HANNIE CAULDER (1971) blu-ray review
written by: David Haft and Burt Kennedy (both as Z.X. Jones)
produced by: Patrick Curtis and Tony Tenser
directed by: Burt Kennedy
runtime: 85 min.
U.S. release date: May 24, 1972
DVD/Blu-ray release date: November, 15, 2016
A couple of months back, Olive Films introduced a new series of DVD/Blu-ray released entitled “Olive Signature”, which, as they’ve announced, will feature “highlighted cult favorites, time-honored classics, and under-appreciated gems” that will include clean audio and video transfers, new cover art with new Special Features (something rare to Olive). You can say it’s their answer to Criterion releases. They started out with two classic westerns, “High Noon” and “Johnny Guitar” and now comes another western, “Hannie Caulder”, something of a cult classic from 1971. The movie is the kind that is appreciated long after its original U.S. release and has been discussed and examined by certain film scholars and aficionados (not to mention Quentin Tarantino) and definitely had an impact on many movies that came after it.
I’m coming at this movie for the first time. I’ve known about it, of course, but based on its marketing, it came across as some kind of exploitation film, possibly sexploitation considering where its star, Raquel Welch, was in her career at the time and how she was perceived. She delivers a good performance here, despite how she is shot and how her character is written, and is surrounded by a very talented group of dependable supporting actors. “Hannie Caulder” isn’t a typical western, it pays more homage to Spaghetti Westerns than it dos American Westerns, and is also very much a revenge film – or rather, a subgenre called the rape-revenge films, which became acknowledged in the 70s and 80s, but are still made today, just look at Paul Verhoeven’s latest “Elle”.
Set in Mexico, the movie opens on the bumbling and despicable Clemens brothers – Emmett (Ernest Borgnine), Frank (Jack Elam), and Rufus (Strother Martin) – riding into a run-down town with the intent of robbing a bank during siesta. They botch up the job and wind up brutally killing everyone inside and engage in a shoot-out with startled federales outside. As they escape, they stop off at a farm in a lone valley just north of the border with the intent of stealing fresh horses (the equivalent of the criminal ditching a recognizable car), but before they can do so they are approached by the owner, Jim Caulder, who basically asks them to move along. He’s answered with a fatal close-range shotgun to the gut and in no time the filthy trio are viciously raping the farmer’s wife, Hannie Caulder (Welch), setting her home on fire and leaving her for dead.
Still reeling from her ordeal and traumatized, she greets a horsebacked stranger with a Winchester, like a wounded animal ready to lash out. All he wants is to use her well for some water for himself and his horses and then to be on his way. She’s undeterred and cautious, but once she is effortlessly unarmed, Hannie learns the bespeckled and bearded man is a bounty hunter named Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp) and sees the gunslinger as someone who can teach her how to shoot a gun and kill. He declines her request to repeatedly, but is eventually won over by her tenacity, but mostly by her motives. He’s been around enough evil men to add up what has happened to Hannie.
As the two begin a mentorship, they work their way to Mexico, where an English friend of Price’s and former Confederate gunsmith (a bearded Christopher Lee, in his only western role) resides along the Gulf shore with his Mexican wife (whom we never see) and their gaggle of children. Price asks Bailey to craft a customized gun for Hannie, while he trains her both physically and mentally in the art of gun-slinging – all of requires standard montage, which goes from Hannie doing some forearm workouts to Bailey literally piecing together her firearm (one can assume this process takes weeks, since a gun can’t be made from scratch in a matter of days). Price knows the cost of an individual’s first-kill and warns Hannie, “Win or lose, you’ll lose. You’ll not be the same person.” Hannie hopes she’s not, but Price nevertheless continues to ask her to walk away from this vendetta, knowing full-well what it can lead to.
