The Hunting Party

Director: Don Medford   
Oliver Reed, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman

It's often amazing about how things can change - for better or for worse - in just a few short years. Looking back at your life for the past few years, you are probably surprised at some of the changes that have happened during that time; I know I'm amazed at some of the changes in my life, and those in my family and friends' lives during that same short span of time. Large changes in just a small span of time also happen in the world of movies all the time. Take John Travolta, for instance. He was hot in the 1970s after the movies Grease and Saturday Night Fever, but just a few years later he was a has-been. Then after several years in the doldrums, his career was suddenly rejuvenated, and he became (and stayed) a hot movie actor again. Larger scaled changes happen in the movie industry all the time as well. There's the case of of the film company New Line. Just a few years ago they were on top with hits like the Lord Of The Rings movies; today they are finished after an almost uninterrupted streak of box office flops for the past few years. A similar story can be found in an earlier period of Hollywood history with film studio MGM

But sometimes changes can happen to an entire film industry. The subject I've been warming up to is the British film industry. The British film industry may be doing fine today with films like Mr. Bean's Holiday and Bridget Jones' Diary, but a look at the industry through the years will reveal several ups and downs. In the 1960s, the British film industry was doing well. They were finding domestic and international success with a range of different films. There were spy movies like the James Bond series, horror movies by legendary companies such as Hammer and Amicus, sexually-charged movies that pushed new boundaries like Alfie and Women In Love, and there were big-budget affairs like Tom Jones and Lawrence Of Arabia. But by the 1970s, things had changed considerably. American film companies were making their own sexually-charged movies and distributing them around the world, drying up the world market for these kind of movies for British filmmakers. American film companies were making extreme horror movies like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, movies Hammer and Amicus found impossible to make, and their American financing dried up. In fact, American financing - which British filmmakers depended on greatly in the past - was starting to dry up for all genres of British movies. British films were still being made, but sacrifices were being made in order to get these movies made.

The Hunting Party appears to be one of these movies, where the British backers had apparently decided to give up many home-grown things in order to get a project made, and cobble together things from many different sources. So much so, that I must admit I am kind of puzzled as to why some of my sources, during my research of this movie, indicated that this was a British movie. To begin with, the events of the movie do not take place in Britain, nor are any of the characters in the movie British, even though one of the main characters is played by a British actor. The movie was not shot in Britain, but in Spain. The director, Don Medford, was American, and so were two of the three men credited with the screenplay. The music composer (Riz Ortolani, who also scored Cannibal Holocaust and The New Gladiators) was Italian, and the remaining credits are peppered with individuals from Spain. As you may have guessed, the end result is an imitation of an American genre, a western (though with some European elements that had previously found favor at the world box office for the past few years.) Hackman plays Brandt Ruger, a rich and powerful cattle baron in the American Southwest married to schoolteacher Melissa (Bergen). Not long after the start of the movie, he meets his equally rich and powerful friends at the county train station, and they leave in a private train in order to go on a hunting trip. Not long after that, bandit Frank Calder (Reed) and his band of desperados kidnap Melissa (who stayed behind) so that she will teach Frank how to read. Word of the kidnapping soon reaches Brandt. After getting the word, he delivers a proposal to his friends: Instead of waiting for a posse, Brandt and his friends will hunt down Frank and his band of outlaws themselves with the guns Brandt brought for his friends, .54 caliber telescopic rifles that can pick off a target 800 yards away.

The Hunting Party is a very violent movie. The movie tells us right at the beginning this is going to be a tough and nasty voyage, starting the movie with a cow being butchered and cutting immediately afterwards to the rough lovemaking of Brandt and the in-pain Melissa. The guns Brandt and his friends bring to this rescue mission pack a serious punch; they create big, bloody gunshot wounds on the bandits as they are shot in the head and other parts of the body. (As big and bloody as these gunshot wounds are, my research revealed that in real life, the gunshot wounds would in fact be even bigger and bloodier.) The bloody action sequences in this movie seem to be made in a way to outdo Sam Peckinpah, who had set new standards for western violence just a few years earlier with The Wild Bunch. Peckinpah himself would probably applaud these action sequences, seeing how very effectively they are presented. (And he would probably also applaud for the fact that actor L. Q. Jones, an actor he used several times in his movies, has a supporting role here.)

