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TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE
DVD region 2. Odeon.

Tell Them Willie Boy Is HereThe Western, perhaps more than any other genre, was deeply affected by the changes that took place in society and film production at the end of the 1960s – within ten years, westerns had moved from Hollywood staple to something of an anomaly, a position that – despite the best efforts of filmmakers over the years – it remains in, marginalised from the mainstream.

The changes began with the Spaghetti westerns in the latter half of the 1960s, which – alongside American movies like The Wild Bunch – began to strip away the black hats and white hats morality and clean-cut, romanticised depictions of cowboys and Indians to show a grittier, more morally ambiguous outlaw world. And at the start of the 1970s, several films would start to examine the Native American experience, stripping away the clichés of whooping Redskins and looking at their treatment at the hands of the white man through new, jaundiced and Vietnam-influenced eyes. Soldier Blue, Little Big Man, A Man Called Horse and even supernaturally themed films like Shadow of Chikara used the feel of the western but took it into new places. That they often did so with white actors playing the Native Americans is somewhat ironic of course.

Tell Them Willie Boy is HereAt the forefront of these films was Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, an impressively slick, yet deeply cynical film set at the end of the Old West, in 1909, when the Indians were already reduced to life on Reservations and were quickly becoming westernised. Renegade Indian Willie Boy (Robert Blake) returns to his reservation after a spell away in jail, and tries to take up girlfriend Lela (Katherine Ross), only to be warned off by her family. When the pair of them are caught together, Lela’s father is shot dead by Willie Boy, and the couple flee, pursued by a posse led by Deputy Sheriff Coop (Robert Redford), the son of a famed Indian killer who is now in charge of policing the reservation and takes his frustrations out in a love-hate relationship with reservation manager Dr Arnold (Susan Clark). At first, Coop fails to take the hunt for Willie Boy very seriously, even leaving to attend a political rally, but when his men are shot at by the resilient and desperate Indian, he soon realises that this won’t be as simple as he’s hoped.

Based on true events, Abraham Polonsky’s film is a beautifully shot, steadily paced film that, typically of the period, offers no easy answers for its characters, none of whom are particularly admirable. Willie Boy’s actions make him fairly unsympathetic, while Coop is too self-centred to understand the gravity of the situation until his friends are being killed. Despite this, the film remains fairly compulsive stuff as it moves to it inevitable conclusion.

Like Badlands from around the same time, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is a grim-faced look at the outsider, cleverly avoiding making him an anti-hero, and this long-overdue DVD release is well worth picking up. Odeon have packaged it with two 40 minute documentaries, neither having any connection with the film – The Outlaw Trail is a 1978 film with Redford looking at the surviving escape routes and hideouts used by outlaws in the past, and though interesting, is more related to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, while an episode of The South Bank Show from 1989 looks at Redford’s Sundance Institute. In the absence of any supplementary material for the film itself, these are welcome additions..

DAVID FLINT

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