"That man's got more guts than you could hang on a fence."
Here's some important information from the Western movies 101 textbook:
Western movie rule #15: a good western film, especially one made in the 1960s, is automatically made better by having both Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson in the cast. Extra points are scored if the cast includes such memorable character actors as Anthony Zerbe, Clifton James and William Schallert.
Western movie rule #27: if you've got Bruce Dern and an over-the-top Donald Pleasence playing bad guys at the beginning of the film, they're doomed to die at the hands of the hero in the final reel.
Western movie rule #7: if you can't have your hero ride into the sunset at the end of the film, at least let him ride into a picturesque western landscape (a snow covered high country forest will do nicely).
All of these elements are in play in WILL PENNY (1968), which I watched this afternoon. Charlton Heston stars as the titular character, a middle-aged, uneducated cowhand who struggles to eke out an existence in the old west. It's a hard scrabble life but Penny is pretty good at it. Following a big cattle round up at the beginning of the film, Heston and fellow cowboys Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe strike out on their own to find work to tide them over during the coming winter months. They run afoul of rawhiders Donald Pleasence and Bruce Dern. Zerbe is wounded and Heston kills one of the gang causing Pleasance to swear vengeance.
Once Zerbe is in the care of a doctor (William Schallert), Heston and Majors part ways. Heston eventually finds work at the cattle ranch run by Ben Johnson. He is assigned to guard the perimeter of the spread and heads off to a hut in the mountains where he'll spend the winter. Once there, he encounters a young woman (Joan Hackett) and her son who are living in the building after having been abandoned by their trail guide while on the way to California. Heston orders them to be gone by the time he gets back from his inspection of the range. While out in the high country, Heston is waylaid by Dern and Pleasence and left for dead. He makes it back to the cabin where Hackett nurses him back to life.
The three are forced to stay the winter in the remote outpost and over the course of time a strong bond develops between the three. Heston is shown the possibility of a family and a settled existence and begins to believe he really can have what he yearns for. But the bad guys show up again in the final reel and imperil Heston and Hackett. Majors and Zerbe arrive to help save the day and Heston is left with a heartbreaking choice: settle down with the woman and boy, both of whom he loves or stay an itinerant cowhand, moving from place to place with no family or dependents.
Written and directed by Tom Gries, WILL PENNY is a very good film. Heston gives a sympathetic performance as a conflicted man who wants something he knows he cannot have. The supporting cast is uniformly superb, Hackett is easy on the eyes and the on-location cinematography by Lucien Ballard is first rate. Recommended.