The movie is not wall-to-wall filled with violent acts. Though there are a few violent acts in the approximately 45 minutes from the beginning of the movie to where Brandt and his friends make their first strike against the Calder gang (including a rape, though this scene is more tastefully handled than you might think), there are a number of lengthy periods before and after this point where nothing violent happens. But while there are a number of non-violent moments in the movie, the movie always contains a violent edge to it. None of this violence in the movie - actual acts, or just this feeling of violence - is glamorized at any point. There is always something that makes viewers unable to get any thrills from the violence. Take the aftermath of the first victorious strike Brandt and his friends make against the Calder gang, right after the remaining members of the Calder gang flee the scene. In another movie, you would probably expect Brandt and his friends to run down the hill to the gang members they have just killed, whooping and hollering and giving each other the old west equivalent of high-fives. Not in this movie. Brandt and his friends slowly approach the bodies and observe them in silence, and before they finally speak you can tell that almost all of them in this silence are thinking along the lines of, "What have we done, and what have we got ourselves into?" The situation is made more grim when they subsequently discover one of the blood-soaked bodies is in fact (barely) alive.

Much of the credit for the movie's portrayal of violence (actual and that feeling of), as well as most of the remaining merit of the movie can be credited to director Don Medford. In doing research on this movie, I was shocked to find out that (along with his movie The Organization, released the same year) that this was his first time behind the camera of a movie made for theaters after making a career for himself for years directing episodes of  television series; the movie plays out like it's been directed by someone with theatrical experience and the confidence that goes with it. The Hunting Party feels like a "big" movie all the way. The Spanish locations Medford shoots on for the most part seem fresher and more original than many of the locations used for spaghetti westerns of the same period, and even the locations in the movie that are more familiar to spaghetti western fans are shot in a way to make them look somewhat more grander and majestic than usual. Medford is given a boost by Riz Ortolani's musical score. More American in flavor than what he is normally known for (though there is still a touch of spaghetti to be heard in the music), it adds an appropriate grim and tense mood to the movie at times, such as when Calder and his men ride though town (with the sheriff and his men pointing their guns at them in warning) during the opening credits. But Ortolani seems to know when to be more subtle, sometimes not even playing a note at all during some key scenes, letting silence play over the events. The silence in these moments is very effective, and the scenes would have probably be ruined if there was another music composer.

As good as the musical and directorial touches are in the movie, they cannot hide some serious flaws, which begin to appear when looking at the performances. To begin with, Bergen is terrible in this movie. Though she proved she could act with her TV series Murphy Brown, this movie was done early in her career when she was a notoriously bad actress for the most part. In this movie, she lacks strong emotion in several key sequences. During the moments when she does show emotion, it comes across as someone desperately trying to act instead of a character in a grave situation. In fairness to Bergen, she was working with a screenplay that doesn't do a very good job in explaining how her character, who begins by hating Calder, later starts having feeling towards him after a day or two. The two male leads of the movie come across better than Bergen, more for their acting talents than what the screenplay gives them. British actor Reed may at first seem like an odd choice to be in a western, but he has no accent, and he handles all his scenes well. However, the screenplay can't decide whether his character is tough or sensitive, and it's hard to believe this character could be both. Hackman comes off the best, giving a consistent performance of a character whose inner rage and determination is evident even in his quieter moments. But his character's motivations are mysterious at times. There are several moments in the movie when his character has the opportunity to kill Calder, but doesn't. The screenplay has a number of other unexplained questions. For example, how do Brandt and his friends know what Calder looks like? And why won't Calder ever admit defeat after suffering major losses? The movie feels like the screenwriters didn't finish their job(*). That's not to say the movie is bad. Despite the flawed screenplay, the movie still manages to be compelling, exciting at times, and never boring despite running close to two hours. But at the same time there is a disappointment to be felt. You'll sense that the people behind this movie were on their way to make a classic western, maybe up to Peckinpah standards, but something went seriously wrong along the way.

* It's not like the screenwriters were lacking in experience. One of the screenwriters a few years earlier penned the Burt Lancaster movie The Scalphunters, a western that has some remarkable similarities to The Hunting Party.

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See also: A Bullet For Sandoval, French Connection II, House Of Usher