Review: Bronco Billy

[Originally published in slightly different form in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

For his summer 1980 film, Clint Eastwood has chosen a sentimental, often corny script that layers screwball comedy conventions over the meanderings of a band of misfits who make a lifestyle, if not a living, out of being what they want rather than what they are. The script is the film’s greatest weakness, with its labored exposition, unmotivated dialogue, repetition without variation, insistent moralism, and tired rehashings of the bored-rich-girl-who-needs-a-good-screwing and living-sanely-in-an-insane-world clichés. But Bronco Billy’s aggressive sincerity overcomes the script’s problems. The notion of a band of drifters and dreamers, recalling Eastwood’s own The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Christmas 1978’s James Fargo–directed Eastwood hit Every Which Way But Loose, again provides an excuse for impromptu zaniness while pushing many of the same thematic buttons: menacing lawmen; the emptiness of wealth; the pre-eminence of the independent, self-motivated American; barroom brawls and good ol’ boys; the celebration of old-time chivalry (Bronco Billy as a Lone Ranger without a mask) and of strong women who deserve their men—in short, the reaffirmation of the same values upheld in country music and in the classic Western movie.

A momentary crisis of confidence in these conservative convictions threatens Bronco Billy when he learns that the rope-twirler with his Wild West show has been arrested as a deserter who refused to fight in Vietnam. “A coward,” the local sheriff taunts. But friendship has a higher value than political and moral principle, and Bronco Billy still goes out to face the sheriff and bargain for the boy’s release, in a would-be bribe that turns into a quick-draw showdown, from which Billy, the self-billed fastest gun in the West, backs down. The question of who is and who isn’t really sane arises more subtly here than in the script’s preachy dialogue, and we discover that there are limits to Billy’s indulgence of his fantasy life. Nevertheless, his dreams survive this blow, as they do the attempted robbery of a train that simply refuses to stop for the anachronistic outlaws, and the burning of his show tent, which is reincarnated as a collage of American Flags.

The studied simplicity of Eastwood’s sometimes self-mocking corniness is overridden by our realization that (as we also exclaim to ourselves about Bronco Billy when he lectures his crew about values) Geez! He really believes all that shit! And why shouldn’t he? At the time of The Outlaw Josey Wales Eastwood began to reveal himself as a true heir of John Wayne, and it’s even more apparent now: His most heartfelt performances and productions have tended more and more in recent years to express the same down-home Americanism that Wayne’s entire career stood for, and that he poured into the two speech-laden films he actually directed. Eastwood isn’t much subtler, although he’s sophisticated enough to lace much of his message with self-parody and ambiguity (Bronco Billy starts and ends as a show-within-a-show), and to trust his audience and critics a little less, himself a little more. Confronted with the motley band of irregulars who are cowboys by choice and design, we wonder if maybe this is, after all, “what cowboys and Indians are really like” and what America is all about. A genuinely quixotic film, Bronco Billy more than makes up for its lack of energy and originality: it’s all heart.

© 1981 Robert C. Cumbow

BRONCO BILLY
Direction: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Dennis E. Hackin. Cinematography: David Worth. Art direction: Gene Lourie. Music supervision: Snuff Garrett. Production: Dennis E. Hackin, Neal Dobrofsky; executive producer: Robert Daley.
The players: Clint Eastwood, Sondra Locke, Scatman Crothers, Bill McKinney, Sam Bottoms, Dan Vadis, Sierra Pecheur, Geoffrey Lewis, William Prince, Walter Barnes, Woodrow Parfrey, Hank Worden, Merle Haggard.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


One Comments

  • David Pitts

    October 10, 2009

    Although I do love this movie, I have to agree with you about the weakness of the script in places. I noticed a couple of holes in the plot, and I’m not one to look for such things, but they were pretty big holes. I saw the showdown with the sheriff a little differently than you did. I think Billy did what he knew he had to do save his friend, and that counted more than his pride. He’s the kind of friend a person would want. And he lives by his code, he believes in it, but he understands the fiction he has created for himself, even as he immerses himself in it. He lives a life he has consciously chosen, and I think that’s the heart of the thing. And this movie does have heart. “I’m who I want to be” sums up the this movie pretty succinctly.

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