The Hired Hand
is a 1971 western film
directed by Peter Fonda
, with a screenplay by Alan Sharp
. The film stars Fonda, Warren Oates
, and Verna Bloom
. The cinematography was by Vilmos Zsigmond
, and Bruce Langhorne
provided the moody film score
. The story is about a man who returns to his abandoned wife after seven years of drifting from job to job throughout the southwest. The embittered woman will only let him stay if he agrees to move in as a hired hand.
Upon release, the film received a mixed critical response and was a financial failure. In 1973, the film was shown on NBC-TV in an expanded version, but soon drifted into obscurity, and was not issued on home video format until 2001, when, following critically acclaimed showings of a fully restored version at various film festivals, it was released by the Sundance Channel on DVD.
Harry Collings (Fonda) and Arch Harris (Oates) are two saddle tramps who have grown weary after seven years of wandering through the southwest. Along with a younger companion, Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt), they stop off in Del Norte, a ramshackle town in the middle of nowhere run by the corrupt McVey (Severn Darden
). Harris and Griffen discuss traveling to California to look for work when Collings abruptly informs them he has decided to return to the wife he had left years before. Griffen temporarily leaves the two in a bar while he goes to buy supplies. Some town thugs shoot him to death out of pure meanness. Collings and Harris manage to escape, but they return that night and Collings shoots McVey repeatedly in his feet, crippling him.
After riding hundreds of miles back to his old house, Collings finds that he is understandably less than welcome by his wife, Hannah (Bloom). In order to be allowed to stay, he offers his services not as a husband but as a mere “hired hand”. Hannah agrees and quickly puts him to work. Gradually, the distrust and unease caused by years of estrangement slip away, and the two begin to become close again. For the first time, Collings finds himself willing to settle down forever.
McVey and his troupe of hooligans, however, suddenly make it difficult for Collings to make what should have been an easy decision. They kidnap Harris and Collings is forced to leave Hannah once again to save his friend. In a subsequent brutal shootout with McVey's gang, all of the villains are killed but Collings is fatally wounded. Harris rides back alone to Hannah's house.
Due to the huge financial success of Easy Rider
(1969), Universal Studios
gave the star of that film, Peter Fonda, full artistic control over The Hired Hand
, his debut as a director. (Universal also did the same for Dennis Hopper
’s The Last Movie
that same year.) The movie was shot in New Mexico in the summer of 1970 with a budget of slightly less than $1,000,000. As he would further elaborate on the audio commentary
provided on the film’s DVD
release, Fonda’s job as neophyte filmmaker was made relatively easy thanks to a remarkably well chosen cast of polished character actors
, led by the always reliable Warren Oates. In addition, cinematographer
Vilmos Zsigmond provided gorgeous, naturalistic imagery that helped belie the modest budget. Fonda’s selection of the then-unknown Bruce Langhorne as the film’s musical composer would prove to be greatly inspired, as nearly all of the film’s reviews singled out the score as being unusually expressive and beautiful.
Frank Mazzola edited the film into shape, and utilized a series of complex and poetic montages, which featured elaborate dissolves, slow motion, and overlapping still photography. Mazzola’s opening montage was praised by several critics as the film’s most memorable sequence. (Oddly, Fonda’s discussion on the DVD’s audio commentary neglected to detail Mazzola’s enormous contribution at all.)
- Ted Markland .... Luke
- Owen Orr .... Mace
- Al Hopson .... Bartender
- Megan Denver .... Janey Collings
- Michael McClure .... Plummer
- Gray Johnson .... Will
- Larry Hagman .... Sherrif (television version only)
The Hired Hand
received generally mixed reviews, with some critics flippantly dismissing the film as a “hippie-western”. Variety
felt the film had "a disjointed story, a largely unsympathetic hero, and an obtrusive amount of cinematic gimmickry which renders inarticulate the confused story subtleties. Time
described it as "pointless, virtually plotless, all but motionless and a lode of pap.
But Roger Greenspun of The New York Times
praised the movie as, “[A] rather ambitious simple movie, with a fairly elaborate technique and levels of meaning rising to the mystical, which seems so much a part of the very contemporary old West.” Jay Cocks
wrote that the film was "a fine, elegiac western".
Despite Universal’s hopes for another Easy Rider-sized youth hit, The Hired Hand was an enormous flop. It was sold to NBC-TV for subsequent television showings in 1973, where the majority of the film’s fans first saw the movie. After that, it became difficult to see, rarely repeated on television and playing only occasional film festivals over the years.
In 2001, the film was fully restored and exhibited at a number of festivals to a generally enthusiastic critical response. Subsequently, the Sundance Channel released a DVD of the film in two separate editions that same year. The film is now well regarded as a minor western classic, with a 90% favorability rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, some critics find the film overrated. Glenn Erickson (aka “DVD Savant”) believed the movie was “light in the story department and directed at a mannered crawl…”
When NBC-TV first aired The Hired Hand
in 1973, they reinstated twenty minutes of footage that Fonda had deleted from the theatrical cut as “extraneous”. Glenn Erickson has argued that the previously missing footage is actually very important to the film’s narrative, noting that "writer Alan Sharp created a pressing reason for Oates' character to take his leave", and further opined that these twenty minutes helped make The Hired Hand
more strongly resemble "a standard film with a story, events, dialogue and character interaction. Some of the deletions were relatively minor, but the most substantial excision involved the death of Ed Plummer (Michael McClure
), and the subsequent homicide investigation by the local sheriff (Larry Hagman
). For the 2001 release, Fonda once again removed the footage. All twenty minutes have been added to the DVD as an extra.