Will Penny: Charlton Heston gives one of his greatest performances as the aging, aching cowboy in this gritty, melancholic Western

Will Penny (1968), written and directed by Tom Gries, is a gritty, melancholic Western starring Charlton Heston as the titular hero. The film features Heston, who usually plays larger-then-life roles, as a very down to earth, aging cowboy.

From Moses to Michelangelo, and from El Cid to Gordon of Khartoum, Charlton Heston specialized in playing epic, larger-than-life characters taken from either history or legend. His square-jawed face, 6′ plus muscular physique and that booming voice made him a natural choice for such roles. And since most of his films were epic costume drams, and he always played the morally upright, noble hero in them, Heston also acquired the reputation of being more of a star persona and a poser rather than an actor; which is really unfair, because Heston is really good at playing wounded, vulnerable characters- as evidenced in his most popular performance in “Ben-Hur”; or his arrogant misanthrope who get his comeuppance in “Planet of the Apes.” The latter film saw Heston breaking out into the Sci-fi genre, in which he would go on to make a lot more films. “Planet of the Apes (1968)” also resurrected Heston’s career at the time; by the late 1960s, the popularity of the kind of epics Heston specialized in was waning, and he had back to back flops like “Agony and Ecstasy” and “Khartoum.” If “Apes” was the biggest late-career hit that Heston had, then the same year also saw the release of the Western, “Will Penny,” which features, arguably, Heston’s greatest screen performance.

Though he’s never considered a Western hero, Heston is no stranger to Westerns; his most prominent one being William Wyler’s “The Big Country,” which again featured one of Heston’s best performances. But “Will Penny” is radically different from anything Heston had done before. In this film, the star\actor, who is most famous for parting oceans and racing chariots, took on the role of a true-to-life, aging, vulnerable, melancholic cowboy who’s trying to cope with the changing times, as his way of life is coming to an end. In his memoirs Heston waxed eloquently about this film, which he considers a personal favorite. The mid to late 1960s were also a time when Westerns were in a transition. By this time, Television had appropriated the traditional Westerns, and there were a glut of Western serials on the tube. This, as well as the arrival of the revisionist Westerns from Europe, forced the American Westerns to become grittier and more down-to-earth. Director Sam Peckinpah was at the forefront of this new ‘Western’ movement’; his dark, ultra-violent Western, “The Wild Bunch,” would revolutionize Westerns forever. Heston himself had made one of Peckinpah’s earliest big studio Westerns, “Major Dundee (1965),” but that was not a happy experience for either of them. The film was ruthlessly cut down by the studio, and it ultimately flopped at the box office. Nevertheless, Heston continued to back new directors and was still interested in doing offbeat roles\films. So, when writer\director Tom Gries approached him for “Will Penny” – which incidentally was based on an episode from the Western TV series, “The Westerner” created by Sam Peckinpah – Heston agreed to star in it. Not only that Heston would recommend the director to many other producers, and he and Gries would go on to make two more films.

Coming back to the film, Heston’s Will Penny is a not-so-bright, illiterate, loner cowboy, who doesn’t like depending on anyone. But he is no mythical hero of the West, but just an exhausted cowhand trying to get the job done and maintain some modicum of dignity; he does his job well and expects to be paid for same. When the film opens, Penny and his fellow cowboys are at the end of a trail drive, and soon to be jobless. And with the the winter approaching, they are going to be jobless for a very long time. But Penny’s ‘steady hands’ wins the admiration of his boss, Anse Howard, who offers him a job in Kansas City that he will see him through the winter. Unfortunately, a young fellow cowboy appeals to Penny’s better nature, and Penny decides to give his job to the young cowpoke, thereby putting his own future in jeopardy- a very good indication that Penny is a good-hearted guy, who’s neither ruthlessly ambitious nor very bright, and definitely not someone who’s in control of his destiny; he will always let others decide the course of his life. And this is more than evident in the subsequent scenes when Penny falls foul of some outlaws, ‘Rawhiders’, led by maniacal preacher, Quint. Penny’s friends, Blue and Dutchy, gets into an argument with Quint (and his sons) over the killing of an elk, leading to a shootout, in which Dutchy is wounded and one of Quint’s sons is dead. While Penny and Blue leads a wounded Dutchy away, Quint swears biblical revenge on them.

