Will Penny


It’s just a case of too soon old and too late smart.

Choices and chances – life offers its fair share of both to all of us as it meanders along, and the way we react to them is frequently determined by timing. This could be regarded no more than everyday stuff, but all good drama has such apparently mundane concerns as its foundation. In fact, the best examples of drama all have a timeless quality, containing some basic truth that transcends their age. Westerns, one could argue, are very much rooted in the time period they depict. Again though, the best western movies have at their core a theme that goes beyond time and place, one which addresses contemporary issues while also remaining relevant to modern life. Will Penny (1968) is one such film, focusing on a set of circumstances arising directly from its Old West setting, and also speaking to audiences of matters that are constants of the human condition.

Will Penny is a film that can be approached, and which works, on three different yet interrelated levels. It’s an absorbing adventure, an examination of a way of life approaching its twilight stages, and a tale about the power and promise of human relationships. Will Penny (Charlton Heston) is the archetypical western hero, a man alone, a self-reliant and capable character shaped by the landscape he occupies and the job he does. But Will is a man who’s growing old and, like the frontier itself, is fast approaching a point where he is going to be consigned to the past – tellingly, he’s the only rider at the end of the round-up who is illiterate to the extent he has to sign his name by marking a crude X in the ledger. Whatever the reality may have been, the fictional cowboy has always been a figure of nobility, a kind of latter-day knight bound by a personal code of honor. The first example of this, and also the first of a number of fateful decisions taken, comes when Will passes up the opportunity to move on to Kansas City and continued employment to make way for a younger man who wants to see his ailing father. Instead, Will sets off with two companions (Anthony Zerbe & Lee Majors) with only the slimmest of hopes of finding work to see them through the winter. In the course of their journey two significant events occur, one leading on directly from the other. Firstly, a fatal misunderstanding over the shooting of an elk sparks a feud with a crazed old man, Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence), and his degenerate family. This violent encounter leaves one of the men seriously wounded, and necessitates a stopover at a remote swing station. It’s here that the seeds of the second, and more interesting strand, of the story are planted. Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett) is traveling west with her young son, and Will has his first, semi-comedic, meeting with this slightly prim woman as he tries to secure medical attention for his wounded companion. We come across all kinds of people all the time, and Will naturally thinks nothing more of it. However, having found employment as a line rider for a nearby ranch, Will chances upon the woman a second time, now occupying the cabin assigned to him for the long winter months ahead. Despite having explicit instructions to ensure that travelers must move on as soon as possible, Will lets his innate nobility get the better of him once again. His decision to let the woman and her son stay on till spring, coupled with the fact that the Quint clan remain loose and thirsty for revenge, is to have a profound effect on Will’s whole take on his life. As I said in the opening, everything boils down to chances, choices and timing.



Before 1968 Tom Gries worked extensively on television, and Will Penny – which he both wrote and directed – allowed him to break through into the cinema. It remains his best piece of work, mainly due to its authenticity. The movie capture the look and feel of its era very successfully – the loneliness, the drudgery of everyday life, and the sense of times changing fast. More significant than any of that though is the authenticity that Gries managed to draw from his characters and how they related to one another. It often feels like romantic sub-plots are injected into dramas almost as an afterthought, and consequently seem fake, forced and superfluous. Here however, the relationship that gradually builds between Will and Catherine, and her son, constitutes the beating heart of the picture. This touching and deeply affecting portrayal of lonely people glimpsing an opportunity for love and companionship is the factor that raises Will Penny up and lends it that timeless quality I referred to earlier. Historically speaking, Will Penny occupies that nebulous zone, as do many westerns of the 60s, straddling the classical and revisionist periods. The clear delineation of heroes and villains, and the focus on a kind of selfless nobility hark back to the likes of Shane and Hondo from the preceding decade. On the other hand, there’s also that melancholy feeling of a disappearing era that would be explored further in films such as Monte Walsh and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in the years to come.



