The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Billy Two Hats

I've been watching westerns for as long as I can remember. It's to the point I'm always searching for westerns -- especially from the 1960's and 1970's -- that I haven't seen. Well, God bless Turner Classic Movies and MGM-HD, because they've helped me out with some harder-to-find westerns. Our latest go-around, a revisionist western from 1974, Billy Two Hats.

In a sleepy western town, Sheriff Henry Gifford (Jack Warden) rides into town after a long time on the trail. He's tracking three bank robbers who escaped with a little over $400 and killed a man in a recent robbery. His ambush in the hotel works, killing one, capturing one, Billy (Desi Arnaz Jr.) while the third, Arch Deans (Gregory Peck), escapes, getting out of town unscathed. The sheriff rides out with Billy -- a half-breed with a Kiowa mother and white father -- in tow, riding across the desert to get back to town where Billy will be tried and likely hung for his involvement in the robbery, even though it was Arch who did the killing. Billy has accepted his fate to a point, going along quietly, but out in the desert hills, Arch has a plan to get his partner and friend free. Gifford's trapped in the middle, all the while trying to do his job.

Ah, revisionist westerns, where the goal is to show the wild west as it really was, not as a pleasant, adventure-filled time and place where a good 'ole time was had. Instead, it was horrifically violent where life was cheap and death waiting around every corner. There was little noble, heroic or pleasant about it. The good revisionist westerns just lay it all out there. The not-so-good ones, they lay it on thick with a heavy hand. Where does 'Billy' fall?'s right in the middle. While I was intrigued by the premise (and the fact I'd never seen it), I'm not sure what the point of the film was. The story is a quasi-chase with two major stops where everything concerning action grinds to a halt as characters opine about how awful their lives in the west are. The story was already pretty slow just getting to those scenes. The character development is nil, and at no point did I feel like I got to know either Arch or Billy even though they talk a fair amount. It's a story in its entirety that takes place over  three or four days but accomplishes little. I left this revisionist western feeling entirely "meh." I didn't especially like it, and I didn't hate it. It be right in the middle, a movie that had little to no impact on me at all.

Gregory Peck is the man, one of my favorites here at Just Hit Play. In the second half of his career, Peck turned to the general action genre -- westerns, adventure, war films -- early and often. No classics, but some solid movies. His Arch character is certainly interesting, an aging Scottish bandit who desperately misses the greenery of the Scottish highlands. He has a sort of fatherly/brotherly relationship with young Billy, but there's never much of an explanation or reason given for anything. Arch tries to look out for Billy, giving him advice on how to act, how to grow up. The fault is that the script does absolutely nothing for Arnaz Jr. as Billy Two Hats. It is one of the most poorly written characters I can think of and gives him nothing to do to help alleviate that lack of development.

That puts us, dear reader, in a delicate spot. I found myself not caring about any of the characters even a little. The script feels like it was half-written, following a sorta outline of a slow-paced chase with several talkative, unlikable characters. Winning formula, huh? Warden too is undone by the script. His sheriff is dedicated to his job, but he's so obsessed with this particular prisoner. He's filled with hate, maybe just epic frustration at the futility of what the criminals are up to. David Huddleston plays Copeland, an owner of a remote trading post who's moved on from his days as a buffalo hunter who's waiting for the railroad to come through his lucrative land while also wondering what his squaw wife is up to. Last, there's Spencer (John Pearce) and his recently purchased wife, Esther (Sian Barbara Allen). The dense, money-conscious farmer and his stuttering wife, adding to the general doom-and-gloom of an already pretty dark western.

When you're wrapping up a movie, there's not much worse than a general feeling of frustration of what could have been. 'Billy' has some potential, but it just has too many holes to help it live up to that potential. It was filmed in Israel, giving the film a bleak, stark, end of the world visual look. You're ALONE in this vast expanse of a desert and almost completely dependent on yourself. The music -- though little used -- is appropriate, and I thought pretty good. The script is the ultimate death rattle though. It's bad. It never jells together. The characters are poorly drawn and developed in worse fashion. When the bullets start to fly in this revisionist western, there's absolutely no emotional connection with anything going on in the story, and that ain't good. A disappointing negative review.

Billy Two Hats (1974): * 1/2 /****

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