Burt Kennedy directs Hannie Caulder, a western revenge picture from 1971. This is actually a British-made western, complete with a screenplay by someone known as Z.X. Jones. Word around the campfire is that Kennedy actually rewrote the script, but he doesn’t own any writing credits. Peter Cooper is responsible for the story.
Hannie Caulder is a strange movie in a lot of ways. It seems to juggle some serious themes at times, but there’s an undercurrent of wobbly humour that keeps the audience off-guard. It volleys between the harsh and the comic, perhaps as part of Kennedy’s nose for the anarchistic bent of the Wild West or perhaps as a way of shining light on some rather ugly material.
Raquel Welch stars as the title character. He’s a frontier woman living with her husband. One day, her homestead is set upon by the bank-robbing Clemons Brothers. Emmett (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam) and Rufus (Strother Martin) attack and rape Hannie, leaving her husband dead in the process. The bandits get away.
Hannie wanders the desert until she runs into the bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp). She convinces him to help her learn the art of shooting so that she can have her revenge on the Clemons Brothers. Price takes her to Mexico, where the gunsmith Bailey (Christopher Lee) builds her a weapon. She learns to shoot and heads back to town to confront the Clemons Brothers.
Hannie Caulder is a fairly straightforward revenge movie, but it still functions as an oddity for the western genre. The cast is anything but typical, with Lee playing a gunsmith on hiatus in Mexico and Diana Dors popping by for a brief turn as a madam. Even Culp, renowned for his role on TV in I Spy, has an interesting turn here.
Of course, Welch is the star of the show. She doesn’t quite have the chops to fuel this revenge tale, but that doesn’t stop the camera from lensing over her with vigour. She spends the first portion of the film in a poncho and little else until she’s fitted with a too-big pair of pants that she has to shrink down while taking a bath. This provides the obligatory comic slice of eye candy.
Kennedy gets things off to a roaring start with an outrageous bank robbery and shootout, complete with gallons of bright red blood and a lot of shooting. The Clemons Brothers are comic fools, kind of like the Three Stooges. When they turn their dastardly sights on Hannie, it gets ugly.
Hannie Caulder plays the assault on the title character with an odd balance of humour and cruelty. The camera doesn’t linger on the scene itself for long, but it does pull to a wide shot of the house with one of the brothers running around the joint trying to get back in. The door opens and he’s kicked out again. Har har har.
This car crash of tone eventually simmers down into the standard vengeance course and Culp manages to give the picture some much-needed stability. While Borgnine, Elam and Martin double-down on the comedy, Culp plays the mentor like a Far East sensei. He teases infatuation with Hannie, but the movie has the good sense to only play at the edges.
Culp’s character also attempts to warn Hannie about the futility of revenge, but it’s easy to see his side of things when he didn’t live through the Clemons’ brutal assault. The Wild West of Kennedy’s film isn’t exactly interested in pressing charges on the brothers and most of the menfolk are encouraged to take matters into their own hands, so it could be argued that Hannie takes the moral path.
While Hannie Caulder stumbles between elegy and comedy and sometimes struggles to find a tone that works, it’s still a relatively effective western revenge yarn. Culp’s character provides necessary steadiness, while Hannie’s odyssey is stirring and justifiably vicious.