But you can’t keep a good man down for long: Penny soon finds work down on the Flat Iron ranch;  he is hired to ride the far-off boundaries of the ranch and move out any squatters he may find hiding out in the winter. While riding the upper range, he comes across a women and her child, Catherine and Horace, hiding out in the line-rider’s cabin. Penny had previously met Catherine at a trail store, when he was taking Dutchy to the doctor; at the time Catherine and Horace was traveling to meet up with her husband in Oregon. But after they were abandoned by their guide, the mother and son had no option other than to hide out in the cabin during the winter. Though Penny is professionally obligated to drive Catherine out of the place, he is too much of a good man to drive a woman and child into the winter wilderness. Anyway, he rides away to inspect the fence line, warning them that they must be gone when he returns in one week. But on the way, Penny is ambushed by Quint and his sons, they rob him and leave him for dead; but he manages to find his way to a lineman’s cabin where he is cared for by Catherine.

As the winter rages on, Penny bonds with Catherine and Horace- to whom he becomes a surrogate father. Here, Penny comes to learn new things about himself, as a tentative romance develops between him and Catherine. But the threesome’s idyllic bliss is cut short when Quint & family barges into the cabin and takes them hostage. The villains forces Penny into hard labor, while they pressurize Catherine to take up with one of the Preacher’s evil sons. But before they could do further damage, Penny’s old friends, Blue and Dutchy, come to their rescue. They manage to overpower the Rawhiders and eventually kill them. Now it appears that it’s happily ever after for Penny and Catherine, but Penny’s cowboy character (flaws) resurfaces to remind him that the last thing he wants is a ‘domestic’ life. However hard he try, he just can’t convince himself to stay back and build a home with Catherine and Horace. Catherine tries her best to reason with him, but it’s no use, Will Penny has always been a loner cowboy, and that’s what he will continue to be for the rest of his life.

Though not exactly a revisionist Western, “Will Penny” has all the characteristics of a ‘transitional’ Western that had started taking a more realistic and intimate look at the life of old-West cowboys and gunslingers. The film takes elements from traditional Westerns in the sense that the good guys in the film are really good and the bad guys are pure caricatures of evil, but in the mold of revisionist Westerns, it completely deglamorizes and demythologizes the life on the Western frontier. There are no classical Western tropes like epic gunfights, barroom brawls, battles with the Native tribes or heroic gunfighters riding off into the sunset with their lady-loves. On the contrary, fighting Indians becomes a recurring joke throughout the film; every guy who gets injured for one reason or the other claims that he was ambushed by a hundred Indians. The film portrays a gritty West where cowboys struggle hard to survive harsh winters; and cow punching comes across as the most difficult and unrewarding professions, which is bound to keep a man penniless (hence, the title “Will Penny” takes on an added dimension) and homeless for most of the time. Even the male camaraderie depicted in the film is a far cry from what we get from regular Westerns- the cowhands do display great solidarity, but when the drive is over they split up and go separate ways without much overt display of emotions. Even when one of them gets shot and injured, and is close to death, they just coldly accept it and move on. Visually too, the film features a completely stripped down narrative – no majestic shots of monument valley-style locations, no trains, boom towns, not even many extras in the background – with its emphasis mainly on a budding relationship (set mostly inside a claustrophobic cabin) between a timid, awkward cowboy and an equally shy frontier women as they struggle to survive in a harsh environment. Usually, that’s never the focus of a traditional Western, or even a revisionist one. Also, there is absolutely no political or even social subtext to the story either; it’s more or less contend to be a strong character-study and an interpersonal drama. Though the overarching narrative structure of the film is very reminiscent of classic Westerns like “Shane” and “Hondo,”- the lone cowboy\gunslinger who rides in from outside and forms a strong bond with a mother & child – the overall feel of the film is very close to the Lee Marvin starrer “Monte Walsh,” or even the Kirk Douglas starrer “Lonely are the Brave,” where Douglas played one of the last brave cowboys trying to survive in a modern world.

