Posse: Bruce Dern gives one of his career-best performances in this Kirk Douglas directed cynical, Watergate-era Western

Posse(1975) is a typical 1970s anti-Western produced and directed by Kirk Douglas. This is Douglas’ second (and final) directorial venture, and he also plays the lead protagonist alongside Bruce Dern, Bo Hopkins and James Stacy.

Though Kirk Douglas was one of the first stars from Hollywood’s golden era to form his own production company, he was one of the last to turn director. Many of his contemporaries (& Juniors) like Burt Lancaster, John Wayne, Marlon Brando and Paul Newman had already turned director by the time Kirk decided to wield the megaphone. After the enactment of Consent decree on the film industry divested the big studios of their theater chains, the studios let go off their contract players (including stars and technicians), and started concentrating more and more on financing and distribution leaving the actual production of films to independent producers. Since moviestars were the most powerful people in the industry at the time, everyone, from a veteran like Humphrey Bogart to a novice like Burt Lancaster jumped on the production bandwagon. Kirk too became a producer rather early in his career, by launching a production company named after his mother, Bryna. As Kirk’s stardom burgeoned, Bryna became a very powerful production house, producing most of Kirk’s best films, like “The Vikings” and “Spartacus.” Though Kirk was always considered a meddling star-producer, who was hell-bent on directing his directors (Stanley Kubrick was so annoyed by Kirk’s interferences on “Spartacus” that he fled to Britain and never returned), he never turned to directing officially till 1973. Kirk’s first film as a director was a bizarre Western, “Scalawag,” adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” The film had Kirk as the one-legged ‘Long John Silver’ alongside a bunch of child actors, a talking parrot and Danny DeVito in his debut screen performance. The film was Kirk’s answer to, what he described as, arty, pretentious, cynical movies that was fast becoming a Hollywood staple in the 70s; he wanted to take movies back to a time of simple tales of heroes, villains and adventures. Unfortunately for Kirk, the film was deemed so bad that it opened and closed quickly. I don’t think many people even know about the existence of this film, and I’m also pretty sure that no decent Home video print of that film exists in any form. Suitably chastised by this disastrous experience, Kirk, for his sophomore directorial venture, chose to make exactly the kind of film that he was criticizing when he made his grand directorial debut: Posse (1975) was again a Western, but this one was no traditional oater, but more the cynical, nihilistic kind that Sam Peckinpah was making at the time- the film even has Phil Feldman, the producer of “The Wild Bunch” as its executive producer.

Posse, released a year after President Nixon’s resignation, can be considered a cross between “The Wild Bunch” and Michael Ritchie directed Robert Redford starrer, “The Candidate(1972),” which was a biting satire on American politics and election process. In Posse, Kirk Douglas plays Howard Nightingale(what a name!), an ambitious and pompous Texas Marshall who harbors political ambitions. Howard Commands a super-posse- five well-trained, well-uniformed and well-equipped rangers; Marshall and his posse travel in style in their personal train with two carriages- one for Marshall and his men, the other for their horses. Howard is now running for U.S. Senate and his victory in the elections hinges on whether or not he manages to capture the dreaded Train Robber, Jack Strawhorn(Bruce Dern). When the film opens, in the pitch darkness of the night, we see that Marshal Howard and his Posse have surrounded Jack and his fellow robbers, who are holed up in a barn. With them is the $40-thousand that the gang had stolen in a recent train robbery. One of Strawhorn’s men turn out to be Howard’s informer, and it’s through him that Marshal has managed to trap Strawhorn. We expect the Marshal to barge in with his men and arrest the robbers, but something else happens: Howard and his Posse ignite torches and set fire to the barn. The ruthlessly shoot down anybody running out, until the barn is fully burned to the ground – along with the 40 grand. In the darkness, Howard and his Posse appears demonic while reflected in the light of the burning barn, and it gives us a good indication that these people are not the heroic lawmen we are used to seeing in Westerns.

