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Home on the range with Heston’s favorite: “Will Penny”

Updated: Aug 17, 2023


BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS

Charlton Heston plays Will Penny, an aging cowhand, searching for work after a long cattle drive in Montana in the 1880s.


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“WILL PENNY: SPECIAL EDITION”

Blu-ray; 1967; Not Rated; Streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple (iTunes), Vudu, YouTube


Best extra: “Remembering Will Penny” featurette with actor Charlton Heston and writer-director Jon Gries featurette









A "SMALL" PICTURE that might not be as well-known as the big John Ford epics, “Will Penny” is a touching story of an old-time cowhand and a life of hard choices.

This is one of Charlton Heston’s best, showing his range as an actor, very different from his roles in “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben Hur,” “El Cid,” “Soylent Green” and “Planet of the Apes.” In the 2002 featurette, Heston and Jon Gries (“Napoleon Dynamite,” “The White Lotus”) reminisce about their time together filming what Heston came to think of as the favorite of all his films. Jon Gries, cast as young Horace Greeley Allen, is writer/director Tom Gries' son. The role came to him via the producers after his dad set him out on “Bonanza’s” set to play so he could get some work done on the script. Producers were looking for a juvenile to play Joan Hackett’s son, and let Gries know "We found the kid!" Gries was initially cool to the idea, "You can't use him! He can't even do his homework! How do you expect him to remember lines?"

Will Penny (Heston) is an aging cowhand making his way in the world of the late 19th/early 20th century West. Hard-working and easygoing, he takes no guff off of the would-be tough guys who ride the trail with him.



(1&2) Slim Pickens plays Ike Walterstein, the cook for Anse Howard’s cowpunchers moving cattle toward the train line. The Sierra Nevada Mountains in California sub for the Rockies in Montana. (3) Center, Will and his best friends left Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe) and Blue (Lee Majors). (4) The cattle drive including dozens of horses stirs up dust in the high desert. (5) The chow line with center, Anse Howard (G.D. Spradlin) and his men.





Mustering out from a cattle drive, he joins up with Blue (Lee Majors in his first significant screen role) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe playing completely against type) as they go in search of work. On the trail, they run afoul of Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his clan (including a young Bruce Dern). A gunfight ensues and one of Quint's sons is killed. He swears vengeance on the trio. Dutchy accidentally shoots himself in the side.

Will and Blue rush Dutchy to a way-station in search of medical attention. There, they meet the amazing Clifton James as proprietor and motor mouth barkeep Catron, Catherine Allen (a luminous Joan Hackett) and her son H.G. (Jon Gries, credited as Jon Francis).

It seems Mrs. Allen is on her way to Portland, Oregon, to reunite with her husband where they will operate a farm. It's fairly obvious she doesn't think very highly of the trio of cow-pokes.

Dutchy is transported to the next town where the doctor/barber (an acerbic William Schallert) tends to his wound. Will moves on and Blue stays behind with Dutchy,

Will finds a dead cowboy on the trail and brings him back to the Flatiron Ranch run by Alex (Ben Johnson – the most authentic cowboy to ever ride a horse in a movie. He's hired on as a line-rider, tasked to round up strays on the wild outskirts of the spread. Arriving at the line-rider’s shack, he finds Catherine Allen and her boy in residence, abandoned by their guide. Alex has no tolerance for "squatters," and Penny warns the woman that she'll have to move on before he gets back from his rounds.


(1-3) Blue lines up a shot on an elk, but a dispute arises over who killed the animal. Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) and his three sons, including Rafe (Bruce Dern), want the deer. During the ensuing gunfight, Will kills one of the sons.





While working the line, Penny again runs into the Quint clan and he’s stabbed, beaten and stripped and left to die of exposure. Near death, he’s forced to make his way back to the line shack where he is nursed back to health by Catherine Allen. From that point, the movie shifts gears from a pretty solid, accurate story of the old west to a tender and very natural love story.

Of course, Preacher Quint and his nasty family are due for a reappearance, and some old good-guy vs. bad-guy tropes creep in, although the good-woman addition saves it from plunging into a solid cliché.

As I mentioned before, Heston loved this movie as did most everyone associated with it. It was Tom Gries’ first motion picture after years of knocking around television. “Will Penny” is actually an expanded version of a script he did for Sam Peckinpaugh’s series with Brian Keith, “The Westerner.” Populated with convincing, long-time Western character actors, clothed in great, weathered period costumes and carrying appropriate weaponry – everything about this film screams authenticity – except one thing.

As much of a fan of Donald Pleasance as I am, his Preacher Quint is so one-dimensional and over-the-top crazy bad as to take you right out of the story. Aside from that, everything else about this show is nearly perfect with everyone turning in their best performance.


(1-3) Dutchy is also shot in the gunfight and Penny and Blue rush him to a way-station in search of medical attention. They encounter Mrs. Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her son H.G. (Jon Gries, credited as Jon Francis, and son of the writer/director) and transport Dutchy to the nearest town to be patched up by the town barber/doctor. (4) Will heads off on his own toward the Flat Iron Ranch.





EXTRAS

Bonus features are good beginning with the previously mentioned “Remembering Will Penny: Featurette with Charlton Heston and Jon Gries,” highlighting actors famous for their work in westerns. Also find “The Cowboys of Will Penny: Featurette with Charlton Heston and Jon Gries.” Anyone who’s ever read “The Old-Time Cowhand,” 1961, by Ramon F. Adams will recognize its influence on the film. It’s a must-read for every Western enthusiast.

An audio commentary by author/screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner, film historian Henry Parke, and “Will Penny” script supervisor Michael Preece entertains and informs.

VIDEO

Sourced from a new 4K scan of the original 35mm negative (1.85:1 aspect ratio), Kino Lorber gives “Will Penny” a bright, brand-new look without losing its realistic atmosphere – especially the Eastern slopes of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada range near Bishop, California. This is the best this film has looked since its theatrical debut – a definite upgrade from the muddy standard-def releases, providing excellent color, detail, and contrast, as well as non-intrusive, cinematic film grain. Cinematographer Lucien Ballard’s work (“The Wild Bunch,” “The Getaway,” “The Killing”) is crystal clear on this Blu-ray.

AUDIO

An impressive DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack provides crisp, clear dialogue in the various quiet conversations to the dynamic thunder of gunfights and action sequences. Composer David Raksin (“Laura”) delivers a perfect mood-enhancing score, and the ballad sung by Don Cherry.

Those only familiar with Heston’s larger-than-life roles might be startled – and charmed – by his vulnerable cowboy becoming part of a family for the first time in his life. We see what a good husband and father he could be, much to Penny’s surprise. But can he accept that? That’s the real question behind this excellent, atypical Western.

— Mike Reynolds


(1) Legendary cowboy actor Ben Johnson plays Alex the foreman at the Flat Iron Ranch. (2&3) Will is offered a job as a line rider in the ridge country at $30 per month. He spends the night at the Flat Iron cabin before heading toward the high country. (4) A surprise to find Mrs. Allen and her son squatting at the line ride cabin, after being abandoned by their guide during their journey to Oregon. (5) Penny is ambushed by Preacher Quint and his nasty family and nearly killed. (6) Catherine nurses Penny back and they celebrate Christmas.



 



(1) The persistent Preacher Quint demands Catherine marry one of his sons. (2) The two sons race off during a gun battle with Penny and two surprised visitors. (3&4) Alex and his men arrive after they discover the cattle scattered across the high country. Penny’s job was to keep them in a herd.

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