Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt
Produced by Philip A. Waxman; directed by Abraham Polonsky; screenplay by Abraham Polonsky, based on the book by Harry Lawton; cinematography by Conrad Hall; art direction by Alexander Golitzen and Henry Bumstead; edited by Melvin Shapiro; music by Dave Grusin; starring Robert Redford, Katharine Ross, Robert Blake, Susan Clark, Barry Sullivan, John Vernon, Charles Aidman, Charles McGraw, Shelly Novack, Robert Lipton, Lloyd Gough, Ned Romero, John Wheeler, Eric Holland, Garry Walberg, Jerry Velasco, George Tyne, Lee de Broux, Wayne Sutherlin, Jerome Raphel, and Lou Frizzell. Blu-ray and DVD, color, 98 min., 1969. A Kino Lorber release.
Abraham Polonsky wasn’t much interested in Westerns, but he was extremely interested in politics, social issues, and the enormous changes brought by the Sixties to American life. So while it’s surprising that he chose a Western for his return to filmmaking in 1969, after twenty years in the wilderness of the Hollywood Blacklist, the reasoning behind his choice makes perfect sense. The fact-based story of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, based on a killing and manhunt from 1909 recounted in a 1960 book by journalist Harry Lawton, exemplified the distinction Polonsky drew between fables, with their often-unpersuasive moral lessons, and the more compelling dimension of myth, which arises from society’s collective consciousness and carries “meaning both clear and dark.” On a more specific level, he felt the story connected with how young people of the Sixties were “living in a transitional period and being driven by circumstances and values they couldn’t control.” Retelling the story of a hunted member of an oppressed minority allowed him to explore how “the romantic investment we have in the past” operates in tension with “a lack of comprehension for the realities of the present.” Pat Healy and Jim Healy quote those revealing comments in their informative audio commentary for Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray edition of Polonsky’s unjustly neglected film.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here has two protagonists. One is the title character (Robert Blake), a young Paiute Indian in love with Lola (Katharine Ross), a Native American woman whose father despises Willie and will do anything to rip them apart. The other is Cooper (Robert Redford), a deputy sheriff who leads a posse in pursuit of Willie after a late-night skirmish leaves Lola’s father dead and Willie fleeing for his life. Also in the picture is Cooper’s romantic partner, Liz (Susan Clark), a physician and anthropologist who supervises the local reservation on behalf of the white authorities. Those are unusual credentials for a woman in either the Old West or a Hollywood movie, and Polonsky gives Liz my favorite line of dialogue, a rejoinder to Cooper when he peevishly asks her who she thinks she is: “Elizabeth Arnold. AB, Radcliffe. Anthropologist, Smithsonian. MD, Johns Hopkins. Who are you?”
Lawton’s book is a journalistic “nonfiction novel” rather than a scholarly account, and Polonsky made further alterations to the historical facts, changing names, blurring tribal identities, and giving events an efficient dramatic form. Paying due heed to Hollywood convention, he gives an audience-pleasing boost to the final confrontation between Cooper and Willie Boy, climaxing their cat-and-mouse heroics with an expertly timed suspense sequence. More daringly, he leaves the circumstances of Lola’s eventual demise as enigmatic on the screen as they apparently were in real life, rejecting the norm of the neatly tied Hollywood ending. He couldn’t dodge every Hollywood norm, however, and today’s audiences may be disturbed at seeing white actors in the most prominent Indian roles. Polonsky was far from pleased with Universal Pictures’ insistence on name-brand (white) stars instead of new (Indian) faces, but he agreed to the compromise in order to proceed with the project, and where possible he used Native American actors in minor parts. Such were the realities of the present even in the twilight years of the old studio system.
In other respects Polonsky had full creative control, and his hesitations about Westerns aside, the late-Sixties vogue for revising the genre—the same year brought Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, also a Redford vehicle and a walloping hit—gave him more freedom to deepen and sharpen the narrative than he would have had earlier. Before his refusal to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities stalled his career as a director and credited screenwriter, he had attacked capitalist corruption in his screenplay for Robert Rossen’s prizefighting drama Body and Soul (1947) and his own legendary noir Force of Evil (1948). While the politics of Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here are embedded in the somewhat narrower context of a rural manhunt story, Polonsky makes forceful points about the evils of racial exclusion and the limitations of liberalism; as relatively enlightened as the reservation superintendent is, for instance, she worries more about banishing booze from the community than healing the chronic inequities afflicting its residents.
