DT Moviehouse Review: Bronco Billy

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here)</a> and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I review Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy.

(1960) Directed by Clint Eastwood

Screenplay by Dennis Hacken

Tagline: The most outrageous of ‘em all.


What It’s About:

Frigid spoiled heiress Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), left high and dry in a cheap hotel by her newlywed money grubbing husband (Geoffrey Lewis), is forced to throw in her lot with a traveling wild west show led by posturing cowboy trick shooter Bronco Billy McCoy (Clint Eastwood) and featuring a retinue of cheerful outcast ex-cons.

Why I Bought It:

Bronco-Billy-1980-Sam-Bottoms-Bill-McKinney-Sondra-Locke-Clint-Eastwood-Scatman-Crothers-pic-10“I’ve got a special message for you little pardners out there. I want you to finish your oatmeal at breakfast and do as your mom and pa tell you because they know best. Don’t ever tell a lie and say your prayers at night before you go to bed. And as our friends south of the border say, ‘Adios, amigos.’”

Bronco Billy is the most unlikely movie to come out of Clint Eastwood’s repertoire since Paint Your Wagon, but it’s also one of my favorites.

Imagine One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke brought to you by John Ford with help from Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.

shot1_largeEastwood takes his tough guy persona and flips it on its ear, turning in a winsome performance as a New Jersey shoe salesman and ex-convict who is living his dream of being a rootin’ tootin’ buckaroo, surrounding himself with a bevy of likeminded souls (and fellow ex-cons), including barker Doc Lynch (Scatman Cruthers), hook-handed wrangler Lefty LeBow (Bill McKinney), snake handling Apache dancer and struggling writer Chief Big Eagle (Dan Vadis) and his wife Running Water (Sierra Pecheur), and boyish roper and Army deserter Leonard James (Sam Bottoms). There’s a nice cameo by Hank Worden (Mose from The Searchers) as a gas station attendant too.

flagtentThe cast is just as likable as can be, solidly carrying Eastwood’s nostalgic, idealistic message of the dream of the American West, namely, that you can reinvent yourself on the ‘frontier’ of society, that America itself is a land of slightly crazy, individualistic characters, a message no more readily apparent than when, after their show tent accidentally burns down, Billy has a new one sewn together out of American flags stitched by patients at a mental hospital. Running Water says plainly, “Do you understand what Bronco Billy and the wild west show are all about? You can be anything you want. All you have to do is go out and become it!”

It’s a passion project on every level, as far from the gritty realism of Unforgiven as a hawk from the moon. It’s full of John Ford corn and dopey situations, but like the exploits of a spangled Gene Autry, I can’t help but grin watching it.

Bronco-Billy-1980-Clint-Eastwood-pic-6The central storyline of course, is Billy’s romance of the ice hearted, materialistic Lily, and of her eventual sort of Taoist-coming-around to rejecting the lovelessness her extreme wealth has engendered in her in favor of Billy’s all accepting, all-encompassing dream. At first, nobody much warms to her as Billy’s assistant. Her job is to look pretty, say her lines (Billy doesn’t approve of her early improvisation) and spin on a wheel while Billy (blindfolded) shoots targets and throws a knife at a balloon between her knees. Conversely, she can’t understand the people she’s with. In one early scene, she tries to make idle conversation with Lefty, who rankles at her talking.

“I was just trying to make the time pass by more quickly.”

“What the hell you wanna make the time pass by more quickly for?”

Lily gradually learns the true identities of the show performers as her time with them progresses, expressing indignation at their colored and criminal pasts, but warming to their genuine familial fondness of each other. There’s a great turning point scene when Big Eagle and Running Water sheepishly admit to Billy before a show that they’re going to have a baby. Knowing full well the show’s constant financial trouble (the outfit is strictly subsistence – they haven’t been paid by Billy in months) they’re fearful of his reaction to the news he will have another mouth to feed. “What?!” Billy says when they tell him. He promptly draws his matched revolvers and fires them into the air in cartoonish celebration, busting into a broad grin.  He declares it’s time for a celebration and leads the grinning parents-to-be (and the others, who naturally come running at the gunshots) out, while we see Lily sitting in the corner watching them with obvious envy.

Is it dated? Most certainly, but so what?

Sexist? Probably. When Billy attempts to seduce Lily in a cot in the ‘honeymoon suite’ of the mental asylum, she sneers;

“I find your timing less than appropriate.”

To which he replies in mock innocence,

“Oh. Is it that time of the month?”

18953612_jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxxAlso, it’s a Sondra Locke/Eastwood outing so Locke does get saved from attempted rape in the parking lot. I took a class on Eastwood in college and one girl in class wondered if Eastwood and Locke roleplayed this scenario a lot when they were married. I have no idea, but it is an oddly ubiquitous happening in all the films they made together…

Nevertheless, Bronco Billy is worth a watch, if you’ve got the heart for it.

Best Dialogue/Line:

After Billy and the gang lose their tent and fail to successfully rob a train, they decide to hole up in a mental institution for a few days (Billy’s show is welcome at orphanages and asylums alike, as reciprocation for Billy putting on free shows for the kids and patients). The kindly wannabe cowboy administrator welcomes them with this line;

“You and your gang can hole up here for as long as you like. You can take your meals with the staff or the patients – whomever you feel more comfortable with.”

Best Scene:

It’s a minor scene, but I always chuckle at Sondra Locke’s over the top heiress on her sham ‘wedding night’ with Geoffrey Lewis.

Lewis and Locke are marrying solely out of financial convenience. Locke can’t get her inheritance without being married by the age of thirty, and Lewis is on the skids. Yet he still apparently holds out hope for some intimacy and disrobes in an eager hurry, only to have Locke come out of the bathroom with a thick pea green mud mask on her face.

As they lay down to bed, Locke warns him that he is not allowed to touch her without first asking permission, at peril of being disinherited.

She flicks the lights out, and after about thirty seconds of silent, total darkness, Lewis whispers tentatively;

“Darling? May I put my hand on your breast?”

“NO,” intones Locke with imperious finality.

Next In The Queue:  Buffalo Soldiers