Quentin Tarantino's new Western The Hateful Eight revolves around the vicious Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is eligible to be hanged for her crimes. Later this year, we'll finally get to see Natalie Portman in Jane Got a Gun, said to be a Western about a woman who turns to an ex-lover for help in defending her homestead and her husband from a vicious gang.
More than 40 years ago, Hannie Caulder featured Raquel Welch as the titular character, a woman who has been viciously raped by three outlaw brothers. The outlaws first killed Hannie Caulder's husband, a station agent at a remote outpost, and then are delighted to discover a beautiful woman inside. "Look what we've got for supper!" exclaims Strother Martin, who immediately paws Hannie like a man without hands trying to eat a grape.
Without a further word, Martin and his brothers, portrayed as ugly, dirty, simple-minded brutes by Ernest Borgnine and Jack Elam, take turns raping Hannie. Once they are done, they stumble out, set fire to the ranch house, and let the outpost's horses free. They pay no mind when Hannie emerges, naked and covering herself with a blanket, only to find her husband lying dead where he was shot.
That's more than sufficient motivation for a revenge tale in the Old West. For example, True Grit, released three years before Hannie Caulder, had featured a young woman who enlists the help of a grizzled U.S. Marshal and a Texas Ranger to track down her father's killer. Hannie is older but is not well-suited to her circumstances. She can ride a horse but she has no knowledge of guns, which seems unlikely for a woman living in her isolated circumstances.
The idea of a defenseless young woman wanting to stand up for herself and take revenge upon the men who killed her husband and raped her was not taken seriously by some critics at the time, due to Welch's limited acting abilities. Writing for Time Magazine, critic Jay Cocks opined: "As has been amply proved in the past, Miss Welch's acting ability is greatly overshadowed by her endowments. Consequently, her thrashings and grimacings while being assaulted assume an air of piquant comedy." (Cocks eventually turned to screenwriting, earning Academy Award nominations for The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York.)
However sexist it may sound today, Cocks' rap on Welch was a common perception. Welch had burst onto the movie scene in One Million Years B.C. (1966), notable more for her fur bikini than her emoting, and, once established as a sex symbol by the press, found it difficult to break out of that mold. Among her roles, she had two Westerns to her credit, the undistinguished Bandolero! with James Stewart and Dean Martin, and 100 Rifles, which became notorious for its interracial love scene between Welch and Jim Brown.
Welch then gamely took on a major role in Myra Breckridge, which is probably best remembered as an embarrassing sex comedy. On a DVD commentary, the actress indicated that neither she nor other cast members had any idea how to portray their characters, due to all the changes in the script.
Indeed, I can't help wondering how Welch would have fared if she had better opportunities. The early sequences of Hannie Caulder are mostly wordless; director Burt Kennedy, who also cowrote the screenplay under his pseudonym Z.X. Jones, makes good use of Welch as she conveys the anguish of her character. (I do not agree with Mr. Cocks' dismissal of her "thrashings and grimacings.") The screenplay, however, does not know how to empower her character. She requires salvation by a passing bounty hunter, played charmingly by Robert Culp, who begrudgingly gives her clothing, transportation and weapons training, and thereafter their fates are intertwined.
Their journey together includes a trip to the seaside home of gunsmith Christopher Lee, whose Mexican wife has either died or is kept off-screen, leaving him to care for his brood of children while Hannie Caulder learns how to shoot. Eventually, Hannie will have to decide if she's really up to the task of carrying out vengeance against the murdering, raping outlaw brothers.
Welch is most comfortable on screen in the extended opening and closing sequences, either remaining silent or dispensing quips. She has more than decent presence, but even as the lead character, she's not given enough to do for much of the movie. The bulk of the narrative dynamite is provided by Robert Culp's steely yet kind bounty hunter; Hannie Caulder is allowed to flounder.
Hannie Caulder is not a revisionist Western by any means, though it is a pleasant enough entertainment, diverting mainly for the opportunity to watch a passel of favorite performers on screen. It's also a good reminder of the challenge of tailoring star vehicles to fit the driver well.
The film is currently available to watch via streaming service Netflix, which features a lovely looking print. That's probably because it's also available on Blu-ray and DVD via Olive Films. In addition, it's available to stream on Amazon. 70s Rewind is a column on the writer's favorite film decade.