[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Clint Eastwood’s seventh excursion as director takes a stab at the territory of rustic fun, presumably as a follow-up to James Fargo’s Eastwood-starred Every Which Way But Loose. The problem is that the screenplay for Bronco Billy, which details the adventures of a modern-day cowboy and his tatterdemalion crew of helpmates in a threadbare touring Wild West show, is a ramshackle thing: poorly plotted, sloppily constructed, and teetering off into confusion halfway through – something from which the film doesn’t recover till the very end. That the movie nonetheless affords a moderate amount of entertainment, and seems in the memory to have given pleasure even though one might not recall the storyline, is due to the direction and the performers. It’s a perilous thing for any film to depend on sheer niceness to carry it through, but Bronco Billy just about manages it.
Bronco Billy McCoy is forever telling those “little pards out there in the audience” to do what their moms and dads tell them and not to miss out on school and brush their teeth and stay away from tobacco and hard liquor and be sure to say their prayers at night, and the film shares something of this wholeheartedly corny innocence. Billy himself turns out to be an ex-shoe salesman from New Jersey and also a man who’s done seven years in Folsom for attempted murder; his Wild West show, for all its impoverishment, is the embodiment of a city child’s dream, and the man himself is charmingly determined to do what he wants with his own life and not let the occasional nastiness of reality get him down. Billy’s buddies in the show are an integrated crew of society’s unlucky rejects – a Negro, an Indian, the latter’s white wife (apparently a former prostitute), an ex-thief, a kid who deserted from the Army during the Vietnam war – and their quiet insistence on doing their own thing is very appealing for embracing a still larger community; for their own thing is to live out the simple myth of a West-that- never-was for the enjoyment of children and others unfortunate to be resident in communities too small for dreams to have much chance of fulfillment.
Avoiding maudlin sentimentality in such a situation is no mean trick but Eastwood generally manages it, shrewdly delaying revelations about the unhappy past (most of the heroes met in jail) and taking care to characterize one of the otherwise hugely likeable group as a surly, foul-tongued fellow (Bill McKinney) whose reactions are unpredictable, for all that he’s revealed as a good type in the end. When confining itself to simple, humorous observation, in fact, Bronco Billy is good stuff; but whenever The Plot (some tomfoolery about crooked big-city connivers after a mixed-up heiress’s million) rears its ugly head, the film gets bogged down and tedious. The heiress (Sondra Locke) is naturally straightened out by Billy’s no-nonsense virility, and Eastwood would have been well-advised to concentrate on this instead of all the scenes involving her various grasping relatives and associates.
There are times when one feels the scriptwriter hasn’t an idea as to what to do next, and the movie is padded out with a great deal of fustian. A shame, for scenes and moments that do nothing much other than delineate character are charming: the invincible dignity of the middle-aged “squaw”, pregnant for the first time; Locke’s goofy humming of a Merle Haggard song in postcoital glee; Eastwood’s swivel-jawed harmonising with the same song in another scene as it comes over a truck radio; a quite long and very funny sequence when Locke’s uppitiness is squelched calmly by an ancient garage mechanic (Hank Worden, no less); the uncontainable delight felt by an elderly psychiatrist (Woodrow Parfrey) as he straps on a gunbelt over his asylum whites. The finale – in which the group, now augmented by Locke, gives its greatest performance in a new tent made out of Old Glories stitched together by the inmates of Parfrey’s lunatic asylum – is shamelessly rigged, with the costumes and scenery looking cleaner and more glossily photographed than ever before, with the audience larger and more responsive and with everything for once going just right. But it’s a measure of how much Eastwood’s made you like his heroes that the inherent falsehood of the sequence doesn’t seem to matter a plug damn.
© 1981 Pierre Greenfield
Direction: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Dennis E. Hackin. Cinematography: David Worth. Art direction: Gene Lourié. 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.