a member of the oldest American minority,
a Paiute Indian named Willie Boy,
became the center of an extraordinary
This is what happened in the
deserts of California.
Universal's burn-on-demand DVD of TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE (released in cinemas December 1969) is a clean, sharp transfer, superior in quality to the laser disc, with excellent color balance and saturation, and bright punchy sound. The opening titles are windowboxed, but the film unfolds widescreen and anamorphic. The burnished landscape and stoic portraiture is by photographer Conrad Hall, who carved out a signature style on THE PROFESSIONALS(1966), HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1967), and BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969). Shooting desert landscapes in morning light and at the golden hour, Hall manipulated exposure to tone down the intensity of dye-transfer Technicolor to an earthy, realistic pallet. Those films deserved all the accolades they received, but his work here on the high deserts of inland California surpasses prior achievements, and that's saying a lot. TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE is one of the best-photographed westerns you'll ever see. The film is written and directed with diamond-hard brilliance by Abraham Polonsky, the auteur who was blacklisted after making the film noir classic FORCE OF EVIL twenty-two years earlier. He must have had a lot to say in those lost years when he was denied work, because he packs it all in here. Tragically this was only his second film, but the same preoccupation with injustice -- one might say the same force of evil -- is still at work, with a vengeance.
This is a confrontational western. Polonsky is fearless in raising controversy and provoking audience reaction. Willie Boy and Lola want to be together, but the Superintendent of the Morongo Indian Reservation objects, and her family refuses at the point of a gun. Forced to kill in self-defense, Willie Boy and Lola run off with the law on their heels. This premises enables Polonsky to depict the transitional west of 1909 as a place where prejudice and discrimination are everywhere and in everyone, between the races, within the races, among the sexes, and especially in the well-intentioned. No character is all evil. The most racist Anglo and the most racist Indian has a decent side even as they compound hypocrisy upon hypocrisy like a desert variation of INHERIT THE WIND. Hypocrisy manifests in ways that are obvious and subtle -- note Susan Clark's self-loathing social worker who thinks she has the right to protect "my Indians" from themselves. Every order she gives to control the situation only serves to escalate the violence out of control. A young Robert Blake portrays Willie Boy with physical agility and a deeply felt sense of futility. We feel his despair. Blake's performance is one of the most under-rated in the history of movies. So is Robert Redford's performance as an ambivalent Sheriff. He is not a noble Will Kane or Matt Dillon type, but he is not corrupt either. He is the only character aware of his own hypocrisy. He doesn't want to step into the role that others have put him in, but in the end, he is unable to avoid it. All these characters are sons and daughters of an earlier generation of pioneers who fought Indians and sacrificed for their children. In case they forget, oldtimer Barry Sullivan is around to remind them. He brags about the violent past while lamenting its passing in the same breath. All the actors are fearless in playing up the contradictions of their richly complex characters.
A hunter throws himself down to the ground to drink from a stream, his hand slipping into the handprint of his prey who had been there and done the same. Later, the Sheriff cleans blood off his hands by rubbing them in the soil. The camera pushes in on a funeral pyre as scavengers try to pull the body out for souvenirs. Rich in visual metaphor, TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE is that rarity among Hollywood studio westerns -- it is historically intelligent and historically well-informed, faithful to the actual circumstances and events it depicts. Perhaps the best testament to its authenticity is the fact that several tribes cooperated in making the film; they are identified during the opening titles. The film is based on the biography of Willie Boy written by Harry Lawton, which Polonsky obviously read and understood. He doesn't try to schmaltz it up or tack on a happy ending. The only other western that compares to it, that I can think of, is the independently made THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ (1983). But you don't need to know the history to enjoy the high-calibre drama and suspenseful action on display. Structured on the chase formula, TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE is a manhunt thriller without peer. Expect a standard of craftsmanship in story telling and in technical execution that you just don't see anymore.
Studio and network execs winnow out this level of sophistication today. They stop it before it starts. TELL THEM WILLIE IS HERE could only have been made in the 1960s. I consider it one of the great cinematic achievements of that decade and one of the all-time great westerns. Perhaps this remarkable western will become better known and appreciated, and more widely discussed, now that it is finally available on DVD.
Buy It Now.