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Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here
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(Jan 02, 2019)
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Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is a modern western classic based on the true story of a Pauite Indian named Willie Boy (Robert Blake, Busting, In Cold Blood) and his bride Lola (Katharine Ross, The Graduate, The Stepford Wives), who become the objects of the last great western manhunt after Willie Boy kills Lola’s father in a “marriage by capture.” The manhunt, led by Sheriff Christopher Cooper (Robert Redford, Legal Eagles, The Sting), turns into a media circus when President Taft comes to visit the area and a mishap becomes twisted by the newspapers of the day. Released in 1969, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was a triumph for Redford and was called by Time Magazine, “A subtle, intense document of racial persecution that stands as one of the finest films of the year.” Written and directed by formerly blacklisted Abraham Polonsky (Force of Evil) and featuring stunning on-location cinematography by the great Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). The wonderful cast includes Susan Clark (Valdez Is Coming), Barry Sullivan (Planet of the Vampires), John Vernon (The Outlaw Josey Wales) and Charles McGraw (The Narrow Margin).
-NEW Audio Commentary by Actor/Filmmaker Pat Healy and Film Historian Jim Healy
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This is a confrontational western. Polonsky is fearless in raising controversy and provoking audience reaction. Willie Boy and Lola want to be together, but the Superintendent of the Morongo Indian Reservation objects, and her family refuses at the point of a gun. Forced to kill in self-defense, Willie Boy and Lola run off with the law on their heels. This premise enables Polonsky to depict the transitional west of 1909 as a place where prejudice and discrimination are everywhere and in everyone, between the races, within the races, among the sexes, and especially in the well-intentioned. No character is all evil. The most racist Anglo and the most racist Indian has a decent side even as they compound hypocrisy upon hypocrisy like a desert variation of INHERIT THE WIND. Hypocrisy manifests in ways that are obvious and subtle -- note Susan Clark's self-loathing social worker who thinks she has the right to protect "my Indians" from themselves. Every order she gives to control the situation only serves to escalate the violence out of control. A young Robert Blake portrays Willie Boy with physical agility and a deeply felt sense of futility. We feel his despair. Understandably he hates white people, but surprisingly he refrains from killing them each time the opportunity arises. Blake's performance is one of the most under-rated in the history of movies. Sheriff Coop is the only character aware of his own hypocrisy, but don't look for him to save the day. As played by Robert Redford, the sheriff is not a noble Will Kane or Matt Dillon type, but he is not corrupt either. Sheriff Coop doesn't want to become a manhunter like his famous father before him, although everyone assumes he is and expects him to be. In the end, he is unable to avoid it. Manhunting comes naturally to him, and he finds himself. Redford's ambivalence may not be merely acting. All these characters are the sons and daughters of an earlier generation of pioneers who fought Indians and sacrificed for their children. In case they forget, oldtimer Barry Sullivan is around to remind them. He brags about the violent past while lamenting its passing in the same breath. All the actors are fearless in playing up the contradictions of their richly complex characters.
A hunter throws himself down to the ground to drink from a stream, his hand slipping into the handprint of his prey who had been there and done the same. Later, the Sheriff cleans blood off his hands by rubbing them in the soil. The camera pushes in on a funeral pyre as scavengers try to pull the body out for souvenirs. Rich in visual metaphor, TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE is that rarity among Hollywood studio westerns -- it is historically intelligent and historically well-informed, faithful to the actual circumstances and events it depicts. Perhaps the best testament to its authenticity is the fact that several tribes cooperated in making the film; they are identified during the opening titles. The film is based on the biography of Willie Boy written by Harry Lawton, which Polonsky obviously read and understood. He doesn't try to schmaltz it up or tack on a happy ending. The only other western that compares to it, that I can think of, is the independently made THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ (1983). But you don't need to know the history to enjoy the high-calibre drama and suspenseful action on display. Structured on the chase formula, TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE is a manhunt thriller without peer. Expect a standard of craftsmanship in story telling and in technical execution that you just don't see anymore.
TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE is one of the best-photographed westerns you'll ever see. The burnished landscape and stoic portraiture is by photographer Conrad Hall, who carved out a signature style on THE PROFESSIONALS(1966), HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1967), and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969). Shooting desert landscapes in morning light and at the golden hour Hall manipulated exposure to tone down the intensity of dye-transfer Technicolor to an earthy, realistic pallet. Those films deserved all the accolades they received, but his work here on the high deserts of inland California surpasses prior achievements, and that's saying a lot.
Studio and network execs winnow out this level of sophistication today. They stop it before it starts. TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE could only have been made in the 1960s. I consider it one of the great cinematic achievements of that decade and one of the all-time great westerns. Perhaps this remarkable western will become better known and appreciated, and more widely discussed, now that it is finally available on DVD.
Buy It Now.
Robert Redford stars in a film based on historical facts, sharing billing with a young and virile Robert Blake who portrays the character of the title. It is the story of a manhunt in the American West. The time is the very beginning of the 20th century, when the culture of the United States starts to evolve toward tolerance and equality of all its citizens, and, like any birth, it is bloody and painful. The old ways have a death grip, and they won't go down without a vicious fight. Willie Boy (Blake) is a young Pauite who returns to his place of birth to claim his bride (Katharine Ross). Her family resents him, so he uses the custome of bridal capture--he kills her father and brothers and the two run away to join his relatives in another village. Redford plays the sherrif who tracks him down. The sheriff is a hard-living man, in the mold of sheriffs of the privious century. He serves out justice with his fists--and his gun if he has to. There is a woman with a PhD. in anthropology(Susan Clark) living among the Pauites. Her goal is to bring them education so they may get off the reservation. She is beautiful. The sheriff uses her sexually. She finds she cannot refuse him, as she is as sexually hungry as he is. She is angry with him, because she cannot stop his use of her, and she is angry with herself for using such a crude man to fulfill her own needs. The sheriff forms a posse to catch Willie Boy, but early into the chase, decides to let the boy get away and returns to town, telling his posse to return in the morning. The posse acts on its own, and they are systematically and cleverly slaughtered by the young Pauite. The survivors can't believe this is the work of one lone native and word gets back to town that this is an Indian revolt. The sheriff is forced to accept the responsibility of hunting down the young lovers. What follows is an intense manhunt, where old and new ways clash as the sheriff seeks a just ending. This is a unique role for Robert Redford, as he protrays a character with more negative than positive qualities. It is one of his earlier films, made when he was beginning to get noticed as a leading man of talent, and before any of the films that made him big box office began to limit his choices of roles. His character is brutal and selfish, and still believes in the old codes of justice. New ways of thinking are forced upon him, and in the end he finds he must bow to them to get the job done. This is a strong, realistic film, with fine acting by all involved. If you enjoy the tough, violent westerns of the late 1960's and early 1970's, you will find this movie compelling.