“Hannie Caulder” is a British western filmed mostly in southern Spain (mostly Almeria and Andalucia) with a predominately American cast, produced by Tigon British Film Productions, a company known almost exclusively for their extremely low-budget exploitation horror films, up until this movie. It was released in Europe in 1971 and eventually made its way to the U.S. in May of 1972, but it was filmed in 1970.
“Hannie Caulder” is not a full-on feminist tale since the titular character is never really given the opportunity to exact revenge on her own. As she pursues her rapists, you can hear the helpful assistance of her mentor (like the way Obi-Wan Kenobi assisted Luke Skywalker destroy the Death Star in “Star Wars”), reminding her what to do and there’s also the physical assistance from a Man in Black-type character, listed as The Preacher (played by an uncredited Stephen Boyd, who had starred with Welch in 1967’s “Fantastic Voyage”), which communicates to viewers that, although this is the first western revolving around a female gunslinger, the screenwriter/filmmaker never intended for Hannie Caulder to be capable of dispensing justice on her own. That’s too bad, but I suppose it’s kind of expected for the time of its release. Audiences weren’t used to having a man-hater on-screen, regardless of our misogynist world (both on and off-screen) even if she is a victim of sexual assault and maybe that’s why we spend just about as much time following the Clemens brothers as we do watching Hannie on her path.
The movie was helmed by veteran western director Burt Kennedy, who had previously directed John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in 1967’s “The War Wagon” and James Garner in 1969’s “Support Your Local Sheriff!”. In his 2006 memoir Ernie and Me, actor Ernest Borgnine stated he considered Kennedy “one of the best directors of the genre”, yet this is somewhat of a departure from the light-hearted westerns he had directed – except for the fact that the endlessly bickering Clemens brothers add a Three Stooges-level comedy to the feature. That may strike some as odd. Here we follow a woman who’s been sexual assaulted and discarded, which is a tale with a lot of weight to it and then we have these three derelict brothers who have very little value on life and yet they supply the comic relief of the movie. It’s almost like two movies spliced into one and I found myself liking both stories primarily due to the actors involved.
Welch has never been an actress with a wide range and while she’s usually managed to take on strong roles, they have usually relied heavily on her status as a sex symbol. What do you remember from “One Million Years, B.C.” outside of that fur bikini? Or how about that patriotic ensemble she wore in “Myra Breckenridge”? It’s all to titillate and tantalize. She obviously knew that’s how she was being sold to audiences and used that to her advantage. Early on in this movie, she’s wearing short-shorts under a poncho, so all we see are her long naked legs. Then, once Price gives her money to buy new britches, she winds up having to bathe with them on in order to shrink them and, of course, this gives Kennedy’s cinematographer Edward Scaife (“The Dirty Dozen”) an opportunity to linger on her bareback and hind side. As if we need a reminder why Welch was cast.
But, the most uncomfortable use of objectification can be found during the rape scene. Although Welch is trying to fight the Clemens brothers off, the camera fixates on her hair that’s draped across the pillow on her bed while audible moans and screams can be heard. At no point does she seem disheveled – in fact, most of the time the focus is on the greasy and delighted faces of her rapists and then the camera sits outside her home as the assault continues. It’s still potent and unsettling, but it’s also mostly focused on the men.
In “Hannie Caulder” we’re not really given the chance to know much about Welch’s character – as soon as we meet her, she’s attacked and then next thing we know she hooks up with Culp’s bounty hunter in order to see her goal through. Surprisingly, it’s Culp who calmly and quietly walks away with the movie. He’s really great here and a welcome juxtaposition to the normal western characters we see in the genre. It’s clear he’s a skilled bounty hunter, but he also has a way of accurately sizing someone up during his first encounter. He was able to surmise that Hannie is “a terrible liar” and has the knowledge and experience to tell her that it’s not enough to be physically prepared to shoot to kill, but it’s important to understand how to judge body language and human nature.
