Western RoundUp: Will Penny (1967)

Western RoundUp: Will Penny (1967)

In my February Western RoundUp column, I wrote about Rio Bravo (1959), an old favorite I’ve seen countless times over most of my life.

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 (1967) movie poster
Will Penny (1967) movie poster

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.

Will Penny (1967) Charlton Heston
Charlton Heston

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 Penny (1967) Charlton Heston and Lee Majors
Heston & Lee Majors

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 Penny (1967) Jon Francis and Joan Hackett
Jon Francis and Joan Hackett

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.  

Will Penny (1967) Lobby Card
Charlton Heston often said that of all the films he made, this was his favorite.

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.”

Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett and Jon Francis Will Penny (1967)
Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett and Jon Francis

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.

Lobby card for Will Penny (1967)
Lobby card for Will Penny (1967)

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.

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9 Responses to Western RoundUp: Will Penny (1967)

  1. Mickey Fisher says:

    I recall seeing Heston on Dinah Shore’s television show. He said people would come up to him and discuss how much they enjoyed this film. He stated he always wanted to ask, “Then why didn’t you go see it?”

  2. John Knight says:

    An unusual film this time in this excellent on going series.
    It’s interesting that Paramount are now releasing catalog titles in de luxe editions.
    Hopefully WILL PENNY will be given a new restoration in this most interesting
    “Paramount Presents” series.

  3. Laura Grieve says:

    Hi Mickey, I remember watching Dinah Shore’s show “back in the day”! Heston’s comment begs the question, though — didn’t the people who praised the movie have to see it first? Regardless, thanks for reading.

    John, thank you so much for your support. It’s fairly rare that I watch a Western released after the mid ’60s! (I have another one in my watch stack, HOUR OF THE GUN, which I haven’t seen since I was a teenager.) I have noted the recent Paramount releases, and it would be wonderful if this film received the deluxe treatment it deserves.

    Best wishes,

  4. Walter says:

    Laura, a good write-up of WILL PENNY(1967), which in interviews, Charlton Heston said this was the role that he liked himself best in.

    This is conjecture on my part, but Heston probably meant that he wished that more people had went to the movie theaters to see the movie, because I’m sure more viewers, like myself, first saw the movie on the CBS SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE on December 12, 1971 and the second airing on the CBS THURSDAY NIGHT MOVIE on December 21, 1972. Then, there were the airings on local TV stations after that.

    For whatever reason, WILL PENNY opened in London, England on October 14, 1967 and played in Europe before it did in the USA. The movie opened here on April 10, 1968. The number one Western Movie at the domestic box office that year was BANDOLERO! with James Stewart, Dean Martin, Raquel Welch, and George Kennedy. It finished 17th overall, so you never know what people will go to see. Also, you never know what movies will be found by fans later on, through other mediums of viewing.

    Look forward to your next write-up on this excellent series.

  5. Jerry Entract says:

    Apologies for being late to the party, Laura. I can happily hold my hand up as being one of the people who DID go to see “WILL PENNY” on the big screen on its release here in 1967. At a time when ‘good’ westerns were becoming very thin on the ground it was very satisfying to find a ‘proper’ western again!

    An unusual role for Heston, he played it naturally and beautifully and the film looked just terrific. Donald Pleasance was an English actor of some renown who was usually noted for underplaying and sensitivity in a role. Here he really chewed the scenery somewhat.

    A lovely review, Laura, and I’m so glad to read the warmth with which you greeted this fine western that was new to you. I would now recommend you pulling out “HOUR OF THE GUN” as it was mentioned. I would be interested indeed to hear your thoughts on it.

  6. Laura Grieve says:

    Hi Walter! What you say makes sense, wishing more people had gone to the original release. Always love your memories of your first viewings of films on TV. I remember the Sunday Night Movie! And how interesting the movie opened first in London. Thank you, as always, for reading and taking the time to comment.

    Likewise, Jerry, I’m always so delighted to hear from you! And I love that you were there in the theater to see WILL PENNY upon its release. You must have been so delighted to discover it!

    Thank you for the recommendation for HOUR OF THE GUN. That was one I picked up in a closeout sale when Twilight Time went out of business, so the print should be lovely. I’m going to move that disc up in line…

    Thanks to you both!

    Best wishes,

  7. Obviously, I need to see this. I seem to remember that my dad didn’t like it, so we never watched it when I was growing up… but I don’t think he likes Shane either, and I adore it, so I should give this one a try. Thanks for the lovely write-up that convinced me to seek it out!

  8. Laura Grieve says:

    Rachel, I’d love to know what you think if you catch it. (My mom just watched it for the first time a few days ago and really enjoyed it!) So glad my post has encouraged you to give it a try.

    Best wishes,

  9. chris n says:

    pleasence’s character seems like he showed up from another movie, his crew acts out the bond movie trope of inexplicably leaving the protagonist to die instead of just taking care of it, and the score–though enjoyable–doesn’t really go with the austere visuals of the scenery & costume choices. beyond those quibbles, though, it’s an overlooked gem

    i’ll watch anything with bruce dern AND ben johnson in it, and it’s a masterly understated performance from heston, bucking his usual scene-chewing tendencies

    for me the climactic encounter between heston’s & hackett’s characters weirdly presages the silent moments passed between holden & the young mother in his room, before the final shootout in ‘the wild bunch’. the heston/zerbe/majors characters aren’t outlaws, but the thematic material is otherwise pretty similar to the two landmark modern/post- westerns of 1969

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