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Hot on the heels of a breakthrough success in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and Downhill Racer (1969), Robert Redford appeared in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) as a deputy sheriff in California near the turn of the 20th century reluctantly tracking down an Indian who murdered a man in self-defense. Torn between his admiration for the fugitive and his duty to the law, Redford's character is the film's most complex and interesting and earned him glowing reviews that further boosted his career.
Robert Blake, in the title role, also reaped praise along with Susan Clark, and Katharine Ross as Willie's lover and the doomed daughter of the murdered man who goes on the lam with her father's killer. But the one name attached to this picture that received the most attention was director-writer Abraham Polonsky, making a return to directing after more than 20 years. His previous effort had been the hard-hitting, politically tinged film noir Force of Evil (1948), often lauded as one of the finest modern American movies and now credited as an important influence on such films as The Godfather (1972) for its equation of crime and big business. Because of that two-decade break between projects, Polonsky is generally regarded today, in the words of Roger Greenspun's December 1969 review of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, as "perhaps the most wasteful injustice of the late 1940s Hollywood blacklisting."
Trained as a lawyer, Polonsky was firmly committed to Marxist principles and never hid his membership in the Communist Party; in fact it was well known to the federal government during World War II when he served as a member of the O.S.S., working with the French Resistance. But postwar right-wing forces, determined to overturn the progressive policies of the Roosevelt years, went after Party members (real or rumored), and when Polonsky refused to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he was blacklisted. For several years, he was able to write a handful of screenplays that were marketed through fronts. The best known and most acclaimed of these is Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), a scathing indictment of racism. Fiercely loyal to the people who protected and helped him during the blacklist years, Polonsky always refused to "name names" of those who took the screen credit for his work.
His return with Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was generally lauded by critics, some perhaps eager to redress the wrongs that Polonsky had endured. Variety called it "a powerful unfoldment of a particular incident in US history...a deeply personal and radical vision of the past and future," and in the New York Times, Greenspun said, "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is another one of the best American movies, and in its own way, equally idiomatic, evocative, and resourceful [as Force of Evil]." Unfortunately, Polonsky only directed one other movie after this - Romance of a Horsethief  - before doctors advised him the job would be damaging to his heart condition.
The plot of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is taken from a book, based on fact, by Harry Lawton, who became a publisher of several books about American Indians. The true-life story of Willie Boy also formed the basis of a 1994 book published by the University of Oklahoma Press, The Hunt for Willie Boy: Indian Hating and Popular Culture by James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess. There is a marker in a remote part of the Yucca Valley in California that claims to be the spot where Willie Boy died, engraved with the words "The West's Last Famous Manhunt."
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here did not turn out to be as good an experience for Redford as he had hoped. He had issues with both the direction and the script, which he felt portrayed Indians unrealistically. "Polonsky had Indians talking like characters out of some of his thirties films," Redford said. "Some of it really made me cringe when I read it." Polonsky counter-attacked by claiming Redford's emerging star ego made him take unfair swipes at the picture. "Redford was a big supporter of my movie until everyone started saying how wonderful Robert Blake was," the director said, ignoring the fact that Redford had fought for Blake to play the part when it became obvious that the studio would not hire a real Native American. "He was jealous of the Indian, so now he hates the movie." The cast member who showed the most jealousy, however, was Blake, who resented the fact that reviewers focused on Redford's performance and ignored his.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here won two British Academy Awards for Redford and Ross as Best Actor and Best Actress. It also won Best Non-European Film in Denmark's Bodil Awards.
Director: Abraham Polonsky
Producer: Philip A. Waxman, Jennings Lang
Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky, based on the book Willie Boy...A Desert Manhunt by Harry Lawton
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Editing: Melvin Shapiro
Art Direction: Henry Bumstead, Alexander Golitzen
Original Music: Dave Grusin
Cast: Robert Redford (Deputy Sheriff Cooper), Katharine Ross (Lola), Robert Blake (Willie Boy), Susan Clark (Dr. Elizabeth Arnold), Barry Sullivan (Ray Calvert).
by Rob Nixon