Culp’s Price develops a genuine interest in Hannie’s welfare, not necessarily because he has a romantic interest in her, but just simply because he cares, which is why he tries to persuade her out of pursuing the Clemens brothers. Tarantino, who must’ve based Christoph Waltz’s character from “Django Unchained” on Culp’s role, had this to say about his performance, “He is so magnificent in that movie. I actually think there’s a bit of similarity between Sonny Chiba and Uma Thurman in “Kill Bill” and Raquel Welch and Robert Culp in “Hannie Caulder”.” I can see that. Culp’s co-star, Borgnine had this to say about the actor in his book, “The actor who really shines, though, is Bob Culp. This guy is one of the great national treasures,” he continues, “He’s convincing in everything because, like Gary Cooper, he’s on the great listening actors if all time. I wish I had half of what he’s got.” Watching this movie definitely made me want to bone up on more Culp.
It’s also a real treat to see Christopher Lee pop up in a role that’s usually something he’s not recognized for. His Bailey is a man living life on his own terms, where clientele seek him out along the Gulf shore (which is some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie) and it’s both bizarre and cool to see him working alongside Culp and Welch. Pay close attention to the guitarist on Bailey’s veranda, who is none other than Spanish guitarist, Paco de Lucía, in an uncredited appearance. There’s also a brief appearance by 50s British blonde bombshell Diana Dors, who appears as a bordello madam, which makes sense with this being a British production.
Kennedy wound up re-writing much of screenwriter David Haft’s (known for his TV work on “Steve Canyon”) screenplay, both of them writing under the pseudonym Z.X. Jones and while it’s unclear what he was altering, I’d wager it was to give the Clemens brothers more screen time. I suppose it’s easier to spend time with murderous inept criminals than it is a heroine who’s been repeatedly raped and dead-set on revenge. Nevertheless, “Hannie Caulder” remains an odd and unique, well-made western that should be seen primarily for its performances, especially Robert Culp’s.
It’s quite noticeable how odd the marketing of this movie is. The poster that accompanied the movie’s release pictured the beautiful Welch sitting front and center in a nice dress with her legs spread open, with Elam, Borgnine and Martin – her three rapists – standing around her as if a sibling portrait was being taken. It’s not indicative of the movie or what transpires in it, but it is another objectifying aspect of the movie. It’s one of many marketing decisions that rely heavily on sexual allure and familiar faces to promote “Hannie Caulder”, without indicating what the audience can expect. Anyone male-gazing at a half-naked promo pic of Welch will be sorely disappointed with what they’ll find in the movie.
a tantalizing photo used to promote “Hannie Caulder”, which had very little to do with the movie.
Olive Films previously released a DVD/Blu-ray release back in 2010 with no Special Features. With this being an Olive Signature release, there are some noteworthy Special Features here, which had me wishing Olive would do that with more of their releases.
There are two featurettes in the Special Features section – one is called “Exploitation or Redemption?” and finds American film scholar Ben Sher discussing the movie’s place and impact (if any) in the rape-revenge subgenre. The other is “Win or Lose: Tigon Pictures and the Making of “Hannie Caulder” with British film historian Sir Christopher Frayling. Both are good features, but Frayling’s is a bit more interesting as it touches on producers Patrick Curtis (who was married to Welch at the time and was instrumental in promoting her career, producing a number of movies she starred in) and Tony Tenser (who founded Tigon British Film Productions, which also produced Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “Cul-de-Sac”) and their, at times, contentious working relationship with Kennedy. Frayling also details which movies had previously used the town set “Hannie Caulder” used and mentioned how popular Spain was for European filmmakers to shoot westerns.
Director Alex Cox (“Sid and Nancy” and “Repo Man”) provides audio commentary here and is quite thorough knowledgeable of the film’s history, as well as the locations and themes used in the movie, but there are several times where he’s essentially rolling his eyes at the movie. It seems both odd and new for a commentary, since one would think whoever is asked to do a commentary for a movie was either involved in making the movie or in the very least, is a fan of the movie. It’s a good commentary, but more informative than it is lively and engaging.