Director: Don Medford
By Don Jacobson
In the long and honored annals of 1970s anti-Westerns, The Hunting Party doesn’t loom very large, for several good reasons. One is that it was a largely British production shot on shoestring budget in Spain, and although similar circumstances didn’t stop Sergio Leone from making one of the best westerns of all time (1967’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), in this case, MGM’s low budget was definitely a bit more indicative of the overall level of artistic endeavor. The other good reason is that it was thoroughly panned upon its release by critics who saw some of the obvious similarities between this film and The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Little Big Man, and the aforementioned Leone efforts, and dismissed it as a violent and derivative revenge-film knock-off done quickly by television-oriented hacks.
Well, yes and no. The Hunting Party does indeed suffer from such flaws as over- and underacting, a lack of character development and inadequate explanation of their motives, and a visual style taken straight from such TV westerns as The Big Valley. But it also serves as a fascinating object lesson about a time period (the very early ’70s) when fast-changing social mores and tastes were truly taking hold among moviegoers, and how the major studios, which were still dominated by clueless “establishment” types, struggled to find a formula that would work for them while the future of the entire industry seemed to be hanging in the balance.
One tack they took to find a way to continue to churn out acceptable product for the so-called grindhouse screens, which were still playing an important role in the days before TV saturation reached the point of no return, was to take TV writers, producers, and directors and turn them loose on a big screen where TV censorship did not apply. It was hoped that the movie-going public would find appealing these essentially TV movies with emerging big-screen actors and loaded with sex and violence. Of course, this was a formula that was bound to fail The sex and violence in these kinds of movies always seems horribly gratuitous, the soon-to-be-great actors misused in a form that merely exploited newfound freedoms instead of using them to invent a new kind of socially relevant cinema. It was an attempt by the World War II generation to find a way to connect with the kids before most of the now-legendary crop of ’70s auteur-directors really had a chance to get their hands on the controls. For instance, 1971 was the year Martin Scorsese made Boxcar Bertha for Roger Corman, Steven Spielberg made the TV movie Duel, and George Lucas was writing and directing a remake of his student film THX 1138.
In that respect, probably the most notable thing about The Hunting Party is that it was Gene Hackman’s last appearance before becoming a poster boy for the auteur phenomenon – later that year, he appeared as Det. Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle in William Friedkin’s groundbreaking The French Connection and never went back to playing second-fiddle roles as he does in The Hunting Party, in which he plays Brandt Ruger, a sadistic Old West capitalist. Ruger’s holdings include an entire county, a bank, a railroad, and a wife named Melissa, played by Candice Bergen, who was just coming off the great success of one of the first films to establish just how the cinematic freedoms of the ’70s would eventually be used successfully: Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge (1971).
At the top of the story, it’s revealed that Ruger is impotent. Screenwriter/producer Lou Morheim (best known as the co-creator of the 1960s TV series The Big Valley and The Outer Limits) intercuts a brutal forced sex scene between him and Melissa with scenes of a crew of outlaws led by Frank Calder (Oliver Reed, the real star of the movie) carving up a cow in the desert and eating its meat raw. Of course, it’s Ruger’s cattle they’re killing, another of his possessions. The fact that Ruger doesn’t treat his wife appreciably different from his cattle forms the basis of the story. At its core, The Hunting Party is a very angry anti-Establishment diatribe in the grand tradition of ’70s cinema, and in that respect, maybe even moreso than most. Ruger is such a snarling villain and at the same time such a traditional American capitalist that the message is hard to miss: We like to substitute firepower for love and/or understanding, and will lash out violently at anyone (particularly smart, “uppity” women and others who don’t kowtow to the fascist order of things) who make us feel our spiritual impotence.
