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Harry Collings returns home to his farm after drifting with his friend, Arch. His wife, who had given up on him, reluctantly allows him to stay, and soon believes that all will be well again. But then Harry has to make a difficult decision regarding his loyalties and priorities. Written by
Steve Harkins <email@example.com>
Place THE HIRED HAND with TENDER MERCIES. LONESOME DOVE or the novels of Cormac McCarthy for the way it touches on, but does not fully inhabit the 'western' genre. This is a film about the tragic, irrevocable voyage we take through life.
THE HIRED HAND is also an examination of the theme of male bonding. But it is one of the deeper explorations of that theme and dares to suggest that bonding is really a kind of love. Harry (Peter Fonda) had been married when too young. He left his wife and child to be on his own, and at some point connected with Arch (Warren Oates). As the story opens, Harry tells Arch he wants to return to his wife, instead of continuing on to California. The unpredictability of this film is set out from the start with the opening shot, an impressionistic view of Arch, Harry and their young companion, Dan. And that unpredictable quality come to the fore when Dan is suddenly taken out of the picture completely. At this point, Arch forgets California and goes with Harry to find the wife. It's clear from her first appearance, that Hannah (Verna Bloom) has harbored anger over the years of Harry's absence and is not willing to have him back. Fonda's performance reveals a great deal of ambivalence about his return: is it merely a sense of obligation that has brought him back? Agreeing to stay on as a 'hired hand'--not a permanent member of the family--Harry does remain, with Arch, sleeping in the barn. It's quite clear that the two men are comfortable, and have already been living a life of their own together. When Harry finally attempts to re-start his marriage, he is half-hearted at best. Hannah has given in to her own admitted needs and taken him back, but the newly re-formed family never takes hold. This can be seen very clearly when Arch leaves for California (in the uncut version, he is told to leave by the town sheriff). At that point the true, underlying meaning of THE HIRED HAND becomes clear. There is an incredible, long sequence beginning with Arch's departure, and the intense longing look of Harry, watching him ride away. No dialogue, only Bruce Langhorne's, melancholy guitar-based score is heard under dissolving images of Harry and Hannah and their awkward situation. The sequence ends when Hannah tells Harry she loves him and he repeats it to her, but with little conviction. Harry has 'gone home again' and, as is so often the case, he will not truly be able to return to his earlier life. Leaving the first time, and finding Arch, Harry had followed his true desire and needs. With Arch now departed, Harry can see his own mistake. The film's final sequence is a dramatic playing out of the two men's destinies. Taken prisoner by an evil villain (the single stereotyped element in this non-western), Arch knows if he sends for him, that Harry will come. The gruesome severed finger delivered by messenger recalls an ancient fairytale, like the Singing Bone, where a part of the body speaks for the character. Harry arrives to rescue Arch, but he is immediately shot, and thereby takes the place of his friend in death. His last words are the most telling in the film: "Hold me, Arch!" The men embrace in powerful image of their deep bonding. This was the main relationship of Harry's life. While it was not homosexual, his love for Arch had superseded anything he had felt for Hannah. The very final shots, of Arch returning to Hannah's farm, are ambiguous: is he coming back to her, or to the memory of Harry?
THE HIRED HAND is filmed with a sublime, impressionistic eye by Vilmos Zsigmond. This is a film of long, slow dissolves Perhaps there are one too many such effects, but they do create a fluid, timeless flow. Strict chronology is not an important element of this film. The beauty of the images may recall for some Terence Malick's DAYS OF HEAVEN. In the first half of the film, we are shown men in a natural environment that is not only beautiful, but sometime rough and foreboding. Viewers who are familiar with the novels of Cormac McCarthy, especially his 'Trilogy' that includes ALL THE PRETTY HORSES, may be reminded of that author's evocation of a stark, grim poetry in the natural world of the Southwest, where humans live out harsh lives, drifting always towards death. Also like McCarthy is the depiction of so much meaning and emotion without dialogue. It is tempting to think that, given the chance, Peter Fonda might have made a film on McCarthy's most famous novel that would have done it justice.
The culture of world cinema owes gratitude for those involved in the making, restoration and distribution of THE HIRED HAND.
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