Friday, August 19, 2016

Will Penny

Last autumn, when I had the Starz/Encore channels as part of a promo, I had the opportunity to record Will Penny. I think it's out-of-print on DVD although you can stream it at Amazon. But it's going to be back on Starz/Encore Westerns, or whatever the channel is calling itself these days, twice tomorrow, at 5:20 AM and 6:05 PM. So if you've got the premium channel package or Amazon access, you're in luck.

Will Penny, played by Charlton Heston, is a cowboy doing the cattle drive thing at the end of the 19th century in Montana, a place that holds a fairly bleak existence back in the day since it gets so unbelievably cold after the cattle drive is over. So he and two of his friends, Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe), head off for town. Along the way, they find an elk, but it turns out that another family, the Quints, headed by a preacher patriarch (Donald Pleasance) have also spotted it and after somebody shoots it both sides are trying to claim it. Dutchy gets shot, as does one of Quint's sons, the latter of whom dies.

Blue stays with Dutchy either to nurse him back to health or bury him, depending on what happens, while Will takes a job for the winter as a "line rider", that is, somebody who stays in an isolated cabin to watch the land and find any stray cattle lost in the snow. At least it's a job for the winter.

However, when Will gets to the cabin, he finds... that it's already occupied! Catherine (Joan Hackett) and her son HG (Jon Gries) had met Will and his friends already when Will was looking for a doctor for Dutchy; it seems she's trying to head west but her husband went ahead to pay for a trail guide who never showed up. Will presumes that the husband is dead, or possibly just left her, but in any case, there's no way Catherine is going to make it all the way west before winter sets in. However, it's a huge no-no for any guests to be at the line riders' cabins.

Still, with winter setting in, Will realizes there's not much he can do. Sure enough, there's an attraction beginning to form between Will and Catherine, and even more so between HG and Will, the son seeing Will as the father he no longer has. But there's one more big problem: the Quints are out there somewhere, and sure enough Will runs into them. Thankfully they don't know about Catherine. Yet.

Apparently, Will Penny was one of Charlton Heston's personal favorite movies of all the ones he made. It's not outsized the way that certainly Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments are. And that's something that really works to the benefit of the movie. There's just a little story here, made real by some good acting performances and some lovely, evocative cinematography. This Montana is really a forbidding place, with none of the romantic ideas of a more active western, and it's well shown from the beginning with shots of the cold, treeless high plains.

The fact that Will Penny isn't outsized probably has a lot to do with why it's not as well remembered as either other Heston movies, or other westerns. But it's one that should be remembered, and is a pretty darn good movie. It's well worth a watch.

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