- Written and Directed by Tom Gries
- February 16, 1968 (Finland) / April 10, 1968 (US)
An aging cowhand gets a job on a ranch and finds an isolated cabin inhabited by an abandoned mother and child.
When it comes to actors you don’t get much tougher than Charlton Heston. Not only was he a talented individual but he could look tough just by walking on the screen. It was the look in his eye and the way he moved with purpose on the silver screen that told you his character meant business. In other words he knew how to act.
I don’t think many actors can do that today. Schwarzenegger looked intimidating but not portray genuine tough. Dwayne Johnson the same but despite what he does in the movies I don’t feel he is tough. Could he intimidate with a look in real life? Probably not but Heston could. Charlton Heston, to quote (possibly inaccurately) Maureen O’Hara on another actor is “a man from when God still made such things.”
Heston is in fine form as the titular Will Penny, an aging cowhand who because he takes pity on a younger coworker finds himself tangling with the crazed Preacher Quint portrayed by the legendary Donald Pleasence. Pleasence would go onto permanent pop-culture fame courtesy of the Halloween film series.
Pleasence was a fantastic actor who unfortunately got typecast and forced into a career downturn around the time he took on Halloween. Here he plays wild eyed and crazy to the point you believe he was like that in reality. You don’t think he’s pretending. A misunderstanding between his character of Quint and Will Penny along with two of Will’s friends puts Penny firmly in Quint’s crosshairs.
After heading to a local ranch for work, Will eventually finds himself stranded with Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her son Horace (Jon Gries) who have taken to living in a line-rider’s cabin. They were abandoned by their guide after Will had encountered them earlier in the film.
Will Penny is much more of a character drama than it is a Western. There is a decent amount of gun play but the story is of Will Penny and how the character knows his life is a bit of a dead end. As the film progresses, he builds a bond and finds comfort with Catherine and Horace. It is the life for him but not a life he can lead.
The relationship between Will and Catherine builds but he is continually pulling himself away from it while she is continually being pulled towards him. She feels she can make him happy, and he comes to believe he is a bad decision for her. It is not some much said as understood by the viewer.
A young Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe show up as fellow cowhands Blue and Dutchy respectively. The great Bruce Dern is Preacher Quint’s son Rafe. Ben Johnson gets far too little screentime as Flat Iron Ranch foreman Alex. Slim Pickens shows up as Ike Walterstein. Clifton James is Catron and William Schallert is Dr. Fraker who helps Dutchy after he is shot.
These are not necessarily the characters of Western mythos here nor are they the type you might find in a revisionist Western film. They are crafted more as ordinary men or the equivalent of the blue-collar individuals of the time.
Will Penny is very nice to look at. You get some sweeping vistas in the beginning with some tight shots towards the end when winter hits that not only look beautiful but communicate the danger that they could be in from the weather.
Though nothing particularly original, the story itself is presented well and helped along by the performance of Heston and Hackett. Their chemistry is believable. While I do think Horace was a bit extraneous, leaving him out would’ve created some issues with the overall narrative. I think they should’ve gone for more than just ‘cute kid.’
Will Penny is an entertaining Western. It’s enjoyable with a well-presented story starring the legendary Charlton Heston. I do recommend it.