This one started out on a bright note: Mama Cass (she reportedly didn’t like that name, but that’s how she is credited) singing the movie’s theme song. She’s the only one of my generation’s died-too-young bunch who didn’t succumb to drugs. It’s a false urban legend that she choked on a peanut butter or ham sandwich. She died of a heart attack, that ironically may have been brought on by her extreme diet plan, which had trimmed 80 pounds from her body and may have stressed her heart. We still love you, Cass.
We started getting Old Cowboy movies in the ‘60s. John Wayne did several, Randolph Scott did at least one, Jimmy Stewart … just about all the stars of the golden age of westerns. And why not? They were all getting old. This short-lived genre was almost guaranteed to be at least partly a tragedy. Hard to make getting old a joyous experience, especially if, as in most of these films, your way of life is dying, too.
Here we have the great Lee Marvin at the peak of his career, and Jack Palance for once not playing a craggy-faced villain. Here he is a craggy-faced amiable sort of fellow, Lee’s long-time sidekick, a man who avoids the fistfights his buddy gets into. Most of the other players are western veterans, too, and it’s good to see them all together and having a good time. But the corporations are taking over the cattle business (as they are to this day taking over and ruining pretty much everything they touch), and the demand for cowpunchers is dwindling fast. Jack and Lee arrive in a small town that is already half-deserted, and sign on with a local rancher who has himself sold to the corporations. Lee visits his long-time lover, the bewitching Jeanne Moreau (still alive, at age 85!), whenever he can, and Jack is thinking about getting married to the widow of the local hardware store owner.
And that’s pretty much it. There is no real plot. There are incidents, large and small. We know the cattle business isn’t going to get any better for a trailhand. About the only real suspense was when Lee considered joining up with a wild west show and performing as Texas Jack Butler. But I’m not knocking it when I say that. I thoroughly enjoyed watching these people bring the old era to life. There are scenes that may sound clichéd when I describe them—the scary hoss that cain’t be broke, the stalking and final confrontation with the lowdown varmint who killed my best friend—but each one of them has a nice twist to it, especially that last one. The rest of it is everyday stuff of a cowboy’s life, with a great deal of rough humor to it all. It seems that Tom Selleck remade this one in 2003. I’m not interested.