Directed By: Tom Gries
Starring: Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence
Tag line: "The Brute in Every man Was Also in Him - And the Love and the Violence"
Trivia: First credited role in a theatrical film for Lee Majors.
In movies like The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, and El-Cid, Charlton Heston played larger-than-life characters whose courage and strength inspired those around them. In Will Penny, a 1967 western written and directed by Tom Gries, he portrays a different sort of hero altogether, a simple cowboy who has spent his entire life in the saddle, and doesn’t know how to live any other way.
Having just finished a cattle run for boss Anse Howard (G.D. Spradlin), 50-year-old cowhand Will Penny (Heston) finds himself in need of a job. Tagging along with fellow cowboys Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe), Will sets off in search of work, hoping to secure a position before the cold weather sets in. Along the way, the trio gets into an altercation with a preacher named Quint (Donald Pleasance), who is traveling with his adult sons Rafe (Brice Dern), Romulus (Matt Clark) and Rufus (Gene Rutherford). During the melee, Will shoots Rufus dead, and a grief-stricken Quint vows to one day take his revenge on the aging cowboy.
Saying goodbye to Blue and Dutchy, Will pays a visit to the Flat Iron Ranch, and is hired by the foreman (Ben Johnson) to be one of the company’s new line riders, keeping an eye on a remote section of the ranch during the upcoming winter. But when he arrives at his new cabin, Will finds a woman named Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett), who, along with her son Horace (Jon Gries), has already moved in. Abandoned by their guide, who was hired by Catherine’s husband to lead them westward, the two have nowhere else to go.
Instead of kicking them out immediately, Will allows them to stay while he’s riding the line. Unfortunately, during his travels, Will once again encounters Quint and his sons, who beat him mercilessly and leave him for dead. Somehow making his way back to the cabin, Will is cared for by Catherine, who treats his wounds and nurses him back to health. As thanks, Will lets her and Horace stay for the winter, during which he experiences something he never has before: family life. Over time, Will and Catherine develop feelings for one another, but does he have it in him to settle down, or is it too late?
What sets Will Penny apart from most screen westerns is the realistic way it depicts the life of a cowboy. Unlike most western heroes, Will Penny is not a sheriff or even a gunslinger; he’s a hired hand, and worries when he’s out of work. Even more revealing are the scenes in which Will interacts with Catherine and Horace. Accustomed to being alone, Will is suddenly living with two other people, and it’s a difficult adjustment for him. Even the simple things most of us take for granted are a challenge; In one of the film’s more poignant scenes, Catherine tries to teach Will a Christmas song, so that he can join in the next time she and Horace are singing (to her amazement, he doesn’t know a single carol). Over time, he and Catherine develop feelings for one another, which leads to even more complications (Will has a hard enough time providing for himself, let alone a small family). Though excellent throughout the entire film, Heston is particularly superb in these scenes, capturing the shyness and uncertainly of a man out of his element who believes he’s too old to change his ways.
There are a handful of action scenes scattered throughout Will Penny, not the least of which is its exciting finale. But despite the occasional thrill, the movie is more a character study than it is a traditional western, and thanks to the fine work of it’s star (with an assist from the intelligent, realistic script), it’s a memorable one at that.