By Doug Oswald
Oliver Reed, Candice Bergen and Gene Hackman are opposed in “The Hunting Party”, a 1971 western released on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Reed is Frank Calder who kidnaps schoolteacher Melissa Ruger (Bergen). The plan is to hold her for ransom, but Frank also wants Melissa to teach him to read. Frank and his gang are pursued by Melissa’s sadistic husband, Brandt Ruger (Hackman), a wealthy and powerful rancher. The film opens with Frank and his gang killing and butchering a cow from a herd of cattle and cutting off pieces of meat which they eat raw. The scene is disconcerting and is juxtaposed with a scene where Brandt forces himself on Melissa, who resents his actions which border on rape and clearly involve the infliction of pain.
Frank’s gang are warned by lawmen to stay away from their town. They pass the town bank which is heavily guarded and walk through town to the school. There they catch Melissa after her husband leaves for a hunting trip with friends on his private train. Brandt and his friends also have several prostitutes and we witness Brandt’s sadism as he uses lit wax candles on the prostitute in his bed. When informed of his wife’s abduction the next morning, Brandt and his friends begin their pursuit of Frank and his gang with their new high-caliber shotguns with scopes. His friends think they’re on a rescue mission, but they learn that Brandt is less interested in getting his wife back than in getting revenge.
Meanwhile, Frank tries to force Melissa to teach him to read, but she refuses and repeatedly tries to escape. Frank rapes her and soon after she nearly shoots him. Frank gives her the ultimatum to teach her to read or starve to death. Melissa succumbs during the film’s only lighthearted scene in which she is tempted by Frank with a jar of peaches. Melissa is attracted to Frank and a romance develops between the two. Frank is an outlaw, but a man she’s willing to be with and betray her sadistic husband. Brandt and his men soon catch up with Frank and his gang and begin shooting them down like snipers, as they can kill at great range. One by one, Brandt’s men lose interest when they realize Brandt is less interested in saving his wife and more in killing Frank and his gang like animals. In one scene, he even piles the dead alongside the pond where they were killed, much to the disgust of Brandt’s men who soon recognize that their friend has gone mad.
Other than the female lead, there are no “good guys” in this western. They are all cutthroats, thieves and rapists or psychopaths. The film is a mix of the spaghetti western and the new violence of Hollywood action films of the late 60s and 70s. Candice Bergen gives a terrific performance in an otherwise dark and nihilistic film, providing moments of hope that the story will take a different direction. She was raped or nearly raped several times in the film and her performance is a great sequel to her equally good performance in 1970’s “Soldier Blue”. Gene Hackman gives a poor performance, which is a precursor to roles in other films such as “Unforgiven” in 1992. Oliver Reed is mostly low-key and has an effective American accent in his only western. It’s hard to understand Frank Calder and his motivations. Is he a villain? Sure, but he wins also our sympathy if only because the businessman Brandt Ruger is much worse than Frank and his gang members.
Familiar faces round out the cast with the likes of Simon Oakland, Mitchell Ryan, LQ Jones and William Watson to name a few. Directed by Don Medford, the film was shot on location in Spain, which was irresistible to Hollywood productions trying to cash in on the popularity of the spaghetti western craze and Spanish vistas still largely unknown to most American moviegoers. at the time. Known primarily for his work in television where he had a prolific career, Medford directed this and the second sequel to “In the Heat of the Night”, “The Organization”, both of which were released in 1971 and remain his only credits on the big screen. Well, almost. In addition to dozens of television credits as a director from 1951 to 1989, he also directed the first episode of “The Man from UNCLE” (“The Vulcan Affair”) which was edited and released theatrically as ” To Trap a Spy” in 1966. Thus, Medford could claim three theatrical traits depending on how one categorizes them. The screenplay is credited to William W. Norton, Gilbert Ralston, and Lou Morheim, who may have crossed paths with Medford on television. The film has a score by Italian composer Riz Ortolani, who is perhaps best known for his score of ‘The 7th Dawn’ and more recently for three Quentin Tarantino films: ‘Kill Bill’, ‘Inglorious Basterds’ and ‘Django Unchained’. “.
One of the issues with the film is that it’s very dark with only the previously mentioned levity that feels out of place compared to the rest of the film. Although the film is unsettling, it is very good with great performances from all three leads and an excellent supporting cast. It’s not the kind of western the Duke appeared in during this era and it’s debatable which style was better: extreme violence or more traditional off-screen gore and violence. I enjoy both and think there’s room for that variety, but there’s no doubt that we’re seeing one of the last gasps of the Hollywood western.
The movie looks great on Blu-ray and I suspect is as good as it has ever been on home video, having already been released on DVD and VHS. The disc has an audio commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson which I found very informative. Other extras include a 12-minute interview with actor Mitchell Ryan who shares his memories while working on the film. The disc includes the trailer for this release and other Kino Lorber releases and a reversible cover. Forget what you’ve heard or read about this movie, ‘The Hunting Party’ might not be for everyone, but it’s recommended for Western fans because of the terrific cast of lead and supporting actors. .
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