MONTE WALSH started out as a 560-page novel, written in 1963 by Jack Schaefer, the man who gave us myth to grow on with “Shane”. By the time it hit the screen in 1970, westerns were in the midst of a cultural bonfire, and this elegiac range rider was another in the Will Penny mold, a lament for the way things were, or at least the way we imagined they were. *
As the Old West gets fenced off and ranchlands become portfolio patches for Eastern swells, jobs for veteran cowboys get scarcer. Longtime saddle pals ‘Monte Walsh’ (Lee Marvin) and ‘Chet Rollins’ (Jack Palance) have to face up to the changing times. Easy-going Chet is fond of a widow with a hardware store; harder-to-tame Monte ponders what he can do to make a living and how things might work out with ‘Martine’ (Jeanne Moreau), his prostitute galpal. Others in their circle likewise make hard choices, not always wise ones.
“I ain’t spittin’ on my whole life.”
Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen) and David Zelag Goodman (Straw Dogs) liberally adapted their screenplay from Schaefer’s episodic book, and cinematographer William A. Fraker took reins as director for the first time, shooting the $5,000,000 production in Arizona. Well-paced, if a bit obvious in trying to honor genre clichés (brawls and such), and, as in countless movies involving tough men of action (westerns, war films, cop flicks) it assumes we’ll accept the actors ages relative to their characters, thus paying homage to the past of our collective movie memory at least as much as the historical one being portrayed. **
Some vignettes (the cook’s payback, the brief but startling gunplay scenes) work better than others (the saloon bustup and bunkhouse free-for-all are overdone). Quite overdone, but certainly impressive and amusing, is the highlight sequence with Monte riding a un-tamable stallion, literally bashing a town apart: a bit much, but spectacularly arranged. Marvin and Moreau have a relaxed chemistry, and Palance enjoys one of his best roles, playing a nice, easygoing guy for a change.
With obvious influence from Fraker, the handsome cinematography was done by David M. Walsh, his first of 60 credits in that position, having worked under the director when Fraker was d.p. on The President’s Analyst, Bullitt and Paint Your Wagon (getting used to Mr. Marvin’s habits). John Barry composed a pleasingly melancholy score, and Mama Cass crooned “The Good Times Are Comin'”, the wistful theme tune.
Reviews were appreciative, box office moderate, the $7,000,000 take notching 45th place for the year. Monte & Chet’s able supporting gallery: Mitchell Ryan (excellent debut, as a decent poke gone bad), Jim Davis (durable as ever, as the sympathetic foreman), Matt Clark, Billy Green Bush (‘Powder’, no-good cur), G.D.Spradlin, Ted Gehring (‘Skimpy’, the smelly cook), Michael Conrad, John McLiam, Bo Hopkins, Allyn Ann McLerie, Charles Tyner, Roy Barcroft (last of 385 credits: he died before the movie came out), Richard Farnsworth. 106 minutes.* In 1970, reflecting societal upheaval and re-evaluation, westerns used the genre to attack or at least rework tradition: Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse, Two Mules For Sister Sara, The Ballad Of Cable Hogue, Soldier Blue. Three comic entries—Dirty Dingus McGee, The Cheyenne Social Club and There Was A Crooked Man—were on the cynical side. Alone, John Wayne held the old-fashioned line in Chisum and Rio Lobo. As for saddle worn, only a tenderfoot would question The Duke, 63 that year.
** Anyhow, old cowboys never die, they just get older. The average age of those hard-working, hard-living horsemen was 24. During their heyday, average life expectancy for men in general was 42 to 49, and cowhands (let alone cowtown harlots) wore out faster than your regular fella, so the stretch is in with Marvin at 45, Palance, 50 and Moreau, 41: their real-life counterparts would be pushing up daisies. Remade for TV in 2003, with Tom Selleck, Isabella Rossellini and Keith Carradine, further yeehawing the age factor for the incurious small screen: Selleck as Monte was thirteen years older than Marvin had been, Carradine had three on Palance, and Isabella was nine years past what Jeanne had been. Forget the leathery boys, Moreau and Rossellini’s saloon sirens would have been the best preserved frontier hookers in history. Aw, well, hell, it’s all horsemyth anyway, ain’t it? “I’ll get it, Liberty!”