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Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2002

The western that time forgot

The Hired Hand

Rating: * * * *
Japanese title: Sasurai no Cowboy
Director: Peter Fonda
Running time: 91 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Anyone who knows anything about film knows "Easy Rider," the ground-breaking hippie flick written, starring and produced by Peter Fonda that defied the studios and defined the '60s. Probably a lot less would know that Fonda -- after falling out with his volatile friend, director Dennis Hopper -- tried directing on his own. The result was 1971's "The Hired Hand," a film damn few people can actually claim to have seen.

News photo
Warren Oates and Peter Fonda in "The Hired Hand"

Shamefully ignored when it first came out, "The Hired Hand" is well-deserving of a revival in a pristine new print. And on the big screen, too: No TV screen will do justice to the stunning, layered camerawork by Vilmos Zsigmond (who won an Oscar for 1977's "Close Encounters"), which in itself is worth the price of admission.

It's hard to say why "The Hired Hand" was so poorly received at the time, but perhaps the problem was that it was too close to "Easy Rider" in its sensibilities -- the doomed protagonist, the soul-searching quest for self-realization, the trippy visuals -- while seemingly too far removed in its choice of genre, the Western (then still identified with people like John Wayne, who is the antithesis of everything Peter Fonda stood for). Like Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch" (1969) from the same period, Fonda's deconstruction of the genre makes far more sense in retrospect.

"The Hired Hand" is clearly quite an achievement: It takes art-film aesthetics and capital-letter themes like Sex, Death and Commitment, and weds them to a grungy, no-bull cowboy flick that never becomes precious or pretentious.

"The Hired Hand" begins with one of the most staggeringly gorgeous sequences you could ever hope to see on film. A breathtaking montage of overlays lingers on sunlight rippling on a brilliantly shimmering river, with closeups in turquoise of the cowboys in the water, while brilliantly composed shots shift from near to deep focus. This isn't just technique: The point is to quickly establish the irresistible beauty and the sheer geographical freedom of the pristine West that lured these cowboys to their rootless, wandering lifestyle.

This moment of heaven on earth is swiftly undercut, though, as the river's current washes the corpse of a young child into the fishing lines of the cowboys. (A premonition of death that echoes "Easy Rider.") Fresh-faced innocent Dan (Robert Pratt) wants to pull the body from the river, but older, seen-it-all Harry (Peter Fonda) just cuts the lines and lets it drift away.

Harry's had enough of life on the trail -- of sleeping on the ground, of scrounging for work and food, of dealing with lowlifes and the constant shadow of death. As he tells Dan and his old friend Arch (Warren Oates, "The Wild Bunch"), "It's just a waste living like this." Stopping off in a piss-poor excuse for a town in some desolate corner of Mexico, Dan tries to convince Harry to go to California with him. Harry demurs: "You go to the coast, and in three or four years you'll be sitting here drinking this rat lotion, and you'll see how it is." A man of few words, we see Harry's disillusion traced in the dust on his face.

Harry's going home, home to the wife and kids he left behind years ago when he hit the road. That is, if they'll take him back. Before he can act on these plans though, tragedy strikes in that Mexican town, as floozies, drink and guns -- the staples of the cowboy life -- lead to a sudden, senseless death. Harry is honor-bound to avenge it, and he does, six-guns blazing.

The shadow of this action hangs over him when he returns to his farm, where his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) is none too pleased to see him. Harry is eager to make amends and offers to work as nothing more than a hired hand to prove his sincerity. Hannah's doubtful; she tells Arch, who's tagged along with Harry: "He'll go. It's just a matter of time." Arch can only grin sheepishly and suggest, "Well, most things are, ma'am, one way or another."

A strange sort of triangle -- made up of bonds of affection, duty and love -- is sketched out between Harry, Hannah and Arch, but it all gets blown apart when the cowboys' violent past catches up with them. While cowboy buddies risking their asses to help each other out is nothing new, Hannah's steadfast decision to get by without a man if she has to is a bold stroke, especially when it comes to her freelance views on sex: "A man gets into a woman's bed and he starts thinking he's her boss. I'd already had one man in here and I didn't want another."

It's fascinating to see how films age. Take "Easy Rider": Much of the specifics -- the communes, the lingo, the idea of long hair as a radical statement -- seem corny and dated now. But as a film that captured the spirit of the '60s -- of the drugs, the rock 'n' roll, the search for new truths -- it has no peers.

"The Hired Hand" has aged like fine wine. The sun-flared cinematography and trippy visual experimentation are obviously products of the early '70s, but the rich grainy texture of the images stands up admirably in this pristine, digital era. Verna Bloom's character, meanwhile, almost comes across as a didactic attempt to insert feminist views into the genre, but her perspective is surprisingly modern, not a far cry from what you'd get on "Sex and the City." (And a great deal more true to actual women's lives than "Bad Girls.") This may be an old film, and a Western, but you'll find no better look at commitment-shy men and single mothers in the theaters today.

Fonda's essential point here -- that one must live (and die) with integrity -- may seem a bit naive to the irony-drenched audiences of today. But as the preacher man says at the funeral of a young cowboy, clouds streaked with the setting sun and some lonesome guitar strums on the soundtrack, "The kingdom of God is spread upon the earth, but men do not see it."

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