As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, Clint Eastwood was ready to expand his range as an actor and as a director, often simultaneously. One of his most admirable experiments was this character study of a modern-day cowboy leading a motley group of participants in a Wild West revival show. Although the picture is so hopelessly old-fashioned that it feels like it could have been made in the ’40s with Joel McCrea playing the lead, Eastwood puts the picture over fairly well. In terms of his leading performance, Eastwood mostly suppresses his familiar screen persona, playing an idealistic dreamer instead of a grim avenger. Yet some of Eastwood’s bad directorial habits trip him up; the pacing is sluggish, the reliance on familiar character actors gives certain scenes a mechanical quality, and there’s a distinctive lack of effervescence, which is exactly the quality the movie needs most badly. Still, the script by Dennis Hackin is a charming throwback, the themes embodied by the central character are meaningful, and the inherent parallels between Bronco Billy and the man who portrays him add resonance.
Set in the American West, the picture introduces viewers to Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show, an enthusiastic but tacky operation featuring clowns, Indians, and—as the main attraction—Bronco Billy’s expert displays of horsemanship, knife-throwing, and sharpshooting. Billy (Eastwood) is also the manager of the traveling show, spewing a steady stream of can-do aphorisms while demanding that his people give their all for the “little pardners” who come out to see them perform. Never mind that the show is perpetually in the red, and that Billy regularly provides free shows to orphanages. In a plot twist straight out of an old Preston Sturges movie, Billy encounters Antoinette (Sondra Locke), a shrewish heiress dumped in the middle of nowhere by her business manager-turned-husband, John (Geoffrey Lewis), who steals all her money. Billy charms Antoinette into joining his show as an assistant participating in dangerous stunts, ostensibly in exchange for transit back to civilization. Opposites-attract sparks of the It Happened One Night mode ensue.
The romantic aspects of Bronco Billy don’t quite work, perhaps because Eastwood and Locke had done so many movies together by this point. (Plus, quite frankly, Locke lacks the spunk of, say, a Barbara Stanwyck.) The plotting gets turgid after a while, stretching the movie to 116 minutes when a frothy 90-minute span would have suited the material better. What saves Bronco Billy from mediocrity, besides the consummate professionalism of Eastwood’s presentation, is the late-movie reveal about the true nature of Billy and his people. In this case, pulling back the curtain on an illusion adds magic, because the revelations transform Bronco Billy into a celebration of reinvention. Could the picture have done without a few scenes, such as the bit of Eastwood warbling a tune called “Barroom Buddies” as he drives? Sure. But a few indulgences are small prices to pay for watching an iconic performer stretch with largely meritorious results.
Bronco Billy: GROOVY