BRONCO BILLY was a curious 1980 letdown to many Clint Eastwood fans when he starred and directed in this mostly whimsical comedy, a modern western about a pretend cowboy and his ‘family’ of performers in a ramshackle traveling Wild West troupe. Brought in several weeks ahead of schedule for $6,500,000, it pleased reviewers and made $24,266,000 domestically. Still less than hoped: his other ’80 release, also a comedy, but broader, Any Which Way You Can, was scorned by critics and made twice as much.
ANTOINETTE: “Are you for real?” BILLY: “I’m who I want to be.”
A former shoe salesman from New Jersey styles himself a modern day cowboy and runs a small Wild West show with a misfit cast. ‘Billy’ (Eastwood), has a loyal crew, including ringmaster ‘Doc Lynch’ (Scatman Crowthers), ‘Leonard’ (Sam Bottoms), a Vietnam draft evader who does rope tricks, ‘Chief Big Eagle’ (Dan Vadis), who handles snakes, and ‘Lefty Lebow’ (Bill McKinney), the one-armed utility man. Along with being perpetually in the hole, they have consistent trouble keeping attractive female assistants because while Billy is super-skillful with firearms, he’s a bit less perfect at throwing knives, blindfolded, at the gals, tied to a revolving target. When Billy & pals cross paths with stuck-up heiress ‘Antoinette Lily’ (Sondra Locke), adrift after being dumped by her fiancé (Geoffrey Lewis), their luck, and hers, changes—but for the better?
Locke, Eastwood’s partner at the time, pushed the idea (script written by Dennis Hackin), seeing the warmhearted Capraesque storyline as a image-teasing break for Clint, complete with the spoiled rich girl schtick for her, recalling screwball antics from the past. It’s a mixed bag. While not at all believable, it has some charming moments, the cast is game, a few superfluous brawls are thrown in to give Clint fans some red meat, and David Worth’s cinematography has a rich texture, capturing autumnal colors of the Idaho locations around the Boise area.
ANTOINETTE: “Have you ever been married?” BILLY: Sure. “A long time ago.” ANTOINETTE: “Did you love her?” BILLY: “With all my heart. Sometimes that just isn’t enough.” ANTOINETTE: “What happened?” BILLY: “I caught her in bed with my best friend.” ANTOINETTE: “What did you do to him?” BILLY: “I shot her.” ANTOINETTE: “What! What about him?” BILLY: “He was my best friend.”
Conversely, the cornball plot is sloppy, with subplots that go nowhere and dialogue that runs from vapid to preachy. Eastwood and Locke are lead-footed with the 30s throwback bickering: her character is too cold and the eventual, expected, obvious romantic thaw is unfelt.
With Sierra Pacheur, Walter Barnes (good bit as a detestable sheriff), William Prince, Beverley McKinsey, Hank Worden, Tessa Richarde (brightly funny as ‘Mitzi Fritts’), Cha Cha Sandoval-McMahon, formerly Tanya Russell (another amusing bit), and Merle Haggard.
* Locke: “I begged him to do it. I loved that one so much. It was, I would say, the most me of anything I did or was involved with, with Clint.” Eastwood: “It was an old-fashioned theme, probably too old fashioned since the film didn’t do as well as we hoped. But if, as a film director, I ever wanted to say something, you’ll find it in Bronco Billy.”