There’s an elegiac tone to this story of aging cowboys. The glory days are over for the men who used to ride the open ranges, and now they are hanging on to whatever work they can find in a shrinking rural economy. Distant corporate owners make the decisions about how the ranches are run. What used to be “money” is now “capital.”
Plot. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) are old saddle pals, resisting the changes being ushered in by the new century. Monte’s identity is inseparable from the riding and roping horseman he’s been all his life. A sharp shooter with a pistol, he can still ride an untamed horse, though it demolishes corral fences, knocks down porch roofs, and overturns a water tank.
Just like the old days, he enjoys a good drunk and a good fistfight. He also enjoys the company of a saloon girl (Jeanne Moreau) who cancels her “appointments” when he’s in town for a midnight call. She’s been holding out for a marriage proposal from him, and he’s been waiting to put enough “capital” together to properly provide for her.
Chet is cut from the same cloth, though he’s willing to hang up his spurs to marry the widow of a hardware shop owner and help run the store. The transition doesn’t trouble him so much, as he’s getting too old to be spending all day in the saddle.
Matters worsen when a corporate boss orders lay-offs, and their friend Shorty (Mitch Ryan) is let go with two others, simply because they are the youngest cowboys in the outfit. Desperate for a dollar, they try rustling, and then a hold-up attempt at the hardware store goes bad. Chet is killed by a shot from Shorty’s gun.
The losses mount up sharply for Monte, as death takes not only his pal but also his girlfriend, who is felled by poor health, consumption we assume. And he is left to a final confrontation with Shorty, whose hard-luck life has led him into a world of trouble.
Comment. Monte Walsh is more a character study than a story, as if to say there are no more stories to be told of the frontier. The time of adventure is long over, as Jumpin’ Joe (Bo Hopkins) laments. Reduced to fixing fences, he finally puts an end to his misery with a spectacular ride on his horse over the edge of a sharp slope.
It’s a melancholy portrayal of westerners who have outlived the Old West. Dorothy Johnson tells a similar story in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” For Monte, it is one loss after another, but he sustains them with a kind of dignity and fortitude. In the end, he is not quite alone. There is still his horse, which we last see him talking to as they ride off into the sage.
Wrapping up. Based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, this is a beautifully photographed film, the wide-screen exteriors shot in Arizona. The realistic costuming is dusty and sweat stained. Marvin’s hats are especially true to the period. His slouch-brimmed Stetson is pushed up in front, and he trades it for a brand new, undented Boss of the Plains to wear to a funeral.
|Lee Marvin and Jeanne Moureau|
The performances are fine. The three lead actors seem well suited to each other. Palance is a warm and friendly presence. As saddle pals, the two men are like a pair of old, well-worn boots. Moureau and Marvin are believable as long-time lovers, as when they lie together in a post-coital glow and her arms keep getting in the way as he tries to roll a cigarette. Their final scene, as he sits by her deathbed, is a simple but tenderly moving farewell.
William Fraker, best known as a cinematographer, directed. The opening credits are shown over pen-and-ink renderings of Charles Russell paintings. Then as if to pin this faithful replica of the past to not one but two points in time, we get an echo of another era in the title song, sung by Mama Cass. The film was remade for TV in 2003 with Tom Selleck in the title role.
Monte Walsh is currently available at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Movies and TV, click on over to Todd Mason’s blog.
Coming up: Harry Leon Wilson, The Lions of the Lord (1903)