“I’m damn near fifty years old. What am I good for?”
In 1966, Charlton Heston received the first 40 pages of a western script that he would later call one of the best he ever read. Entitled Will Penny, it was written by Tom Gries who also insisted on directing even though his directing experience included no feature films and only a couple of television episodes. With Heston’s name attached to the script, the project was sold to Paramount after being passed on by Universal, Fox, and United Artists. Location shooting was done in the Bishop area of California, north of Lone Pine, with the Inyo Mountains as a backdrop. The film was released in 1967, but received little publicity support from Paramount as the company was undergoing a change of management. Gradually, however, the film’s reputation has grown and it is now recognized as one of the best westerns of the 1960s. Paramount has now released the title on DVD.
Fifty-year-old cattle hand Will Penny is traveling with two buddies when they get involved in an altercation over a downed elk with Preacher Quint and his family. During an exchange of gunfire, one of Quint’s sons is killed by Will and Quint swears vengeance.
Eventually, Will manages to get a job riding the line in the high country for a large ranch. Arriving at the line shack, he finds that a woman and her son, abandoned by a man paid to guide them westward to meet the woman’s husband, have moved in. Will tells them they’ll have to move on before he returns in a few days. After Will departs, Quint and his two remaining sons attack him leave him to die. Will manages to make his way back to the line shack where he is nursed back to health by the woman, whose name is Catherine Allen. Realizing that he cannot turn Catherine and her son H.G. (Horace Greeley) out with winter coming on, Will sets out to prepare the shack for winter and soon finds himself falling for Catherine and developing a close relationship with H.G. Then, Quint and his sons return.
One of the best things about Will Penny is the intelligence of the script and the realistic way in which it deals with what advancing age means for a cowboy. The life of a cattle hand is a hard one, even for a person who’s young, fit, and resilient. So for a cowboy turning 50, in a time when 50 was a considerable age, the future is bleak indeed when you have nothing to fall back on and all you have to look forward to is more of the same hard life. Certainly, the pattern seems to be developing that way for Will Penny. There he is, living from job to job, his latest one — sent out to ride the line on his own for the winter, at $30 per month and keep. Except that this time, love comes into his life, perhaps for the first time (although we don’t know for sure), but events seem destined to ruin it all. And in a way they do, if only because they make Will realize even more that it has all come too late for him. One starts to get a sense of melancholy about what the future holds for Will about half way through the film and it is to the script’s credit that it doesn’t play false with that sense the rest of the way.
Not only did Charlton Heston recognize the quality of the script, he managed to translate that excellence into a high quality performance on the screen. Every note about his portrayal of Will Penny rings true. He looks the age and although his character still appears fit, his mannerisms have just a slight suggestion of slowness to them. He handles the scenes between Will and Catherine naturally, and the gradual empathy that develops is never less than entirely believable. Heston’s efforts are matched by the fine casting of Joan Hackett as Catherine — a role that is indeed one of the best ever for a woman in a western. Jon Gries, the director’s son, plays the young boy H.G. very appealingly.
Another of the pleasures of Will Penny is the opportunity it provides to see a lot of fine, familiar character actors in action. The great Ben Johnson appears as the chief hand at the ranch where Will gets his job riding the line. Then there’s Slim Pickens in a typical role as a cook for the round-up and trip to market. Lee Majors appears in his first credited feature film role (fresh off his work in “The Big Valley” TV series). We also get Bruce Dern delivering a trademark sort of performance as a slightly deranged son of Preacher Quint. William Schallert, Clifton James, and Anthony Zerbe will also be recognizable faces to character actor aficionados. And finally there’s Donald Pleasance playing Quint and obviously having a whale of a time overacting as the half-mad preacher.
The film’s fine cinematography was in the hands of Lucien Ballard, a Hollywood veteran whose filmography extended over 55 years beginning with uncredited work on 1930’s Morocco. In Will Penny he gives us some stunning vistas of the areas near the Inyo Mountains, both prairie-like lowlands and snow-covered highlands.
Paramount delivers a stand-out DVD transfer of Will Penny. The image is 1.85:1 anamorphic and it shows off the film in all its glory. Colours are bright and accurate and the image looks sharp and clear throughout. Even low-light scenes are well-handled with good shadow detail and no noticeable grain. Age-related speckles and the like are remarkably few. Edge enhancement is not present. Very well done for this vintage of film.
We get a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track that does a fully satisfactory job of delivering the film’s audio. Dialogue is clear and crisp with no hiss or distortion. Gunfire has an authentic-sounding crack to it that fits this film, even if it’s miles from the aggressive sound we’re used to from more modern films. A French mono track is also provided as are English subtitles.
In a departure from its normal bare-bones effort, Paramount actually gives us a newly-made 13-minute featurette on the making of the film, called “Remembering Will Penny.” It’s an interesting piece that consists of interviews with Charlton Heston and Jon Gries principally, interspersed with clips from the film. Then we get a three-minute piece called “The Cowboys of Will Penny” that has the same two interviewees talking about the various character actors who had roles in the film. There was no useful reason to separate all the material into two featurettes other than to pad the list of supplementary content. In fact, the material in the latter short featurette would have been better served integrated with the longer piece. Obviously exhausted from the effort expended on these (this?) supplement, Paramount couldn’t extend itself to include a theatrical trailer.
Will Penny is a really fine western that deserves your attention. It features an intelligent script and top-notch acting, all framed by some beautiful scenery in the mountain country of eastern California. Paramount has come through with an excellent DVD transfer and even sprung for some new supplementary material. Recommended.