Will Penny—Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Ben Johnson, Donald Pleasance, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors, Anthony Zerbe, Jon Greis (1968; Dir: Tom Gries)
This is an end-of-the-cowboy era western, like (and released two years earlier than) the excellent Monte Walsh. It features great performances by Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett, as well as by supporting actors. Bruce Dern is another loathsome villain in this film, but Donald Pleasance as his deranged preacher-rawhider-father holds the screen even better. Director Gries also wrote the screenplay, and his son Jon played the boy. This was apparently based on an episode (“Line Camp”) of Sam Peckinpah’s short-lived television series The Westerner, also written and directed by Tom Gries. Cinematography is by Lucien Ballard, a favorite of Peckinpah.
Will Penny is an aging illiterate cowboy, almost 50 years old. As a trail drive from Texas finishes, he looks for and finds a job as a line rider on the large Flatiron Ranch for the winter. At his distant line cabin he encounters Catherine Allen, a woman with a son (Horace, played by Jon Gries) heading for Oregon, now abandoned by their guide in a remote location. In their isolation Penny and Catherine encounter a bunch of “rawhiders,” a loathsome family led by a deranged preacher-father (Preacher Quint, played by Donald Pleasance), who provide much of the conflict. In the end, Penny has a choice to make now that he’s developed a relationship with Catherine. Heartbreakingly, however, he can’t take the offered family and love because he feels he’s too old; he doesn’t think he has enough time left to provide and build for them.
Ironically, the actor (Heston) playing the much older cowboy survived the young actress playing the romantic interest by 25 years. This is a very good western that doesn’t take easy ways out. Heston considered the film a personal favorite in his body of work. It depends on his performance, and he was right to be proud of it. This is one of two excellent performances by Joan Hackett in westerns, before she drifted into television work and a premature death at 53. The other is the satire Support Your Local Sheriff.