Western RoundUp: Will Penny (1967)
This month I chose to write about a film I’ve never seen before, which is also possibly the “newest” Western I’ve ever written about here: Will Penny (1967), starring Charlton Heston in the title role.
Will Penny has been highly recommended to me by several people over the years, including my dad, a fellow Western fan who praised its authenticity and called it a “classic loner Western.” This month it was finally time for me to pull it out of my mile-high viewing stack! Sometimes when one finally sees a film it doesn’t live up to recommendations, but I’m happy to say that Will Penny did not disappoint.
The movie was captivating from its opening cattle drive scenes, filmed somewhere around Bishop or Lone Pine, California, and scored by David Raksin (Laura). This sequence captures the rough, dirty life of a cowboy with gritty realism, including what it was like working in near-freezing weather.
The movie filmed in February, and one could tell the bundled-up actors were genuinely cold; in his book, The Actor’s Life: Journals 1956-1976 Heston wrote “…it was the wind that washed fatigue through all of us, all day.”
It was worth it, though, as Heston recorded that the dailies looked “marvelous.” And indeed, the final film is absolutely beautiful.
As laid out in the opening sequence, Will is a cowboy, teased about his age by the younger men on the drive. He’s not educated — he can only make his “mark” in the receipt book instead of signing when he’s paid — but he has the kind of knowledge, of men and nature, that isn’t learned in books.
With the cattle drive ended, Will tags along with fellow cowboys Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe) on their way to look for new work. An unfortunate encounter with the mean Quint family, including the father “Preacher” Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his sons (Bruce Dern, Matt Clark, and Gene Rutherford) leaves one of the Quint boys dead and Dutchy “gut shot,” seemingly likely to die.
Will and Blue manage to get Dutchy to a doctor (William Schallert), after which Will leaves; he’s eventually hired by Alex (Ben Johnson), the no-nonsense foreman of the Flat Iron Ranch. Will is given a job manning a remote line cabin for the winter and told under no circumstances can any trespasser he encounters remain on Flat Iron land.
This rule causes quite a problem when Will arrives at the cabin and finds Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her son Horace (Jon Francis), who had been abandoned by the guide hired to deliver them to her husband’s new farm in Oregon.
Will doesn’t have the heart to turn the Allens out before they can move on in the spring, and as time goes on the trio become close. Long-time loner Will loves teaching the little boy about the outdoors and comes to love Catherine. But Catherine’s far-off husband, the nearby Quints, and Will’s own fear of commitment all may stand in the way of Will and the Allens being able to remain a permanent family unit.
As with many Western films, part of the pleasure in watching is noticing the echoes of Westerns past. The Quints called to mind Uncle Shiloh Clegg (Charles Kemper) and his “boys” (including James Arness and Hank Worden) from John Ford‘s Wagon Master (1950), with a touch of the Clantons from Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) on the side.
Without intending to be too spoiler-y, the ending made me think a bit of Shane (1953). Tying all these points in Western film history together is Ben Johnson, who appeared in both Wagon Master and Shane and is seen here as Will’s ranch boss.
Heston is superb in the title role, playing a man who struggles to articulate his newly discovered strong feelings. With a history in Westerns going back to the early ’50s, including William Wyler‘s classic The Big Country (1958), Heston seems completely at home both in the saddle and in the part of an aging cowboy.
Heston would write in his 1995 memoir In the Arena: An Autobiography that Will Penny was “one of the best [films] I’ve made, certainly among my best performances…the film itself remains my best satisfaction.”
I was surprised to notice Heston’s wife, Lydia Clarke, in a bit role as the doctor’s wife. This was her first film in 14 years since she had a role in her husband’s film Bad For Each Other (1953). Heston noted in his journal that she did the part as “a convenience” for the production, saying, “I don’t think she enjoyed it, really, though she’s obviously far better than anyone they could’ve gotten.”
Heston also writes in his memoirs that Lee Remick, Jean Simmons, and Eva Marie Saint either turned down the role of Catherine Allen or weren’t available, but he was extremely happy with the lesser-known Hackett’s performance, saying she “couldn’t have been bettered.”
Hackett has a nicely rounded role, as a “proper” woman traveling with a silver teakettle and books to educate her son; at the same time, she demonstrates nerve from the first time Will meets her at a road outpost, traveling west with no one but an unreliable guide and her little boy.
When Catherine discovers Will and Blue have a grievously wounded man in their wagon, she does her best to comfort him and advocate on his behalf; it’s an interesting scene as Will and Blue, unsure of what to do for their friend, almost try to avoid dealing with it — and their emotions — by going inside the station to drink.
Catherine might have more nerve than sense, letting Will know she’s a lone woman at the line cabin when they unexpectedly meet again in that isolated setting, but she’s a hard worker and when the chips are down she can be counted on to do her part in a life-threatening situation. It’s a wonderful role, and Hackett was fortunate the other fine actresses cleared the way for her to get the part.
It’s fun to note that just a couple of years later Hackett and Dern, who plays a despicable villain here, reunited in a far different kind of Western, the comedy Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969).
Jon Francis, who is very appealing as Catherine’s son, was born Jonathan Francis Gries and was the son of screenwriter-director Tom Gries. The senior Gries had mostly directed in television up to that point, and this was his son’s first acting role. The younger Gries has continued to act up to the current day, as Jonathan or Jon Gries.
I was intrigued that Lee Majors received an “introducing” credit in this film, although he’d been starring on TV’s The Big Valley for the previous two years. Heston noted that Majors had hoped to do a wagon-driving stunt near the end of the film but was turned down by stunt coordinator Joe Canutt in favor of legendary stuntman Joe Yrigoyen, which turned out to be a good thing when the camera car filming the scene crashed.
Ben Johnson is a pure pleasure to watch as the commanding ranch foreman, and the rest of the cast, including Slim Pickens and G.D. Spradlin, is strong as well.
Beyond the story and performances, my favorite aspect of the film was the location shooting. A significant percentage of the film takes place in the great outdoors, with Mount Whitney hovering in the background. The Inyo County locations look wonderfully familiar, and as mentioned, the film evocatively portrays the area’s winter weather.
One of my favorite scenes, when Will shows up at the Flat Iron Ranch, was filmed in the rain, and it looks absolutely wonderful. Heston wrote that as filming continued into March and snow on the ground started to melt, bare spots were filled in with detergent foam “snow.”
My only quibble with the film is I might have preferred a different ending, though at the same time it would raise some moral questions, but I’ll say no more about that here.
Given my own enjoyment of the movie, it was nice to read the memories of Heston’s daughter Holly; in a 2016 interview, she named Will Penny as her favorite of her father’s films, saying “It was one of my dad’s favorite movies. I love the movie, too. Because it’s just so full of emotion. I remember being on that set a lot and having really happy times. It was a happy time for us.”
Will Penny is a happy time for viewers, as well. It’s an excellent film which I recommend.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.