A lovingly photographed ode to an aging cowboy trying to make sense of his life in the waning days of the Old West era, Monte Walsh is evocative and humane despite glacial pacing and murky storytelling. One of the few films directed by the venerable cinematographer William A. Fraker, the picture looks fantastic from start to finish, with dusty scenes of hard men battling nature plus glamorously lit romantic vignettes; furthermore, the production design makes every costume and prop feel like a real object that’s been used for tough work. The authenticity continues through to the dialogue, which is effective in an unpretentious sort of way (“I ain’t gonna spit on my whole life,” the title character says when faced with the prospect of becoming a performer in a Wild West sideshow). The big problem with Monte Walsh is that for all of its insight and texture, the picture doesn’t have a particularly strong story.
Based on a novel by Jack Schaefer, the tale concerns graying cowboys Monte (Lee Marvin) and Chet (Jack Palance), who struggle to find work as employers including straight-shooting rancher Cal (Jim Davis) lose market share to omnivorous conglomerates. Meanwhile, the boys fall into a violent ongoing rivalry with Shorty (Mitch Ryan), a younger man with a bad temper and a buffoonish tendency to show off his riding skills. Monte also has an ongoing quasi-romance with a French prostitute, Martine (Jeanne Moreau), and even though they talk about settling down, she knows Monte will be out riding horses until he dies.
There’s a somber quality to the whole picture, as if every character knows a gloomy future awaits, and the film uses irony for effective counterpoint (Mama Cass sings a wistful theme song, “The Good Times Are Coming,” which is appears as a sad refrain throughout the movie). Unfortunately, even though many moments are touching, there’s a fundamental lack of psychological clarity, so heavy scenes of characters facing their demons are perplexing. For instance, what is Monte trying to prove during the movie’s biggest action scene, when he breaks a bronco over the course of a wild ride that destroys half a town?
Despite the handicap of a muddy script, Marvin and Palance give plaintive performances, and the supporting cast is strong. Though Moreau is badly underused in one of her few English-language pictures (Monte Walsh isn’t terribly concerned with the lives of women), Davis, Ryan, Billy “Green” Bush, Matt Clark, and Bo Hopkins all essay vivid frontier types. FYI, Hollywood took another crack at Schafer’s novel when Monte Walsh was remade for television in 2003, this time with Tom Selleck in the title role.
Monte Walsh: FUNKY