Director Burt Kennedy’s record with westerns was very much hit or miss. This revisionist effort is one of the former though it could as easily tipped into the latter, beginning with a shrill soundtrack that telegraphs every incident and the no-name villain. And you might also wonder if irony had taken such a hold of settlers that they would actually name their town “Hard Times” when there was a gold strike over the hills.
Anyway, this is certainly a town that lives up to its name. Can’t have been more than a dozen houses, a saloon of course, but it’s the muddiest place west of No Name City (Paint Your Wagon, 1969) and the meanest to hove into view since High Noon, with the townspeople in thrall not to an entire gang, but one nameless stranger (where have we seen that before).
The Man from Bodie (Aldo Ray), as he is known, is the bad guy from Hell. He shoots anyone who stands up to him like Fee (Paul Birch) or shows the slightest dissent like undertaker Hanson (Elisha Cook Jr) and rapes Fee’s girlfriend Flo (Ann McCrea) before dumping her corpse on the saloon stairs.
Will Blue (Henry Fonda), lawyer not lawman, hasn’t the guts to stand up to him, but comes the closest of the cowardly bunch. When The Man has done as much rampaging as a tiny town will allow he burns it to the ground. Most people leave, but Blue, having done too much running in his life, decides to stay to look after Fee’s orphaned son Jimmy (Michael Shea).
If Blue’s vengeful Oirish girlfriend Molly (Janice Rule) also remains it’s mostly to hate him for abandoning her to the madman – Blue had used her to distract the Man but then retreated when the going got tough leaving her to be raped at will. She sets up her own League of Desperadoes, recruiting new arrival Jenks (Warren Oates) and the orphan, to tackle the bad guy on his inevitable return.
Meanwhile, a mobile unit of sex workers, complete with tent, turns up to service the nearby gold workers. Their entrepreneurial boss Zar (Keenan Wynn) spots opportunity and helps Blue rebuild the town. Of course, everyone’s just waiting for Bodie Man to return.
Anyone that’s likeable or got anything approaching character is killed off at the start, so we’re left with an unlikeable, ambivalent, but realistic, crew. For all his later hi-falutin’ principles and pioneer spirit, Blue is still a coward who, to save his own skin, sacrificed Molly. Hoping to redeem himself by acting as surrogate father to Jimmy doesn’t result in him winning any respect from Molly.
This is one raped woman who found out the man on whom she was depending was no protector. Why should she ever love him again? And she’d be crazy to put her life in his hands once more. Of course, she could have got herself her own shotgun or pistol and ambushed Brodie Man when he took another shine to her, but instead she plays pretty please with Jenks, which is understandable, and the young Jimmy, which is deplorable.
That the sex worker magnate becomes one of the town’s foremost citizens might cleave closer to the bone than many viewers would like, but corruption was as endemic in America then as it presumably is now.
And it begs the question when all those pioneers headed out West how many of them were scum like Bodie Man? And how did the settlers think law-and-order was going to work out?
On the downside we have a villain, who, not content with killing and raping, demonstrates just how mean he is by smashing whisky bottlenecks because he hasn’t the patience to extract the cork with his teeth. Fee is dumb enough to take on the bad guy with a bit of log. Molly’s Irish accent is all over the place. And we could do with less music. And there’s a climactic twist that belonged to a horror film and is not only completely out of place but undoes the realistic tone by providing a somewhat sanctimonious ending.
But if you are expecting a movie along High Noon lines, with the good guy beating the bad, and winning the town’s respect, then you will be disappointed. On the other hand if you come prepared for one of the darkest westerns of the decade where the terrorizing outlaw exerts such fear that the townspeople, in defending themselves, pull down the shades between good and evil, then you will be amply rewarded.
The boldness of director Kennedy (The War Wagon, 1967) in reimagining the West as a place of venal proportions should be applauded. The direction might take a wrong turn here and there but the aim is effective. Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968) is good as ever and although I could do without the awful accent Janice Rule (Alvarez Kelly, 1966) is superb as the vengeful woman refusing Blue forgiveness and willing to use a youngster as a weapon.
A sound supporting cast includes Keenan Wynn (Warning Shot, 1967), Edgar Buchanan (Move Over, Darling, 1963), Janis Paige in her final movie outing, John Anderson (5 Card Stud, 1968) in a double role, Aldo Ray (The Power, 1968) and Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch, 1969).
Kennedy wrote the screenplay form the book by E.L. Doctorow.
Will make you flinch but worth a look.