But even unlike those ‘Cowboy’ films, which were all about masculine bonding, and guys living by an old code, Tom Gries emphasizes the love story here, with Penny’s first-time discovery of love and a sense of family being at the core of the film. Penny is an orphan, who started out by waiting around saloons and stables. His relationships with women have always been very casual, mainly one-night stands or short term relationships. That has been his definition of love till he met Catherine. But after he meets Catherine he realizes that love means something deeper and long lasting. He also realizes that, despite never being part of a family, he has great fatherly instincts and and he manages to bond effortlessly with Horace- The boy starts to look up to him and love him as well Unfortunately, despite being a noble soul, Penny is too much of a realist, and someone who has seen the harsh realities of life up close and personal. And even though he is genuinely in love with Catherine, his faith in those hard-earned lessons of life is much more stronger than any love. Penny believes, maybe rightly so, that love cannot survive the cold harsh realities of life and aging, especially in the unsparing old-West landscape. Thus, Penny walks away from, what is likely, his last chance at love, fatherhood and family. It’s a very un-Hollywood-style, unhappy ending, and I’m not sure it works all that well. It’s a truly great and realistic concept on paper, but it does not feel all that convincing on screen; maybe because Joan Hackett looks so lovely and works so wonderfully well with Heston, and maybe because it definitely feels like Penny is ‘abandoning’ a helpless women and child, who, unlike in “Shane” doesn’t have anyone to fall back on; that’s not what a Western hero does. Still, the romance that blossoms between Penny and Catherine is a refreshing departure from the clichéd romances one get to see, especially in Westerns. The whole second half of the picture is devoted to this budding relationship, with Gries giving sufficient time for characters to get to know each other and it works perfectly; they kiss only once and it takes quite a while for them to kiss as well. Though we have the traditional gunfight ending, where the cowboys vanquishes the evil rawhiders, the real climax of the film is the final conversation between Penny and Catherine, which is extremely touching.

Joan Hackett gives a superbly subtle performance opposite Heston. The role of Catherine was turned down by a host of prominent female actresses at the time, mainly because the character was described as ‘plain.’ Though Hackett is an extremely beautiful woman, her good looks are toned down considerably here. There’s an almost poetic quality to her acting, it’s very understated but also very forceful, and the entire second half of the film works mainly because of how well she relates to Heston on screen. There are also some superb supporting performances from Western veterans like Ben Johnson, G.D. Spradlin, Slim Pickens, Anthony Zerbe (playing a good guy for a change), Lee Majors, Bruce Dern (crazy as ever), and William Schallert. One big flaw the film has is the portrayal of the bad guys- they’re all one dimensional, and exist only to generate violent conflicts. Donald Pleasence is way over the top as the maniacal preacher, and Bruce Dern is not far behind; they seems totally out of place in this realistic & melancholic films. Their appearance late in the second half is a real mood-breaker. Till then we are totally enveloped in this magical romance unfolding, and then these hoods barges in, and the film becomes just another ordinary Western. Another big let down is David Raksin’s score, which is very inconsistent and rather ineffective. I love Raksin’s score for “Laura,” but looks like he was way out of his league scoring for a Western. But the worst part is the “The Lonely Rider” song that closes the film. The audiences are already a little devastated as Penny rides away leaving Catherine and Horace behind, and then this terrible song comes along, and it further muddles our feelings towards the film.

