The Hunting Party (1971)

May 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Comanche Station (1960) is among a number of low-budget, thematically charged Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher, sometimes with the capable help of writer Burt Kennedy. In a scene around a campfire, Kennedy has a character reminisce, in plain dialogue that nevertheless gets right to the heart of a particular feeling: “A good looking woman. Kind of made you go lonely just being around her. Hearing her say words. Seeing her move.”

It’s a small moment, but demonstrates that a Western can have graceful and even poetic touches. Sadly, The Hunting Party (1971) seems to have been influenced by a later film The Wild Bunch (1969), reproducing the harsh landscape without even the redeeming camaraderie in that film. In short, Gene Hackman plays a powerful rancher, busy raping his wife or visiting some kind of combination train-whorehouse to inflict pain on other women until he discovers his wife (Candice Bergen) has been kidnapped by a wanderer (Oliver Reed) and his gang. The fact that the Oliver Reed character only wants her to teach him to read does little to excuse the kidnapping or make his character likeable, and the idea that Bergen and Reed may or may not be starting to fall for each other is watered down by an impenetrably grim performance from Oliver Reed.

Meanwhile, Gene Hackman is believable and even frightening as the husband, but it’s another one-note character in the script. In case you don’t want them in advance, plot details follow. He grabs a high-powered rifle like very few others at the time, follows Reed and company and begins picking them off one at a time. You’d think something would change over the course of the rest of the film, that a character might reconsider one way or another, change or grow in some way. But the entire rest of the movie returns to slow-motion shots of men falling and dying at watering holes or some such thing. By the time Bergen is standing in a river, screaming at Hackman just to shoot them and make it all end, this particular viewer felt pretty much the same way. Certainly, it leaves the viewer wondering about the point of the film. I’ve seen reviews that suggested the film is Shakespearean, but in Shakespeare’s tragedies even the most stubborn characters (King Lear, for example) eventually reflect on the mistakes they’ve made. The Hackman character lets the new couple live on a few occasions, shows no sign of reconsidering, and finally kills them.

Is life occasionally this bleak? Perhaps, but I’d argue we don’t need that in a film when we have it in every newspaper headline. I watched the entire film — which begins, by the way, with the actual killing of a cow using a dull knife — in the hope of some redeeming or graceful moment, only to be disappointed. Perhaps the fault is in me, to some extent, as I do believe a film should have some kind of point, other than don’t enrage a guy with a high-powered rifle. For more thoughtful Westerns, track down Budd Botticher films, or the remake of True Grit (2010) recently. These are films willing to admit that even in almost impossibly-difficult landscapes there are moments of grace. And they seem to know that if you’re going to make your viewers crawl through the desert you can at least give them one or two drinks of water along the way.

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