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June 20, 2023

Will Penny

will penny.jpeg

Tom Gries - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Even though Charlton Heston was major star during the 1960s, there was no guarantee that his name was enough to bring in the audience. Following the success of El Cid were notably a number of high profile films that did not turn a profit such as The Agony and Ecstasy or were outright flops like The War Lord. After initially getting a perfunctory release from Paramount, enough critics took notice of what appeared on the surface to be a medium budget western of no importance.

Even among westerns made at that time, Will Penny is an outlier. More of a character study than an action film, unlike the Italian westerns that were only recently discovered by American viewers, but also unlike the more traditional westerns perhaps best represented by John Wayne and director Andrew McLaglen. And who was this Tom Gries who seemed to come out of nowhere to write and direct this film?

Although there is the persistent myth from some that Will Penny was the feature debut of Tom Gries, there was a decade and a half of work on his resume. The couple of feature films were low budget genre pieces that showed up as the bottom half of B-movie double features. There was also the steady work of television westerns and dramas. In 1960, Gries wrote and directed an episode titled Line Camp for a western series, The Westerner. Created and produced by Sam Peckinpah, the short-live series starred Brian Keith as an itinerant cowboy. In this episode, Keith literally stumbles across a dead cowboy on a trail, leading to a series of misunderstandings when he comes to the cowboy's base camp. Gries took several pieces from that episode a reworked them as parts of Will Penny, recasting Slim Pickens in a similar role, and also having Lucien Ballard serve again as cinematographer. It is also easy to imagine Brian Keith in the title role as the aging cowboy.

What attracted Heston to the role was Tom Gries demand for authenticity. The cowboys here all look appropriately grubby and unshaven. Heston has a thick mustache for the first half of the film. The film begins at the end of a cattle drive, with Will Penny left to seek employment rumored to be available at another ranch for the winter. On his way with two other cowboys, he is ambushed by the self-appointed Preacher Quint and his two sons. They are described as "rawhiders", an archaic term for itinerants who usually dealt in the trade and sales of hides. Quint is played menacingly to the hilt by bug-eyed Donald Pleasance, with Bruce Dern type cast at the time as one of Quint's psychopathic sons. Penny and company stop at a trail store where they come upon Catherine Allen and her son, taking a meal break on their way to Oregon. While there is that demand for authenticity in how everyone dresses and the weapons used, it stops with Joan Hackett. Even though Ms. Hackett fits Hollywood's idea of a plain woman, she somehow got just enough mascara and lipstick to see her though months away from anything resembling civilization.

Heston has gone on record to declare Will Penny the favorite film of his career. While he is still a man of action, Heston also displays vulnerability, and acknowledgment of his weaknesses. At age 44, the star was playing a character a few years older than his actual age, still with an athletic body, but also the face of a man who has experienced life. From giving trust to a writer-director on his first studio film, Heston worked with Tom Gries again, though to lesser artistic success, on Number One, too visibly old to portray an aged pro football quarterback, and the more interesting The Hawaiians as the self-contradicting 19th Century plantation owner. Tom Gries was able to move on to a career split between theatrical films and several high-profile television movies, best remembered for two of the better Charles Bronson vehicles - Breakout and Breakheart Pass.

The blu-ray comes with a commentary track by western specialists C. Courtney Joyner and Henry Parke with director Michael Preece. Preece served as a script supervisor on Will Penny as well as several other films directed by Tom Gries. What is probably of the most interest is the discussion of the shooting of the film on location. Two extras ported over from the 2002 DVD release feature Charlton Heston and actor Jon Gries relaying their memories of making the film. Jon is the the son of Tom Gries, making his acting debut at age 10 as Joan Hackett's son, billed as Jon Francis. The blu-ray was sourced from a 4K scan of the original 35mm negative.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 20, 2023 06:09 AM