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Will Penny, an aging cowpoke, takes a job on a ranch which requires him to ride the line of the property looking for trespassers or, worse, squatters. He finds that his cabin in the high mountains has been appropriated by a woman whose guide to Oregon has deserted her and her son. Too ashamed to kick mother and child out just as the bitter winter of the mountains sets in, he agrees to share the cabin until the spring thaw. But it isn't just the snow that slowly thaws; the lonely man and woman soon forget their mutual hostility and start developing a deep love for one another. Written by
Charlton Heston is an aging cowboy in Will Gries' 1968 gritty Western Will Penny. This is not the West of larger than life heroes, men of rugged independence and strength, just ordinary men without glamor who have to struggle for a living in a tough, bitter, and lonely environment. Will is a loner, not a "tough" guy with a romanticized image, but he is a survivor. After one job comes to an end, Penny takes off to look for work along with two companions, Blue (Lee Majors), a young cow hand, and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe), a more experienced worker. Along the way, after a dispute over an elk, Will and his friends are attacked by Quint (Donald Pleasance), the most demented preacher this side of Harry Powell (Night of the Hunter). When one of Quint's sons is killed, the preacher vows revenge and we know we haven't seen the last of him.
When Will inquires at a roadside inn about the nearest doctor for Dutchy who accidentally shoots himself, he meets Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) and her young son Horace known as Button (Jon Gries), on their way to Oregon to find her husband. After leaving Dutchy in the care of a doctor, Will finds a job for the winter at the Flatiron Ranch as a line rider keeping squatters off the property. When he arrives at the line rider's cabin, however, he finds Catherine and her son living there after they were abandoned by their guide. When Will is suddenly attacked by the Quints and left to die in the cold, Catherine nurses him back to health and he soon develops a close attachment to Catherine and Button.
When Will realizes that he cannot force Catherine and HG to leave, he agrees to let them stay during the winter and they spend Christmas together and the story becomes both a tale of conflict with the Quints and his growing love for a married woman. Although we root for Will to overcome his reluctance to take risks, we know that Will has known nothing but handling cattle, cannot read or write, and has little self-confidence or belief that he can ever change. There are many familiar faces in Will Penny: Slim Pickens, Donald Pleasance, Lee Majors, Anthony Zerbe, and Bruce Dern. This outstanding ensemble cast produces a Western that is authentic and intelligent and is probably Heston's best performance of his career.
Interestingly, the film opened in the New York's R.K.O. Coliseum at Broadway and 181st Street, a neighborhood theater in which I spent many boyhood afternoons and even worked as an usher. The Coliseum was one of the most attractive movie theaters in New York and as described at the time, had "a lovely oval opening, surrounded with a wooden railing, from which it was possible to look down from the balcony onto the first floor". Like many movie palaces of my youth, it is gone now, but the memories remain.
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