Top positive review
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Don't miss this one! Charton Heston gives one of his best performances ever in this down-to-Earth authentic-feeling western.
on May 19, 2015
BOTTOM LINE: I think WILL PENNY is a great little film which strives to capture the authentically unglamorous look & feel of the what the Old West was really like, in ways most other westerns never did; (although, in all fairness, most never tried). I really enjoyed this film and Charlton Heston's restrained, moving performance. 4 STARS
THE STORY (contains major spoilers): Charlton Heston does a marvelous job in the title role of WILL PENNY, a loner cowboy who's pushing 50, and at the end of a lifelong career of roaming from job to job. Will has just completed another long, grueling cattle drive. After picking up his pay, Penny secures a winter job with the cattle baron who hired him for the drive, which also guarantees him a free ride north, back to the owner's ranch. Then, In a moment of compassion, Will gives up the job to a much younger cowboy who also needs to return north in order to visit his ailing father, before the old man passes on. Now without a grubsteak, Will throws in with two other cowpunchers from the drive, in hopes of finding honest work before winter sets in. This decision triggers a chain of events which place strong but soft-spoken Will Penny and his two companions squarely in the sights of a bunch of ruthless cutthroats, led by a loony self-proclaimed preacher, (wonderfully played by a manic Donald Pleasance). Arguing over who killed a downed Elk, the bandits suddenly open fire. Will kills one of the men in the exchange and one of his companions, "Dutch" (a nice turn by character actor Anthony Zerbe, who usually played greasy weasel types), is mortally wounded in the brief skirmish. The preacher vows vengeance for the death of one of his sons and both parties retreat and go their separate ways. Upon arriving at a small outpost town with a doctor, Will parts ways with his two friends and strikes out on his own.
Eventually Will is hired as the remote 'line man' for the Flat Iron Ranch, where he will routinely scout the outer boundaries of the expansive property, chasing down stray cattle and patrolling for rustlers. He strikes out for a tiny cabin on the edge of the range where he will live & work, alone, until the following Spring. When he arrives there Will is surprised to discover a woman and her young son whom he encountered a few weeks before while transporting his wounded friend for medical attention. She and her son were on their way west. (Her husband had moved ahead of them in secure a lucrative job, buy some land and establish their homestead.) En route to their new home, the guide hired to deliver the wife & child safely to Seattle abandoned them. They are now squatting at the remote cabin, forced to hole up there for the winter. Will tells them that while he sympathizes with their plight, they cannot stay. He leaves to familiarize himself with the territory he's charged with overseeing and tells the woman that she and her boy must be gone by the time he returns.
While high up in a remote mountain pass Will is ambushed by the crazed holy man and his vengeful sons. Will is stabbed, beaten, stripped of his belongings & clothing (except his longjohns) and left to die of exposure. Though badly injured, Penny manages to make his way thru the bitter wilderness back to the small cabin. There, he's nursed back to health by the woman and her son. During the days and weeks that follow, Will is exposed to a kind of life he never dreamed existed, and feels himself unintentionally falling into the role of both surrogate father and fill-in husband, (minus the whoopteedo). But the crazed killers are still out there... somewhere. The final showdown changes the lives of the main players in ways you don't traditionally expect.
THOUGHTS: This movie's ending will likely be a tough one to swallow for those who are used to (and/or prefer) a happy Hollywood-type finale. This film is played very real and in that respect the ending that we get, while not particularly upbeat nor happy, certainly feels far more true to life. WILL PENNY is a wonderful character study and the different people we encounter throughout feel absolutely authentic. Charlton Heston, often associated with playing larger-than-life characters and well known for his rather stilted, blowhard acting style, shatters traditional expectations here and gives us what may very well be his best motion picture performance. He delivers a subtle yet very strong, believable character. The rest of the film is equally well-cast, with all of the actors fitting their respective roles to a "T" in every way; from their dress to their speech to their mannerisms. A cast of truly great actors fill the call sheet for this motion picture: Slim Pickens, Anthony Zerbe, Ben Johnson, Bruce Dern, Joan Hackett, a very young Lee Majors, G.D. Spradlin, William Schallert (a terrific bit part!), Clifton James, and more.
THE DVD: Paramount's DVD release for WILL PENNY is a simple but respectable effort. Surprisingly, the video portion of the film looks quite good. Some initial dirt & grit during the title sequence quickly give way to a very clean, crisp overall picture for the rest of the film. The sound is a little on the soft side though; I had to crank the volume up quite high in order to hear all of the dialogue. There are a couple of decent bonus features for this movie and they're a nice touch. Often, lesser known films (especially westerns), are just paired with a copy of the film's theatrical trailer for a DVD release. With WILL PENNY however, Paramount offers up a short but nicely done retrospective piece featuring Charlton Heston, Jon Gries, (son of writer/director Tom Gries) and others, along with a second featurette that briefly discusses the cowboy actors in the picture. A solid release, but this deserves a hi-def Blu-ray remastering.