After leaving Melissa hurt and puzzled over his rage at his inability to perform, Ruger heads out on a two-week recreational trip he’s arranged with his millionaire buddies (played by a wonderful collection of some of most durable character actors of era, including Simon Oakland, G.D. Spradlin, and a pair of Brits masquerading as Old West men of means, Ronald Howard and Bernard Kay). They’re all going to get on a train and partake in one of the most egregious “sports” of the day, using long-range rifles to pick off buffalo as the train parks in the midst of a herd. Also on board are a bevy of hookers. Since he can’t perform sexually, Ruger gets his thrills by burning his, an Asian woman, with a lit cigar – a comment on The Man’s subjugation of other races.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Melissa goes off to help her friend teach youngsters in a one-room schoolhouse. No sooner does she get there than Calder swoops in abd kidnaps her because he needs someone to teach him to read to be able to pull off his next heist. As the outlaws gallop off with her in tow, we’re introduced to the gang, again, another crop of great ’70s character actors, including Mitch Ryan, William Watson and, L. Q. Jones, who appeared in fiveSam Peckinpah films). Right off, she’s sexually attacked in a moving wagon by Hog (Jones), and Calder takes his sweet time before riding back to kick him to the ground. This is when we get our first real introduction to Oliver Reed’s Frank Calder. Unfortunately for him, Reed’s performance is awful. The British actor is unconvincing using a clipped, dumbed-down Old West accent as Morheim tried to turn him into a semi-silent Clint Eastwood clone. In some movies, such as the Ken Russell films The Devils and Tommy and as one of the Three Musketeers (1978), Reed’s large frame and larger-than-life depictions of rage and humor were well used. His style was dark, complex, and often disturbing, and in a better-written western they may have worked. But here, he alternately underplays and is allowed to go over the top.
When Ruger, still aboard the hunting train, gets word Melissa has been kidnapped, he turns into a killing machine bent on revenge. Instead of sympathizing with her plight, as voice-of-reason crony Gunn (Oakland) urges, Ruger only spits bile. In his best lines of the movie, Hackman immediately rejects the idea he could ever take his wife back, saying, “He’ll give her a kid, and I’ll have a little outlaw bastard running around the house.” “Jesus Christ, Brandt,” replies a shocked Gunn, “have a little respect for Melissa!” “Well, what the hell do you think he’s going to do with her? Sing church hymns? He’ll pass her around. When he’s through with that, maybe 15 or 20 of them, he’ll accept 40 or 50,000 dollars of my money. No thank you very much. I’m not going to have my Virginia-educated, butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth wife used like a whore, then I have to take her back pregnant with a bastard!” At this point, it seems he’s out for revenge not only on Calder, but on his own wife as well, a real case of blaming the victim.
He convinces his buddies to join him in a effort to use the telescoped buffalo rifles that he had procured to hunt down the outlaw gang instead, thus making up for not possessing enough manliness to take on the hardened gang one-on-one by being able to pick them off from safe distances hundreds of yards away. This seems to be a fairly cogent comment not only on emotional and moral impotence, but also on the Vietnam-era reliance on “clean” high-tech weaponry, which changed the moral equation of warfare from one of a matter of honor (like hunting animals) to one of efficient massacres (hunting humans), though it could be argued that this depersonalization began with The Bomb.
Much of the rest of the film is about Ruger methodically tracking Calder’s gang down and picking them off in blood-gushing fashion one by one as they are mown down by weapons and attackers they never even see. At one point, one of the thugs even declares, “Who are those guys?” in a line and situation lifted directly from Butch Cassidy. Ruger has Calder is his sights several times, but lets him go for reasons that are never entirely explained, except that it sets up the ending. As the bloodletting becomes more and more cruel and gratuitous, his cronies begin questioning Ruger’s leadership and sanity, but stick with him out of an old-fashioned and ultimately disastrous sense of honor. The Vietnam parallels are hard to miss.
The other main thread then becomes the inevitable romance between the kidnapped Melissa and Calder, who, through long passages that again include a rape scene (that makes three), eventually tames the wildcat and wins her heart as she teaches him the alphabet by drawing letters in the sand with a stick. Calder is a good crystallization of the ’70s cinematic ethos of the antihero, a man with a good heart who’s doing bad things partly because he himself is a victim. It is rather thrilling to see Reed, whose tumultuous personal life was a living embodiment of counterculture rebellion, attempt to give meaning to the dignity of an illiterate outcast who has more honor than the “honorable” establishment figure hunting him down. The fact that he is doing so in a Eurotrash exploitation movie only makes it more delicious. He is an actor whose quirky list of contributions to both cinema and the British counterculture has never been truly celebrated like it needs to be.
The ending, which I won’t reveal, is exceedingly downbeat, as was also the tenor of the times. There is no resolution of the moral conflicts, only a realization that not dealing with our shortcomings as a nation of warmongers and greedy capitalists will result in a lot more heartache, especially for the women and nonconformists of the world. l