Monday, February 7, 2011

Will Penny (1968)

I’m never sure what to make of Charlton Heston. The roles he’s played politically and in epic movies are hard to forget when he’s on screen as someone else. Here he’s an aging cowboy who can’t read or write, down to his last few dollars and out of a job. All of this, and then things really go south for him.

Many western fans put this film in their top 10 list, and there is much to be said for it. The look and feel of it, the costumes, firearms, sets, cattle herding show a genuine effort to be authentic. Then there are Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens in supporting roles who had lived the life.

Its portrayal of cowboys is also truthful. They worked hard for low pay and were often drifters. As such, they had to be resourceful and self-reliant. If a man could not get himself started with cattle of his own while he was still young, he would not amount to much. Having little to offer a wife, he would live the rest of his years unmarried and alone.

Given all this, there’s a melancholy tone underlying much of the film, in spite of its lighter moments. Then, when misfortune leads Will Penny’s life to cross paths with another soul at loose ends (played nicely by Joan Hackett), we are suddenly in predictable Hollywood western territory. He is wounded and left to die by a maniacal Donald Pleasance, and she nurses him back to health.

Heston, President of AFI, 1981
The mother of a young boy (Jon Gries, the writer-director’s son), she has been deserted by a husband while emigrating west. She is educated, somewhat refined, the opposite of Will. Still, tender feelings grow between the three of them as they winter together in a line cabin.

This being a western, some violence is required, and what’s eventually played out is a scene that may haunt the imaginations of a certain kind of gun advocate. Will and his adopted family become the victims of a nasty home invasion. The menacing Donald Pleasance and his two grown sons reappear and have to be eliminated before order can be restored.

The action is exciting and full of surprises, many of them welcome. Then, after it all, there’s the denouement, and the degree of honesty in the film has to pass another test. Does Will choose to follow his feelings for this woman and her son, or is he prevented by the fact that he has so little in the way of material assets to offer them?

I’m not telling. You have to watch it to find out.

Heston at Deauville, 1982, photo by Roland Godefroy
Which brings me back to Heston’s performance. I give him credit for taking a role that doesn’t call for winning chariot races or dividing the Red Sea. He makes Will Penny almost an anti-hero in the way he invites mixed feelings in the audience.

Something of a loser, friendless, getting old with no prospects, he is even pathetic at times. Yet Heston’s performance never quite tips into pathos. And the movie ends with a kind of courage Hollywood isn’t always known for.

Here is a short featurette from the DVD in which Heston and Jon Gries talk about the cowboys in the film:

Photo credits:

Coming up: Wyoming Week


  1. Yep, I'm one to put this film in my top twenty favorite westerns. I haven't seen it in a good twenty years and guess it is about time to give it another look.

  2. I didnt like this film at all. It has several stories going on at once, ans to be honest, Heston doesnt sit well with me. I find him to be wooden and somewhat lacking in imagination when it comes to his character portrayal, sorry!

  3. Heston fan here. I'd watch if I got the chance.

  4. I have generally liked Charleton HEston, although My favorite role by him is certainly Planet of the apes.

  5. David, I'd like to know what you think after 20 years.

    Cheyenne, good thing we don't have to like the same stuff. We'd be in trouble.

    Leah, there's plenty to choose from.

    Charles, I never got into PofA. The monkey masks seemed too weird.

  6. The person in my life who trained me in appreciating the beauty of Westerns never steered me towards this movie. Strange...he's also a Heston fan.
    I'll have to watch this movie because I'm intrigued by the idea of Donald Pleasance as a bad guy!! He's fixed forever as Colin in The Great Escape in my mind.

  7. Will Penny, is an absolutely wonderful film. I find no flaws in it, other than the fight scene is a little hard for me to watch.

    I thought Charlton Heston, gave a very convincing performance as a tired, aging, wrangler. Joan Hackett, gave a very believable performance as the the love interest. A great actress, sad she passed away too soon.

    Donald Pleasence and Bruce Dern, are frighteningly convincing in their perfomance as the bad guys.

  8. One of my top five most favorite western movies.