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Savant Review:

Will Penny

Will Penny
Paramount Home Video
1968 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 108 min. / Street Date May 28, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence, Lee Majors, Bruce Dern, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Clifton James, Anthony Zerbe, Roy Jenson, G.D. Spradlin, Quentin Dean, William Schallert
Cinematography Lucien Ballard
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Film Editor Warren Low
Original Music David Raksin
Produced by Fred Engel, Walter Seltzer
Written and Directed by Tom Gries

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Intelligent and thoughtful, Will Penny is a good Western and an even better character study. Charlton Heston almost convinces us he's a good but simple man trying to do what's best for the hopeful Joan Hackett. Veteran Tom Gries' sensitive screenplay, and some near-perfect casting, pull it all together.


Illiterate cowpuncher Will Penny (Charlton Heston) is showing his age, and he foolishly turns down a soft Winter job in St. Louis, to instead search for work with his friends Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe). But they're bushwhacked by the deranged Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasance) and his family of outlaws, and Dutchy is shot in the stomach. Blue and Will get Dutchy to a doctor, and then Will finds work riding the line for rancher Alex (Ben Johnson). He ignores his instruction to evict squatters when he finds that stranded homesteader Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her son Button (Jon Gries) are holed up in the lineman's shack. After he's stabbed by one of Quint's sons, they nurse him back to health, and he resolves to see them through the winter.

You know a movie hasn't much money to spend, when the cowboys drive the herd to the railroad, which is represented by a few feet of track, without even an engine. Will Penny's graces are elsewhere.

The West is more than deglamorized here; we get a good approximation of what a real cowboy's life might have been like around the turn of the century. The work is brutal, without much hope of getting anywhere. It's migrant labor, hired one day and jobless the next. The virtue in this story is that it doesn't set up some great future at the end of the rainbow for Penny. The years that he could have devoted to trying to build a life for a family were spent on the range, doing the only thing he thought he could do. When an opportunity arises to have a life with a woman who loves him, he realizes he's just too old to start from the bottom again.

Will has an easygoing relationship with the Blue, played amiably enough by Lee Majors,  1 and Dutchy, an uncommon positive role for Anthony Zerbe. Disaster and suffering are such a constant, that when poor Dutchy is gutshot, his imminent death is taken for granted, even by Dutchy. Will and Blue are distracted by the horrible liquor sold by the slimy sutler Catron (Clifton James, Sheriff Pepper from two Bond movies), and even Dutchy can't resist telling tall tales to the greenhorn Catherine Allen, even while he's bleeding to death. The nature of the job isn't to form permanent relationships; Will drifts away to work for Ben Johnson's rancher without even finding out what happened to Dutchy.

Stuck out in the snowy woods with Allen and her son Button, Will alights in one place long enough to find the idea of a family attractive. He grows fond of the boy, and Allen becomes attached to him. She's barely out of her twenties and he's fifty. She wants to homestead with him and he's tempted, and we feel Will being torn by desires he never thought he'd have.

Joan Hackett, one of the dozen movie actresses who debuted in 1966's The Group, often played fragile women. She's very touching in The Last of Sheila, a good movie that's virtually disappeared. Here, we root for her to be strong, and we know she's sufficiently resilient to carry on without Penny. She's made a life for herself so far, and will find a way to continue, with the best man available.

Heston aquits himself well, playing Penny as tough but by no means invulnerable. Physically, he seems to be drawn to scenes where he's stabbed or impaled. Here he gets a lot of mileage out of being stabbed by a Bowie knife; it was an arrow in El Cid and Major Dundee, and a spear the size of a tent pole in Khartoum. Director Gries' sharp script establishes his character early on, when he responds to fellow cowpoke Roy Jenson's taunts by sucker-punching him and then klonking him with an iron skillet. On the range, there's no time to waste on a risky fair fight.

Gries also has a good handle on holding down the melodrama. At one point Penny finds a dead body and carries it back to Ben Johnson's ranch. Veiled accusations fly, but instead of getting riled, Penny just plainly states the truth: No, he found the the guy already dead, probably just thrown by his own horse; and yes, he does want the dead man's job if he can get it. No guilt, no dread suspicions - Johnson just sizes Penny up, decides to trust him, and that's that.

Most of the conflict in the story is provided by the maniac family of the predatory preacher Quint, played with relish and restraint by Donald Pleasance. The English actor was at the time riding a string of successes that hadtaken him from horror films to The Great Escape, and on to the arch-villain of the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice. There's still a feral glee in Pleasance's performance that makes him a distant cousin to Lee J. Cobb's madman Dock Tobin in Man of the West. He runs his family of degenerates (including a typically looney Bruce Dern) with a firm hand, and only makes the 'James Stewart' mistake, ambushing Penny but leaving him alive.

As a teenager, the thrill of the story was Pleasance's creepy villain, but as an adult I react much more strongly to Will's grappling with his romance problem, resenting the interruption of a unique story with a standard Western complication. The finale is well handled, and the movie comes to a satisfactory close. The only false note occurs at the final farewell, literally in the last few seconds. One is just thinking, 'Wow, a really great ending', when a so-awful-it-hurts end title song comes up and breaks the mood entirely. Nothing's perfect, as they say.

Paramount's DVD of Will Penny is a reasonably good 16:9 transfer and a quality presentation. There's no trailer, but there are two short featurettes organized around inteviews with Charlton Heston, actor Jon Gries, and several others. One concentrates on the film itself, making a nice case for its uniqueness, and the other is a light gloss on the cowboy stars in the picture, especially Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Will Penny rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Two new featurettes
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: June 16, 2002


1. This was Lee Majors' second movie. In his first he was beheaded in the pre-titles sequence, so they graciously gave him an 'introducing' credit here.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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