#12 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
After the raucous action film The Gauntlet, Clint Eastwood took to a script by Dennis Hackin about an aging cowboy with a Wild West show, far removed from the time of cowboys and Indians, trying to make his own, little way in the world. Eastwood is quoted as saying that Bronco Billy is the one movie that most exemplifies what he tried to say as a director (as quoted in a book published in 2009). Usually, when directors say this sort of thing, it’s not typically their big successes but the little, character-based films that most people have forgotten and ignored. In more than one way, this reminds me of Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner, and it’s making the compare and contrast between the two directors all the more interesting.
The titular Bronco Billy (Eastwood) runs a traveling Wild West show that is constantly on its last legs. Unable to pay his performers for months at a time while trudging in steadily decaying trucks from one small town to the next. His right hand man, Doc (Scatman Crothers) is given the task of asking for their back pay on the road one rainy day, and Billy pulls the whole gang over to tell them what in the downpour, pointing out that he saved both Chief Big Eagle (Dan Vadis) and his wife Running Water (Sierra Pecheur) from drunkenness on an Indian reservation, Lefty (Bill McKinney) from lack of work after he lost his right hand, and Leonard (Sam Bottoms) when he had nothing else. There’s strong personal loyalty that convinces them all to drop all their complaints and tighten their belt buckles to get them to the next town where, surely, their luck will turn around.
In the next town in Montana is an odd couple, a New York socialite named Antoinette Lilly (Sandra Locke) and her fiancé of convenience, John Arlington (Geoffrey Lewis), to help her secure the inheritance from her deceased father. He ends up absconding with her belongings in the night and comes across Billy in an effort to get a dime to call back home. Through happenstance, she ends up as Billy’s newest assistant (there’s a fun comic series of events describing how he loses his first two that he has to pick up in every new town because he scares them so much during the show), and they’re off to the next town.
The bulk of the film is just character-based events as Billy and Antoinette get closer from playful hatred to love, the show keeps angling along, including free performances for places like a Catholic orphanage, and we get to know the rest of the cast of characters a bit better. In the background is John getting picked up by the police for the disappearance of Antoinette that her aunt’s lawyer convinces to accept the murder charge so that everyone will be convinced of Antoinette’s death leading to her aunt being able to claim the inheritance, a service for which they will pay him. Disconnected from the world, Antoinette has no idea of these events, just slowly accepting that this is her new life, at least temporarily.
She becomes a symbol of bad luck for the rest of the show besides Billy as things begin to go wrong, mostly around two events, the first is Leonard getting picked up by the police after a bar fight where a standard check leads to the revelation that he deserted the army a decade before (the resolution of this remains clouded in mystery in the film), and the big tent burning down the night Billy goes off to get Leonard out of jail.
There ends up being a major coincidence that defines the later parts of the film where the show arrives at a mental institution they’ve done shows for pro-bono in the past where John is being held, allowing for the very quick untangling of some plot threads. It’s not the most convincing thing in the world, but it clarifies some character motivations nonetheless, allowing for our last minute separation and last second reconnection.
The one word that I would use to define this film is: nice. A marked contrast from the cynical take on things in The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy is a surprisingly gentle tale of a man out of time (another Peckinpah-like characteristic) and the appeal of the ragtag life out in the wilds of the West. There’s a wonderful little scene where Billy (perhaps jokingly?) decides to try and rob a train to help pay for things in the event of the burning of the big tent, but his horse simply can’t catch up.
Eastwood gives a very nice little performance as the man looking to make his own way against the winds of time, and Locke gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as Antoinette (I going to assume that her waffling accent is on purpose because the application fits). The rest of the cast, especially Struthers, gives a very nice foundation to the rest of the film around the core duo while Lewis uses his physicality well to provide one of the handful of sources of comic relief.
Eastwood obviously has some kind of thematic parallel to Peckinpah, but the contrast was in how they worked. Peckinpah was heavily reliant on alcohol to get him through the day, relying heavily on his loyal crew to help when he faltered, driving most of his shoots heavily over schedule and over budget. Eastwood, by contrast, always seems to be in control of himself and is well-regarded as being an extremely efficient manager of film productions. He doesn’t come up with flashy, intricate visuals, but he does understand camera placement, directing his actors, and what he wants so intimately that he just gets what he wants really quickly and moves on. Eastwood and Peckinpah end up feeling like kindred spirits to a certain extent.
Bronco Billy isn’t perfect. It has a handful of subplots that go nowhere, and the bringing together of all the plot threads in the final act is the kind of coincidence that rings hollow. However, the core of the film is so strong, endearing, and sweet that it’s easy to forgive the more mechanical issues. It’s a very nice film, and one that I’m really glad I discovered.