Unfortunately for Howard, Strawhorn manages to escape. The Marshal and his men head for the town of Tesota, where the believe Strawhorn is holed up. And indeed, Strawhorn is in town, and he kills a few more people there, including the ‘rat’ in his gang, and then disappears into the wilderness. There he puts together a new team of robbers and plan their next robbery. By this time Howard has reached Tesota, and he vows in front of the townsfolk that he will bring Strawhorn to justice. Soon, Howard and his men mounts another ambush on Strawhorn’s hideout, and this time they manages to capture Strawhorn alive. Strawhorn is brought to the town square and paraded in front of the townspeople by the Marshal; he even has his pictures taken with the outlaw by his special photographer, so that they can be splashed in all the newspapers, and thereby shoring up his image in time for the election. Strawhorn is dumped in the town jai awaiting hanging, while Marshal organizes a celebration cum election campaign rally in the night where he charms the townsfolk with glib words and promises. And as the Marshal goes about with his farce, the members of his posse are busy seducing local girls and bedding them down in the luxurious train compartment. After a brief conversation between Marshal and Strawhorn, when the former visits latter in jail, the latter realizes that he’s just a pawn in the political game that the Marshal is playing, and the Marshal is nothing more than a phony hypocrite. So, Strawhorn, who’s more crafty and intelligent then Howard expected, goes about poisoning the minds of the Posse- regarding the future of the rangers once Howard ascends to the senate.

Next day, when the Marshal and his men boards the train with Strawhorn, the whole town turns up to give them a warm send-off. But on the way, Strawhorn sets fire to one of the carriages, and manages to escape from the train; and then tricks Howard and his Posse, by hijacking the train and leaving them stranded in the wilderness. Leaving his Posse behind, Howard gives hot chase and manages to board the train, but is taken prisoner by Strawhorn, who drives the ‘burning’ train back to Tesota. While the townsfolk are busy putting out the fire from the train, Strawhorn takes Howard to Mrs. Ross’ (Beth Brickell) house and holds him hostage. Mrs. Ross is one of the few townsfolk, along with the editor of the paper Tesota Sentinel, Harold Hellman (James Stacy), who has seen through Marshal Howard’s duplicitous ways. By this time, the Posse has also reached town, and Strawhorn demands Wesley (Bo Hopkins), Howard’s second-in-command, to deliver a ransom of $40-thousand for Howard’s safe return- the same amount of money the posse burned when it first tracked Strawhorn down and killed the members of his gang. To raise the money, posse has to rob the town, thus turning the public against Howard. In the end,  Wesley could deliver only $30-thousand. Now comes a twist in the tale, and i don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t watched the film, so they can skip to end of Spoilers

(Spoilers.)

Instead of taking the money, Strawhorn gives it back to the Posse and ask them to divide it up among themselves, which would come to about 6 grand a piece. An outraged Howard asks Wesley to give the money back to the people, but the Posse- who had already started to doubt Howard’s loyalty towards them, and have been concerned about their future- decide to split the money up among themselves, as it will amount to what they can earn in 3 years serving Howard. Meanwhile, one of the angry townsfolk shoots at the posse and is in turn killed by Wesley. Now having become criminals as well, Posse decides to take the money and ride out. Strawhorn coolly walks out of his hiding place and takes charge of the Posse. A handcuffed Howard comes running out and warns the posse that he will hunt down each and everyone of them, but Strawhorn nonchalantly leads the posse out of town, while Howard continues to scream and threaten behind them. Though this final twist works very well on a conceptual level, it does not translate well on the screen. We already know that the men of the Posse are corrupt – seeing how they were taking advantage of the women of the town; we also know that Howard could not give convincing answers to their questions regarding their future; but he has promised them jobs in railroad security, where they will be earning much less than what they’re earning now, though the lone ‘Indian’ member is sure to be left out in the cold, because the Railroad does not employ Indians. But it’s still debatable that the Posse would have chosen to become outlaws themselves, though the killing of one of the townspeople may have sealed the deal for them. It all goes back to the point in the film where Howard says that: “A great leader takes care of his men,” but Alas! he himself forgets that rule, blinded by his political ambitions. And as Strawhorn tells him at the end: “Honest men stay honest only as long as it pays. That’s why I’m a thief and you’re a liar.

