It's in the 1830s in the wild expanses of the New Mexico desert. An inexperienced frontiersman and former soldier, Pike (Martin Sheen), is on his own after his partner is killed during a run-in with an Indian war party. Riding across the desert looking for what's next, Pike stumbles across a Comanche burial, a beautiful white stallion picketed nearby. Pike manages to escape with the horse, but he's not the only one interested in the horse. A Kiowa warrior, White Bull (Sam Waterston), has also seen the horse and wants it more than anything else, a run-in on the trail more than likely with such a prize on the line. That's not all though. A stagecoach and burial hearse loaded with gold and jewelry, not to mention a small group of beautiful women, is traveling across the desert at the same time. What will happen when these disparate individuals all meet up?
So ever heard of this one? Yeah, me neither. From director Anthony Harvey, 'Wing' is considered a Euro-western (I guess) as it was backed by an English studio and filmed on-location in Durango, Mexico. It received decent film reviews back in 1979 but struggled to find a footing in theaters. And wow, what a mixed bag in the end. Purely on a visual level, this flick is a stunner. You get a sense of how big the desert is, how immense the wilderness truly was when Indian tribes ruled the west and a few brave mountain men, traders and trappers navigated the country. A gorgeous film to watch, but does it rise to something else? Something more?
My biggest criticism is that 'Wing' isn't content to just be a western story with some interesting characters in an interesting historical time that doesn't always get its due in film. It has to be something more, like an allegory about human wants, needs and what drives them. Yes, it is an immaculate white stallion with impeccable speed on the line. It becomes more though. How far will these individuals go? Waterston's White Bull begins to abandon everything else he owns to keep the horse. Sheen's Pike risks bleeding to death with a wound rather than risk losing the horse. Members of a posse trailing them all turn to greed, murder and backstabbing. Maybe the premise would work better if handled a little differently, but the story never quite develops how I'd like. The second half of the movie (I saw a version about 105 minutes) is significantly better, but the finale disappoints too, open-ended without any real closure. So it's got that going for it!
And then there's the casting, some interesting, some good, and some just odd. First of all, Sam Waterston as an Indian warrior? It's not that this is a bad performance -- he doesn't speak much -- but seriously....Law and Order's resident district attorney Mr. McCoy as an 1830s Kiowa warrior? Tsk tsk, that's not ideal casting. For such a wily trailsman, White Bull also seems to make some insanely dumb decisions along the way. Sheen escapes with less damage, at times channeling his dream-like voiceover from Apocalypse Now, as the frontiersman quickly learning how to survive. Also worth mentioning? Harvey Keitel is around for about 30 minutes as Henry, a far-more experienced trader and frontiersman trying to teach Pike the ways of the wilderness.
Other characters include Judith (Caroline Langrishe), an Irish woman kidnapped by White Bull, a widowed woman (Stephane Audran) with the desert hearse, the two most persistent members of the pursuing posse (Jorge Russek and Manuel Ojeda), and Judith's brother, the Priest (John Castle).
An interesting movie for sure. As I mentioned, the second half is significantly better with the pace quickening and the chase coming to its sorta conclusion. The premise is excellent, a handful of individuals with limited weapons and fewer supplies all pursuing each other, all for different reasons. I wish I liked it more, but as is, it's a decent western with some big positives and hard to avoid negatives.
Eagle's Wing (1979): ** 1/2 /****