"films before Will Penny, this was his first "big" production, and what a way for him to start out in the big leagues. He captures the life on the western frontier not just in a more realistic way, but in ways that might not have occurred to us. The weather out on the open plain was harsh, yes, but Gries shows us it was also tough in the winter, with freezing rain and snow pelting down. We're shows that many "towns" in this brutal environment sometimes consisted of nothing more than a couple of buildings and a tent. Though such things found in this tough frontier forced your average cowhand to be tough or die, most of them were just tough in a man vs. environment sense; we see in this movie that even during this time and place, most men still had the decency to be civil towards each other. It's a nice change from your typical shoot-'em-up western, and perhaps encouraged by this, Gries keeps up the surprises by adding other special touches now and then, from unexpected decisions from the characters to nice one-liners. (I loved Dutchy's philosophy on the right time to drink whisky.) The movie definitely is not perfect; I could go on for a while outlying problems apart from Pleasence's hammy delivery. For example, the music in the movie not only includes an utterly uninspired score by David Raksin (generic western music that never seems to fit the mood of any scene), but finishes with the song "The Lonely Rider", one of the worst end-credits songs I've ever heard, western or not. But why should I? The good parts of the movie more than made up for these bad parts, and should you see the movie I think you'll agree with me.

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Check Amazon for Charlton Heston's autobiography, "In The Arena"

See also: Bad Company, Cheyenne Warrior, Monte Walsh