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Will Penny
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Will Penny

Even a hard-core auteur critic would have trouble pinpointing the "author" of Will Penny, a 1968 western that made a beautiful case for traditional genre storytelling one short year before The Wild Bunch turned the stagecoach in a very different direction. The director and writer, Tom Gries, made dozens of movies and TV dramas over twenty-three years without developing much in the way of personal themes or characteristic styles. The star, Charlton Heston, played lots of westerners but is better remembered for historical roles such as Moses and Ben-Hur, not to mention his famous National Rifle Association ads. And while cinematographer Lucien Ballard did a superb job of capturing the rugged California terrain where the picture was shot, he's more renowned for the anamorphic framing he mastered so brilliantly a few months later in The Wild Bunch.

So the best bet is to praise all three of these artists, along with composer David Raksin, whose mood-setting music has the energy and edginess that were his trademarks. Together they made this mostly conventional western as enjoyable as any of its period. It was also something of a trailblazer, since its realism helped spark a trend that revitalized the genre during the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, from The Wild Bunch to Clint Eastwood's admired Unforgiven (1992), where hero William Munny's kids are named Will and Penny.

Gries developed Will Penny from an episode he'd written for Sam Peckinpah's television series The Westerner in 1960. The title character is an aging cowpoke (back then you got called Grandpa if you were over fifty) who finds himself out of work after giving up a job to a younger cowpoke who needs it more. Riding north with friends, he gets tangled in a quarrel with a religious fanatic called Preacher Quint, resulting in a shootout that kills one of the preacher's sons. A peaceable man at heart, Will continues his journey and finds employment as watchman on an enormous ranch, responsible for keeping travelers from stopping or squatting on the place. But no sooner does he start "riding the line" than trouble comes his way. When he gets to the cabin where he'll be living, he finds a young woman and her little boy living there. And far worse, Preacher Quint tracks him down, getting the drop on him and inflicting serious injuries.

The woman tends Will's wounds, so he decides to let her and the child stay on for the harsh winter that's about to hit. As time passes he feels more and more affectionate toward them, but it's unlikely they'll live happily ever after. Preacher Quint is still skulking around, and Will's boss is going to be mighty angry when he finds his new employee squatting with the very squatters he's supposed to chase away. Sure enough, the ending puts a bittersweet twist on the old convention of cowboy and cowgirl riding into the sunset. This was risky, as Heston candidly observed when he wrote In the Arena, his autobiography. He recalled people saying to him, "That's maybe the best movie you ever made, Chuck, but if you'd taken the girl with you at the end, it would've made a ton of money, too."

The actor also wrote candidly about director Gries, calling him "a gifted, mercurial, oddly unpredictable and somewhat childlike man" who was not "a good captain, which a great director must be" but rose to the occasion when he had "the right material." Will Penny was terrific material, and Heston regarded it as one of the best films he ever appeared in. It was also his personal favorite, thanks partly to its themes-loyalty, fatherhood, the challenges of aging-and partly to the enthusiastic reviews it brought him, which were arguably the best of his entire career. The rest of the cast is also impressive: Joan Hackett as the woman in Will's life, Gries's eight-year-old son Jon Francis as her child, the great British actor Donald Pleasence as the evil preacher, Bruce Dern as his craziest son, Anthony Zerbe and Lee Majors as Will's best buddies, Slim Pickens as another cowpoke, Ben Johnson as the straight-shooting ranch foreman, Clifton James as a greedy saloon keeper, and William Schallert as a doctor who sees all cattlemen as irresponsible children at heart.

Will Penny was a fairly modest production, with Heston's big-star salary the largest single expense. Things didn't always go smoothly-both Lee Remick and Eva Marie Saint turned down the role that Hackett eventually accepted-but there were few major problems. In the end, however, the movie earned only $1.3 million at the box office. Along with its downbeat finale, Heston blamed apathy by a new management team at Paramount Pictures, who "more or less buried the release of films made under the previous regime, preferring to press forward with their own plans." And it didn't help that Heston was competing with himself-in his legendary science-fiction adventure Planet of the Apes, which was released just a week earlier. Will Penny had healthy TV, home-video, and cable revenues in later years, though, and its reputation is still rising.

Ballard photographed all kinds of films during a career lasting half a century, and if a large number of westerns show up on the list of his most respected pictures, one reason is that he shot important ones for such gifted directors as Sam Peckinpah, the great Budd Boetticher, and Henry Hathaway, not to mention the ungifted Howard Hughes, who hired Ballard as second-unit cinematographer of The Outlaw, his 1943 ode to Jane Russell's cleavage. Variety praised Will Penny for its "topnotch technical crew headed by Lucien Ballard with his color cameras," and even with movies like Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) and Ride the High Country (1962) and True Grit (1969) to his credit, it's safe to say Ballard never shot a more visually evocative western. In a movie where atmosphere really counts-the sprawl of the ranch, the mountains in the distance, the chill of the winter-his contribution is a key reason for its success.

Producers: Fred Engel, Walter Seltzer
Director: Tom Gries
Screenplay: Tom Gries
Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Film editing: Warren Low
Art direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Charlton Heston (Will Penny), Joan Hackett (Catherine Allen), Donald Pleasence (Preacher Quint), Lee Majors (Blue), Bruce Dern (Rafe Quint), Ben Johnson (Alex), Slim Pickens (Ike Walterstein), Clifton James (Catron), Anthony Zerbe (Dutchy), Roy Jenson (Boetius Sullivan), G.D. Spradlin (Anse Howard), Quentin Dean (Jennie), William Schallert (Dr. Fraker), Lydia Clarke (Mrs. Fraker), Robert Luster (Shem Bodine).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by David Sterritt

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