Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         

WILL PENNY. Paramount Pictures, 1968. Charlton Heston, Joan Hackett, Donald Pleasence, Lee Majors, Bruce Dern, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Anthony Zerbe, Jon Gries. Screenwriter-director: Tom Gries.

   Will Penny is a Western drama starring Charlton Heston as an aging cowhand caught between the only life he knows, that of a rugged, itinerant cowboy, and the love of a beautiful woman who wants to settle down with him. While the movie is neither a work of cinematic excellence, nor one of the best Westerns ever made, it is perhaps one of Heston’s finest, and least “epic,” big screen performances. Even if you’re not particularly a Heston fan, it’s worth watching.

   The film may not resemble a traditional Western in terms of narrative or structure but contra Roger Ebert, Will Penny is very much part of the Western genre. That said, the film is best understood as a character study set in the Old West and as a filmmaker’s attempt to portray the life and psychology of a cowhand as realistically as possible.

   While there are several notable flaws that do detract from the overall project, the film does succeed in providing the viewer with a glimpse of a West that was far less glamorous, and far more lonesome, than in the vast majority of shoot-them-up B-Westerns.

   The plot really isn’t all that complicated. (If you haven’t seen the film yet, you might want to skip down a few paragraphs to avoid spoilers.) In fact, the plot’s simplicity is what makes what otherwise has the feel of made-for-television movie work as a film.

   Will Penny (Heston) is an aging, illiterate cowhand working jobs when and where he can find them. After finishing one job, Will Penny and his two friends, Blue (Lee Majors in a rather undistinguished early film role) and Dutchie (a vastly under-utilized Anthony Zerbe) look for future work.

   Along the way, they get into a confrontation with Preacher Quint, a bearded, wild-eyed, Bible quoting, madman (a somewhat miscast, overacting Donald Pleasence) and his family of misfits, over an elk. Penny shoots and kills one of Quinn’s sons with a rifle. The grieving and crazed father retreats, announcing to the world that he’ll seek to avenge his son’s killing.

   During the gun battle, Dutchie ends up shooting himself in the chest. The three men then travel in search of a doctor, encountering Catherine Allen (a lovely, classy Joan Hackett) and her son, Horace, (portrayed by Jon Gries, son of writer/director, Tom Gries) in a tavern along the way.

   After a series of not particularly compelling events, Quint and his remaining sons catch up with Will Penny, gravely injuring him. Allen nurses Will Penny back to health and, as might be expected, she begins to fall in love with him.

   Will Penny, for his part, is both attracted to and confused by, the domestic lifestyle she and Horace take for granted. He develops a particular fondness for the young Horace, becoming a father figure to him.

   Preacher Quint eventually returns – yet again – and wreaks havoc on the Allen household. In a final showdown, Will Penny, along with Blue and Dutchie who appear oddly out of nowhere at the most opportune time imaginable, take on the Quint family, eventually killing the lunatic patriarch.

   Allen’s feelings toward Will Penny are now perfectly clear. Despite the fact that she has a husband out in Oregon, she wants him to marry her. Her plan is for them to settle down together as homesteaders. Will Penny is mighty tempted by the idea, but he just doesn’t see it as a viable option. After all, he’s nearly 50, an old man for that time and place. The only life he’s ever known is that of an itinerant cowhand; he simply couldn’t imagine giving it all up for a life of domesticity.

   There is no happily ever after. Despite Allen’s entreaties, Will Penny decides to ride off with Blue and Dutchie, leaving Allen and Horace behind him.

   When discussing Will Penny, “authenticity,” seems to be the key word. Will Penny is a character study of a lonesome, somewhat taciturn cowhand. He is not only illiterate, but he’s embarrassed by it. He prefers not to fight with his hands, as those are, in his estimation, hands are designed for working, not fighting. Instead, he makes use of a skillet in one fight and of his legs in others. The whiskey he drinks burns his throat. Most of all, Will Penny is extraordinarily, painfully, awkward around women.

   But is the film, as writer/director Tom Gries intended, a realistic portrayal of a cowboy? I guess that depends. The Old West was a large place geographically and hosted a wide array of characters, good and bad, normal and strange, ebullient and bashful. Will Penny does, however, succeed in avoiding the obviously embellished features that mar other portrayals of cowboys, turning them into larger than life figures.

   Heston’s Will Penny isn’t perfectly clean, well-spoken or comfortable in society. He also doesn’t like killing men much, either. He’s no romantic hero. He’s just a regular guy who comes to realize that the true villain in his life wasn’t Preacher Quint, but rather time and circumstance.

   Will Penny may not be a great Western, but it’s a good one, a film that you’ll probably want to think about for a while before you form your own opinion on whether it works or not.