A structuring absence of the tale is none other than President William Howard Taft, whose imminent arrival in the area for a speech brings out the grim absurdities of white panic, with gathered politicians and reporters (fake news!) instantly perceiving Willie’s act of self-defense and passion as the prelude to an Indian insurrection. Taft never appears on screen, but we get great views of the oversized chair the officials have prepared to receive his oversized torso—a nifty symbol of a self-important system that’s inattentive and inadequate to the problems actually at hand.
According to the Healys’ commentary, Redford and some others involved in the production found that Polonsky’s directorial skills had grown rusty during his forced sabbatical; in the opinion of those participants, it was the ingenuity of cinematographer Conrad Hall that generated the film’s marvelous atmosphere, which strikes me as an excellent blend of the moody, the gritty, and the scenic. Whoever deserves the credit, the movie has long stretches of lucid visual storytelling, and the natural, often dusky and subdued lighting—a Hall specialty—serves both the action and the psychology of the film extremely well. Polonsky and Hall also bring the full extent of the wide Panavision screen into play, instead of placing all the key pictorial content at the center in order to suit the boxy Sixties television screens where the movie would ultimately wind up. Universal was nervous about these lighting and framing strategies, but Polonsky prevailed, getting full benefits from Hall’s favored style and knack for making the most of happy on-set accidents.
Redford’s involvement helped launch Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here into production with Polonsky at the helm, and the Blu-ray commentary theorizes that he wanted the role as an antidote to the pretty-boy image he feared he was developing. That’s probably true as far as it goes, but Redford had recently done serious pictures with Robert Mulligan, Arthur Penn, and Sydney Pollack, and he’d obviously be pretty no matter what camera was pointed at him. Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was shot before Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid but released after that film and Michael Ritchie’s skiing drama Downhill Racer, and this trio of hits made 1969 a banner Redford year.
Although it did good business, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here drew varied reviews. Variety called it “a deeply personal and radical vision of the past and future” and New York Times critic Roger Greenspun used his rave to condemn Polonsky’s recently ended exile as “perhaps the most wasteful injustice” of the entire Blacklist era. On the cranky end of the spectrum, the hugely influential Pauline Kael dismissed the film’s effectiveness as an adventure yarn. Deeming it mere “ideology on horseback,” crammed with “Marxism and Freudianism and New Left guerrilla Existentialism and late-60s American self-hatred,” she opined that only “black kamikazes and white masochists” could cheer it. Yikes.
A more thoughtful assessment came from Paul Schrader, who rejected Kael’s charge that the film sold “anti-Americanism to young Americans” much as Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider had also done in 1969. Schrader described it as an “existential chase” made by a director “too intelligent to continue filmmaking where he left off in 1949” and rendered too bitter by experience to re-enter the Hollywood mainstream. “The resulting film looks like it was made by the Man Without a Country,” Schrader added in a sentence quoted by the Healy commentary, “displaced in time, style, and theme.”
Schrader was expressing skepticism as well as sympathy toward the movie and its director, but his words seem like high praise to me. The cultural mainstream is a great place to visit but a perilous place to live in, and while any sane mainstream would have allowed Polonsky to flourish there whenever he chose, the political and intellectual undercurrents of Force of Evil and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here bear witness to the persistence and conviction that he nurtured during his inside years and outside years alike. If he were allowed to make more films, Schrader concluded in 1969, his personal past and the movie industry’s present might be integrated and “the ensuing statements may be shattering.” The loss of that possibility can never be repaired—sadly, Polonsky completed only one more movie—but the major works he did give us are deep enough, if not shattering enough, to offer some solace.
David Sterritt is author of numerous books on film, most recently Simply Hitchcock and Roll ’n’ Roll Movies.
Copyright © 2019 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIV, No. 3