Saturday nights at 6:30 was the time for The Muppet Show. Nothing…and I mean NOTHING…would keep me from this weekly ritual when I was growing up. Because every week there was a different guest star appearing with the Muppets, the show was where I first was exposed to many celebrities for the first time. Now, in the early seasons of the show we were seeing stars like Jim Nabors, Florence Henderson, Bob Hope, and Julie Andrews. But in season three there was someone named Raquel Welch. I would’ve been about seven years old when she appeared on the show and, needless to say, it was memorable. I wasn’t exactly sure why, I just knew she didn’t look like the folks that were doing ABC’s and 123’s on Sesame Street. Little did I know that Welch had been bringing her special touch to movies for years…including the film we have for you today. It’s a western revenge tale that served as an inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films; 1971’s Hannie Caulder.
The story is very simple. We begin with three scumbag brothers, the Clemmens (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin) who are causing all sorts of trouble in the west. After a bank job they arrive at a homestead and promptly murder the owner. Inside the home they find his now-widowed wife, Hannie (Welch) and then take turns brutally raping her. From there the brothers head off and continue their attempts at a crime spree.
Meanwhile, Hannie encounters a bounty hunter named Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp). He decides that he will help Hannie exact her revenge, which means he needs to teach her to handle a weapon. The two head for Mexico to have a special gun crafted by a sought-after gunsmith (Christopher Lee). While there, Price trains Hannie in the ways of being a quick draw specialist. From there, it’s just a matter of tracking down the Clemmens and dishing out some revenge.
There’s nothing flashy at all about Hannie Caulder, but it’s such a wonderfully simple story that I just couldn’t take my eyes off it. I’m really not quite sure how to describe the tone of this film. On the one hand it’s qutie bloody and brutal. The scene in which the three brothers attack Hannie is just plain difficult to watch. However, there’s also a lightheartedness to this film that is very unexpected. This primarily comes through in the characters of the three Clemmens brothers. We are introduced to them as the lowest of lowlifes. As the film continues, we occasionally cut to them trying to pull various robberies and making a mess of it each time. After having beaten and raped the film’s main character, they actually turn into the comic relief! The dynamic between the three actually reminded me a bit of the Three Stooges.
What really carries the film, though, is the great dynamic between Raquel Welch and Robert Culp. Forgive my 80’s sensibilities here, but it’s got a bit of a Daniel-san / Mr. Miyagi vibe to it. Price has her doing various strange exercises involving twisting a stick with a rock tied to it…it’s like the 1800’s version of wax on, wax off. I liked, though, that there is only the slightest hint of a romantic spark between the two. Too much dwelling on that would’ve seriously gotten in the way. The teacher / student feel is much stronger. It helps that both are just incredibly intriguing characters. Culp is charismatic and yet dark and mysterious with what we can only imagine must be a complex backstory. Welch is clearly going for a female version of Eastwood’s spaghetti western roles. She has hardly any dialogue for most of the film. It’s no slam on her acting ability, but I was a bit disappointed when the character becomes qutie a bit more chatty during the film’s final act.
The entire cast really does a stellar job. I was especially taken aback when Christopher Lee showed up in a role that proves how versatile an actor he was. All around, Hannie Caulder kept surprising me. Only one element of the final scene (which I won’t give away here) disappointed me. On pretty much every other element, Hannie Caulder is a brutal, grimey, and extremely satisfying old west revenge story.