But these negatives are a minor quibble, as the film remains an engaging and interesting watch. (Peckinpah regular) Lucien Ballard’s exquisitely crisp cinematography offers a wealth of elegant visuals. As I already said, it’s not the colorful, widescreen photography that we get to see in regular Westerns, here Ballard brilliantly conveys the harshness of the great windswept Plains during a brutal winter. There are still some picture-postcard shots of cattle drives and pre-winter landscapes, but overall it’s not the usual sun scorched, big sky Western. Ballard very effectively manages to convey the sense of the land in which these hapless people are struggling to survive. Most of the film takes place inside the cabin (and its surroundings), and it’s pretty dark and claustrophobic, but Ballard manages to light up the scenes so that the audiences doesn’t have to strain to see what’s going on, even as he does not sacrifice the intimacy of the moments when Penny and Catherine are slowly developing a relationship in these confined surroundings.

But all those aesthetic pleasures aside, the real star of the show is Charlton Heston. Heston sheds his heroic\godly persona to embody an ordinary, flawed man, who goes on a journey of self-discovery, only to finally succumb to his character traits\flaws, and return to his old way of life, even though there’s not much future in that life. Heston is present in almost every scene in the film, from the first frame film – when he is seen riding in with the cattle humming a tune- and the final frame – when he is riding out into the horizon. When we first see him, he is all grizzled, dressed in shabby cowboy clothes and stealing biscuits from Slim Pickens. Within those first scenes, Heston sheds all of that larger-than-life persona and starts living this role of a Montana cowboy. We see him getting ragged about his age by young cowboys; we see him beaten to pulp by the Rawhiders; we see him being very funny while discussing his ‘bathing practices’ with Joan Hackett’s Catherine; we also see him singing (or learning to sing) alongside her, which becomes a sort of ritual in their courtship. Heston’s tour de force may be the monologue he delivers at the end, in which he goes on and on as to why he’s not a ‘good gamble’ for Catherine to bet her life on – he’s damn near Fifty and he may break his arms or legs while farming; and why he’s not cut out for anything else except being a cowhand, but it’s really the romantic scenes with Hackett and the bonding scenes with the boy that brings out new dimensions in Heston’s acting. Heston’s extreme sense of awkwardness at being placed in the middle of a totally alien relationship-scape is something that he hasn’t done much in his films. Penny has always been around men, he knows how to bond with them and deal with them , but being thrust in the middle of a domestic scene alongside a woman and a child makes him a kind of fish out of water; and Heston plays this aspect of the character brilliantly; he really needs to make an effort to adjust to this new surroundings, and what’s happening to him emotionally, and this comes across really well in his performance. Usually, Heston plays characters that are so confident and full of themselves that subtleties like these are not present (demanded) in his performances. But this role challenges him, and he comes through spectacularly. For that alone, this film is worth watching. The film was a box office flop when it was released in 1968, but over the years, it has acquired a cult following. Of course, Heston kept it in public domain by frequently claiming in interviews (and his books) that this is his best film performance; modern critics seems to agree with him, and so do I. Each film\character comes with its own demands and challenges, and it’s difficult to compare one to another- I would say that Heston’s Moses in “The Ten Commandments” is an equally compelling performance, simply for the fact that it was such an over the top, broad, theatrical production, and it was Heston and Brynner who brought some much needed conviction to the proceedings with their performances. Anyway, “Will Penny” features Heston’s most tender & emotionally rich performance, and the film itself is an underrated gem that’s ripe for rediscovery.


5 thoughts on “Will Penny: Charlton Heston gives one of his greatest performances as the aging, aching cowboy in this gritty, melancholic Western

  1. Years ago, I went to see “The Bridges of Madison County” and noticed that Charlton Heston was in the audience. Afterwards, I followed the star out, introduced myself and mentioned to him how that film reminded me a bit of his own “Will Penny,” which was probably the only time I’ve ever thought of something halfway intelligent to say to a star while I was still in their presence. And Heston, fortunately, agreed with me! We might have discussed the subject further, too, but he was too busy comforting his wife, who was crying her eyes out over the movie we had just seen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks PJ. That’s what one hopes when one write these pieces; to get people interested in checking out these movies


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