1969 was the year Robert Redford became, first, a leading man in outdoorsy movies (in “Downhill Racer” and “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here”) and, then, a superstar (as the Sundance Kid). He had already had a leading man role in the Neil Simon comedy “Barefoot in the Park” two years earlier, and played major roles in two Natalie Wood movies (“This Property Is Condemned” and “Inside Daisy Clover”) and been the object of “The Chase” by Marlon Brando (at the behest of E. G. Marshall). He played a San Bernardino deputy sheriff called (surely for resonance with a legendary Hollywood western star) “Coop,” who reluctantly but relentlessly pursues a “renegade” Paiute Indian through the high desert of southeastern California in A. D. 1909, interrupted by having to supplement security for a visit to Riverside by President Taft.
Robert Blake, who looks Native American here, probably has as much screen time as Redford does and plays the title character. Having seen all three of Robert Redford’s 1969 flicks in three days, I didn’t think that I’d ever seen Robert Blake except on the news in regard to his wife’s murder. I knew he’d been in a tv series (Baretta), but never saw any episodes of it. Looking at IMDB, I found out I was wrong: he appeared with Redford in “This Property Is Condemned” and in the Gregory Peck Korean War flick “Porkchop Hill”… and as a child was a member of “Our Gang” in a series of films some of which I must have seen on tv as a child and the Mexican shoeshine boy in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
Plot revelation alert
Willie Boy is and clearly has been before the start of the movie a victim of racism in the generation after a perpetually open hunting season on Native Americans has ended (or at least gone underground) in California. I’d say that trouble finds him more than he seeks it, but to get the plot rolling he has returned to Mondongo for the woman he loves, Lola (Katherine Ross in dark makeup with her dyed black hair usually covering much of her face), though her father has vowed to kill him if he does. Willie arranges a midnight rendez-vous with Lola. I have to say that I find it very difficult to believe that Lola’s father would not have her confined knowing Willie Boy is back, or to believe that Willie Boy would bed down with her so close to her family.
With that doubly implausible setup, Willie Boy kills Lola’s father in self-defense, though better planning would have made for more effective defense (like, say, running away with her instead of tarrying). Deputy Sheriff Coop, is having a mutually tense sexual relationship with the reservation superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Arnold (M.D., Johns Hopkins), and has to go off to guard President Taft, but first heads a posse of local citizens who see the hunting season on Indians being reopened. Rancher Calvert (Barry Sullivan), who used to slaughter and scalp Indians with Coop’s father, is particularly pleased at a return to the good old days of Indian hunting.
Coop reluctantly lets Calvert continue the hunting expedition when he has to go off to Riverside (and more encounters with Dr. Arnold). The half dozen or more Indian hunters are “ambushed” by Willie Boy, who shoots the horses from under five of them after Calvert makes a charge before Willie’s friend Hacker (John Vernon) can try to negotiate a return to trial. Calvert is seriously wounded by metal fragments exploded from his saddle, so that the charge of attempted murder of a white man is now added to that of murdering an Indian.
The posse retreats, news reaches Riverside, where it sends the reporters accompanying the president into a tizzy, and no less than three posses set out from various places to get the “renegade.” Willie and Lola reach the remote location of her cousins, but instead of the expected help, they have left.
Willie tells Lola how unbearable prison in San Bernardino was and that he’s never going back. He’d rather die, which is what most of the southern Californians want.
Plot spoiler alert
The “I can’t go to jail” motivation resonates with Blake’s present whereabouts, and it seems that his screen character kills Lola, though unlike Blake’s wife, there is the possibility she killed herself. Not showing her death strikes me as cheating.
Coop seems determined to beat the various posses and gets to the top of Ruby Mountain, where Willie has returned to make his last stand. With all-too-typical cowboy movie implausibility, Coop climbs up behind Willie. He does not tell him to put down his rifle (as any sane fugitive hunter would, and Coop has been shown to have plenty of savvy) but tells him he can turn around. Willie turns and makes as if to shoot, and Coop shoots him. Then he sees that Willie was out of ammunition (at which point it becomes obvious that Willie knew Coop was coming up behind him and made Coop his executioner), carries the body down, and lets Paiutes who have tracked him (accompanied by Dr. Arnold) build a funeral pyre. When the sheriff arrives, he is frustrated at not having anything to take back and display. Coop laconically tells him “There are no more souvenirs.”
End of plot spoiler alert
I don’t know whether it was directly influenced by it, but Robert Redford’s part seems similar to the one Robert Ryan played the year before in Sam Peckinpagh’s “The Wild Bunch,” hunting someone he respects with a band of eager killers for whom he has no respect. Although he looks older and more grizzled than the pretty boy pouting in “Downhill Racer,” Redford was young for the part.
The relationship between Coop and Dr. Arnold is underwritten and makes little sense to me, though it is interesting that in all three 1969 movies Redford is pretty much a pig to women. The relationship between Willie and Lola is even more underwritten. I guess it is supposed to be archetypal. Casting Katherine Ross is bewildering: she’d probably have made a better Dr. Arnold than Susan Clark does, but has nothing to work with other than dark makeup as Lola. The Willie role is underwritten, too, but at least it mostly makes sense. Or maybe it just slides easily into the line of not exactly innocent but overpursued victims on the run (“Les Miserables,” “High Sierra,” “You Only Live Once”. . . “The Chase,” “The Wild Bunch,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”).
The star of “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” is not Blake or Redford, but the cinematography of Conrad Hall (who would win an Oscar for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and made major contribution to one of the best westerns of the 1960s, Richard Brooks’s “The Professionals”. . . and later won another Oscar for “American Beauty”). The musical score by Dave Grusin (who would win an Oscar for Redford’s “Milagro Beanfield War”) is also effective. During the opening credits, I wondered what Edith Head could have done, but Dr. Arnold’s going to meet the president get-up answered that question.
The ultimate responsibility for the failed mixture of romance and chase is the long-blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky (“Force of Evil” with John Garfield was his masterpiece; he also wrote the screenplay that provided Garfield ane earlier triumph in “Body and Soul,” and he wrote the screenplay focused on racism for Robert Wise’s “Odds Against Tomorrow” with Robert Ryan and Sidney Poitier). The commercial failure of “Wille Boy” seems to have ended his revived career, though he lived another 30 years.
Aside from the high desert images and the forging of the Redford screen persona, I guess that “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” is interesting as a period document, sharing the hopelessness (some would say “paranoia”) of such late-60s/early-70s flicks as “Bonnie and Clyde”, “The Wild Bunch,” “Valdez Is Coming,” Easy Rider,” “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?”, “The Royal Hunt of the Sun,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Great White Hope” and many more.