(End of Spoilers)

Like “The Wild Bunch,” Posse shows that there is a very thin line that separates the lawmen from the outlaws, and the line can very well be erased by greed. And like that Peckinpah classic, the characters in the film slowly evolve to reveal that the good guys are not very good, while the bad guys are not as bad as they made out to be. This film, with that unexpected twist at the end, is another one of those attempts to freshen up the ‘Western’ genre which was fast becoming obsolete in the age of New-Hollywood and blockbusters. Suffice to say that Kirk’s second directorial venture is a vast improvement over the first. His filmmaking is very assured and much more professional, and just like the kind of energetic dramatic-athletic actor he is, as a director too he seems to tell stories that mixes action and drama well, and not very subtly; but since he made only two films we never found out what his ‘style’ is, that’s if he does have a ‘directorial’ style. His selection of material is also very topical and thought provoking; though one could say that Kirk’s exploiting the American Citizens’ loss of faith in the politicians due to the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Nixon, i think it’s par for the course; a lot of films at the time were doing it- the same year we will see films like “Three Days of Condor” being released; even “Jaws” exploits the same sense of paranoia and distrust of authority. The influence of Peckinpah can be felt all over the film; not just in the amoral nature of the ‘Western,’ but also in the shooting of the action sequences: an ambush on Strawhorn’s men on the banks of a river- complete with slow-mo shots of horses plunging into the water, as well as the extended action sequence set on the train are heavily influenced from similar action scenes in “The Wild Bunch.”; though the violence here is much more subdued. Fred Koenekamp’s cinematography mixes classical shots of colorful, wide open Western vistas with frenetic handheld camerawork. The screenplay by Christopher Knopf and William Roberts is very literate- brimming with great dialogue and mixing elements of drama, action and humor, it constantly shifts our loyalties towards the central characters. John W. Wheeler’s editing is also crisp, with hardly any boring sequences and making sure that film clocks in at a crisp 92 minutes.

One thing about Kirk Douglas that makes him different from the rest of his contemporaries from Hollywood’s golden age is his willingness to play heroes who are not very likeable. John Wayne made his career by playing the noble, unwavering courageous hero; while Kirk maybe most famous for playing “Spartacus,” but he’s equally famous for the flawed heroes he embodied in “Champion,” “Ace in the Hole,” “Bad and the Beautiful,” and “Lust for Life.” His Howard Nightingale here is a continuation of those unlikeable heroes. Also, Kirk has never been a subtle actor, always preferring to be bombastic and theatrical in his body language and line readings- that made him a favorite of Mimics and stand-up comics during his time. This aspect of his acting suits this character well: Howard is a very courageous and resourceful leader of men, but he’s also ambitious and duplicitous; grandstanding on issues and strutting and posing for the benefit of the public and his posse. Kirk is also very generous in giving the best role of the film to Bruce Dern. Now Dern is again one of those actors who prefer taking the over-the-top route- his snarl, massive eye roll and facial contortions are rich fodder for comedians (especially Jim Carrey, who’s a big fan of Dern). But in this film he springs a surprise. He plays the charming, intelligent criminal with extreme subtlety. the eye roll and snarl is still there, but they are judiciously used. I think this is one of his best performances (from the 70s at least), alongside the detective he played in “The Driver (1978).” I don’t know whether it’s the effect of Kirk directing, but Dern brings great understanding and intelligence in the portrayal of the outlaw, who’s remorseful when he kills people, charming enough to manipulate his enemies by hitting at their weak spots, and is smart enough to see through the hypocrisy of his captor and turn the tables on him. Kirk has also created a role ( i think specially) for James Stacy – the “Lancer” TV hero who had lost an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident. Stacy plays a very dignified one-armed, one-legged journalist who’s the first man in town to see through Marshal Howard’s real intentions. Bo Hopkins (again from “The Wild Bunch”) does his usual ‘crazy’ routine as Kirk’s top man.

Posse is a little gem of a movie that’s remained obscure for a long time. I first remember seeing it as a kid on Television, and then never saw it till very recently on an okay DVD. I really don’t think the film has been issued on a re-mastered Blu-ray, though I think it’s now available on streaming platforms. It’s a film that deserves to be seen- as the better of the two films ever directed by Legendary star Kirk Douglas, and for the striking chemistry between Kirk and Bruce Dern, and of course, for the quintessential New-Hollywood actor, Dern’s terrific performance.

2 thoughts on “Posse: Bruce Dern gives one of his career-best performances in this Kirk Douglas directed cynical, Watergate-era Western

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