Monte Walsh (1970)
Director: William A. Fraker
Cast: Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Palance
Synopsis: An aging cowboy realizes that the West he knew and loved will soon be no more–and that there will be no room for him, either.
By the 1970s, the death-knell was sounding for the Western genre, and as if to acknowledge the fact, Hollywood produced a number of movies which reflected upon the passing of the Old West, and the ways in which these changes impacted on those who were ill-equipped to cope with this wholesale change to their way of life. There’s a melancholic poignancy embedded deep within such a theme which was readily explored by filmmakers like Sam Peckinpah, who first touched on the subject in 1962’s Ride the High Country before returning to it in more violent fashion in The Wild Bunch (1969) and Tom Gries, whose Will Penny (1968) bears some superficial similarities to Monte Walsh. Cinematographer William A. Fraker, whose directorial debut this was, had a couple of years earlier filmed Lee Marvin in Paint Your Wagon, a meandering movie which contrived to combine two dying genres — the Musical and the Western into one — and it can surely be no coincidence that he cast him in the title role here.
Monte Walsh is a cowboy whose stealthily advancing age mirrors the declining years of the Old West. Returning from a winter working on a ranch across the mountains with his long-time friend Chet (Jack Palance), Monte finds that the particular harsh winter has virtually wiped out the old style ranch owners, who are slowly being forced to sell out to the money men from the East who oversee the erection of the barbed wire fences that reduce the need for cowboys. Monte and Chet are simple men, though, and fail to grasp the implications of the changes the West is undergoing, particularly when they’re immediately offered positions with Cal Brennan (Jim Davis), one of the few remaining established ranchers.
The first half of the movie mimics the lack of thought the men give to their future as it ambles amiably along with an apparent disregard for the requirement of a plot. The new recruits meet up with another old acquaintance, Shorty Austin (Mitchell Ryan), they force-bathe the ranch’s talented but malodorous cook, who subsequently exacts a wicked revenge; Monte resumes his relationship with Martine (Jeanne Moreau), who works as a hooker in the local brothel, while Chet romances the attractive middle-aged widow (Allyn Ann McLerie) who owns the town’s hardware store. But then Brennan is forced to lay off three of his cowhands — one of whom is Shorty — because of lack of work, and even Monte and Chet begin to realise that the life which they have known is under threat. While Chet accepts this fact by marrying the hardware store widow and becoming the store’s manager, Monte resists the need to change. ‘As long as one cowboy is taking care of one cow…!’ he stubbornly insists, but you can see the desperation in his eyes when he speaks.
In the second half of Monte Walsh events conspire to open Walsh’s eyes and accept his fate, and his future looks forlorn. The last scene sees him alone in the countryside he loves, talking to his horse about the old days, and as they walk away from the scene the impression is given that he, and his kind, won’t be seen again. It’s a fitting farewell to a genre that fell victim to changing tastes, and it concludes a thoughtful, elegiac movie which, while feeling obliged to throw in an obligatory — and fairly pointless — brawl, abandons many of the conventions of its genre in favour of a slow and loving exploration of its protagonist’s character. A relatively subdued Lee Marvin inhabits the role as if it’s one he was born to play, while Jack Palance, in a rare nice-guy role, proves he’s capable of playing more than just a stereotypical villain. Jeanne Moreau also provides a winning performance as the woman who loves Monte so much she will let him roam free as he wishes.
(Reviewed 14th January 2014)