60s California liberal rides the trail
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was Robert Redford’s first Western film and he made Willie Boy later the same year. He didn’t make a great thing of the genre, only doing three real Westerns in all, though there was quality there: Jeremiah Johnson in 1972 was followed by The Electric Horseman in 1979 and The Horse Whisperer in 1998, all good movies in their way, if not always exactly Westerns.
Willie Boy wasn’t really a good movie, however. It’s a fashionable 60s twentieth-century Western directed by then unblacklisted Abraham Polonsky in which clean-cut Robert Redford (rather presumptuously playing a ‘Sheriff Cooper’, known as Coop) pursues tough Paiute Robert Blake from 1909 California into Nevada. It’s “based on” a true story.
It’s not that bad. It’s alright. The California scenery is shot in good color.
Did Willie Boy kidnap Katharine Ross (half a ton of make-up on her and a jet-black wig) and did he kill her, or did she go willingly and did she commit suicide so as not to slow him down and cause his capture? We are never told. And actually, to be honest, we don’t care that much because to care you have to be engaged with the characters and we aren’t. The screenplay (also Polonsky) and acting are too weak.
Make-up by the kilo
Blake is clearly an honors graduate of the Charles Bronson School of Acting. None of the others is very good either and even Redford seems to be going through the motions. Sundance fans hoping for a lively performance were to be sorely disappointed.
Sundance without the spark
Dean Jagger is in it, as the sheriff, and B-Western player Barry Sullivan, The Tall Man and lead with Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns, appears too, as a horrible Indian fighter. Also from Forty Guns is Robert Dix, son of Richard.
It’s really a straight chase Western as liberal Deputy Redford with a posse of dyed-in-the-wool rednecks pursues Blake through rugged terrain (Joshua Tree, Whitewater) and you know the deputy’s going to catch up with Willie - and though I won’t spoil the ending for you, I have to say I saw it coming.
There are political machinations. There’s also a sub-feminist sub-plot in which Redford dallies daringly with a feisty missionary doctor who seems disgusted with herself that she should like being in bed with a conservative authority-figure, even though most women would be pleased to be in bed with Robert Redford, I suppose.
The movie is basically a Redfordesque liberal pro-Indian anti-redneck treatise but that’s OK. After all, he was right. California had a particularly shameful record of treatment of Indians, even by Western standards.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is mediocre but worth a watch if you like pursuit Westerns, which I do. I’ve seen worse.