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The rich and ruthless rancher Brandt Ruger keeps his beautiful young wife Melissa like a part of his property, subdued to his will. But one day she's kidnapped by the famous outlaw Frank Calder - just to teach him reading, so he tells her. Calder doesn't know or care who's wife she is. He takes care of her well, and eventually Melissa falls in love with him. But Ruger feels humiliated. Full of hate, he sets out to kill him - and Melissa too, if necessary. Together with his friends and the newest technology in guns, which carry 800 yards, he initiates a battue on Calder and his gang. Written by
Tom Zoerner <Tom.Zoerner@informatik.uni-erlangen.de>
A Sagebrush Variation On THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, But Not Quite A Masterpiece
When you go hunting with Brandt Ruger, you go first-class all the way. But when you steal his "property", you sign your own death warrant.
That is something that a notorious outlaw (Oliver Reed) and his gang have to learn in the worst way possible in THE HUNTING PARTY, a 1971 British/American western that, even by 21st century standards, is still incredibly violent. Reed kidnaps a local schoolteacher (Candice Bergen) in the (now faint) hope that he'll be taught how to read. When Bergen warns him about her husband, he tells her "It don't matter whose wife you are." A fatal misjudgment on his part, for her husband Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) is not one to fool around with. While out on a hunting party with a few of his friends, the dictatorial and very abusive land baron learns of Bergen's kidnapping, and thus gets blood in his eyes. And rather than going after game, he and his boys instead go after Reed and his gang, picking them off one at a time with high-power rifles that can hit from a distance of 800 yards. The result is a sagebrush variation of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, done with some of the most brutally violent shootouts this side of THE WILD BUNCH and SOLDIER BLUE. And as he is a man driven by extreme jealousy (Bergen is his personal "property", whom he physically abuses on more than one occasion), the fact that Bergen is beginning to develop a rapport with Reed now gives him whatever license he feels he needs to kill her as well, though he drags it out for the sheer sadistic fun of it to a very cynical and blood-splattered conclusion.
There isn't too much doubt that THE HUNTING PARTY was made to take advantage of the "market" opened up by THE WILD BUNCH and its director Sam Peckinpah's choreography of violent action, as well the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. The shootouts are extremely bloody, and they clearly mirror those of THE WILD BUNCH in the use of slow motion and quick cutting. Where THE HUNTING PARTY falls short, however, is in a crucial area that Peckinpah knew was vital to his film being successful: the action and plot must be character-driven and made to feel real to an audience. Veteran TV director Don Medford (who, among other things, directed the classic 1961 Twilight Zone episode "Death's Head Revisited) and screenwriters Gilbert Ralston, William Norton, and Lou Morheim know how to do the Peckinpah-inspired gunfights, but they don't seem to have taken too much time to really delineate any complexities in the three main characters. Bergen is merely a damsel in distress, caught between two men who are basically bastards, one merely semi-controlling (Reed), the other a sadistic control freak of the highest order (Hackman). Absent the complex psychological and character-driven narrative that propelled THE WILD BUNCH to a controversial but well-deserved glory, THE HUNTING PARTY can so easily be tagged, as more than a few critics have done (albeit perhaps too zealously), as an extremely bloody sagebrush shooting gallery in which violence is staged for the sake of violence.
The film does succeed in giving us good performances from the three leads (notably Hackman, whose role is credibly sadistic to the highest degree); good cinematography done on location in Spain (as a stand-in for Texas); and supporting roles for L.Q. Jones (a member of Peckinpah's stock company); Simon Oakland; Mitchell Ryan; and William C. Watson. And one can't fault the long-distance shooting that occurs, or the way it so ingeniously borrows a great old-world story (THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME) and puts it into a WILD BUNCH-type western format. Had the filmmakers only paid a bit more attention to complex characters and motives here as Peckinpah had in his epic film, however, THE HUNTING PARTY might have been a bit more than a good, if incredibly and graphically violent, post-Peckinpah/Leone addition to a Western genre that was rapidly changing during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
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