Will Penny features a first-rate cast, and I don’t believe there’s a poor performance anywhere – Ben Johnson, Donald Pleasence, Slim Pickens, Bruce Dern, Lee Majors and Anthony Zerbe all do good work. Having said that, both Charlton Heston and Joan Hackett seem to connect with their respective roles in a way that elevates them far above those all around them. There are those who would assert that Heston wasn’t much of an actor – similarly ill-informed accusations are often leveled at John Wayne and Gary Cooper – and was more of an icon than a performer. In Heston’s case, this probably comes from his frequent casting as larger than life heroic figures. Will Penny saw him playing a simple human being though, the most reluctant of heroes, and was reportedly his favorite role. Heston gets deep inside his character here, investing him with an astonishing level of credibility. There’s genuine modesty on display, a kind of faltering fallibility about this performance that can be seen in all kinds of ways – the barely concealed shame over his illiteracy and lack of education, the physical suffering he undergoes, and his struggle to come to terms with an emotional awakening that has taken him completely by surprise. Joan Hackett didn’t possess traditional Hollywood glamor, but she too reached inside to find an inner truth that characterizes her performance. The fact that Heston was able to produce something so touching is largely down to Hackett’s playing opposite him. For me, there are two standout scenes: that sweet and beautiful business involving the Christmas tree and the boy; and the climactic scene in the cabin where Hackett and Heston bare their souls and break your heart. The resolution of the movie could be seen as a firm rejection of the standard happy ending, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a downer. Personally, I like to think of it in positive terms; the overriding message for me is that there’s always hope for even the loneliest and unhappiest individuals. Whether one seizes that hope is, of course, another matter entirely.

Will Penny is a Paramount picture and the UK DVD, despite being released a long time ago now, is still a very strong disc. The film is given an excellent anamorphic widescreen transfer with natural colors and was obviously taken from a very clean print. There are two short features included on the casting and making of the film, with contributions from Charlton Heston and Jon Gries, the director’s son who also played Joan Hackett’s little boy in the movie. Will Penny probably represents Charlton Heston’s finest screen work, and the film is an immensely satisfying experience. It’s thoughtful, mature, at times exciting, and always affecting. For anyone who has yet to see the film, I recommend it wholeheartedly.


47 thoughts on “Will Penny

    • Cheers Paul. I have a lot of affection for westerns of this era. Overall, I think the 50s saw the genre at its best but the mid to late 60s provides some very interesting works from a time when the western was in the process of trying to redefine itself. I think Will Penny is a fine example of that.


  1. Yeah, I love this one too. You captured it beautifully, the characters, ambiance and I agree about those two scenes–the last one between Heston and Hackett is pretty hearbreaking.

    I generally don’t love post-classical Westerns–and unlike you, I think this does come after the transitional period, though only by a year or so. I avoid that word that begins with the letter “R” because it suggests something was missing in classical Westerns, and I don’t think that’s true. But I like a modernist Western like this one because it does seem aware of the older values a character and story like this might represent, just as you say, while balancing with some compassionate critique. Penny’s limitations as well as his strengths are seen, but one comes away from the movie sad about those limitations and what it means for Will and Catherine, but still respecting him.

    I also thought I’d heard that Heston favored this among his roles. And he was right. He was never better. If he didn’t show this kind of sensitive, more introverted side in other films, isn’t it simply that he wasn’t given those roles? He was seen as an epic hero early on–had the physical qualities for it, and that’s how he tended to be cast. Joan Hackett is superb in this as well–one sees it and wonders why she didn’t have a better career except that the times were against her type.

    Really, it’s just an outstanding Western. It’s in my short list of maybe 10 or 12 post-classical Westerns that I really care about and hold their own for me with the 1946-1962 Golden Age Westerns. I would add that in this period, there is definitely one outstanding cinematographer–Lucien Ballard, who worked often for Peckinpah, also for classicist Hathaway in this period and for John Sturges–and he was cinematographer on this, one of his best credits. His work in creating that atmosphere–which feels realistic but in a “heightened” way characteristic of him–replete with such a supple use of color, is one of the great virtues of WILL PENNY so maybe you should have mentioned him.


    • Just to pick up on a few points there Blake.

      Firstly, you’re quite right that it was an oversight on my part not to mention Lucien Ballard’s great cinematography. He was indeed a truly outstanding cameraman and his work at and around this time gave us some beautiful images. I guess I got a little too caught up in talking about the theme and the performances and just let it slip.

      Secondly, regardless of dates, I still feel this film belongs in that transitional period, albeit late on. It has that quality of looking back to the classical era while also tackling the themes that would come to dominate future productions. Of course, we’re probably just splitting hairs on this point. The most important thing is that it is one of the great westerns of that or any time.


      • Yeah, splitting hairs a little. It’s not easy to define exactly where that transitional period begins and ends–and films within it do tend to look back in some cases, forward in some cases, both in other cases, and that’s true before and after as well. I mark the transition 1963-1966 but that isn’t finite, and it’s just my own view of it anyway. WILL PENNY does have the qualities you say, but I guess I wish more Westerns in the late 60s and in the 70s were more like it.

        By the way, I especially liked the way you talked about the theme and have a feeling I am not the only one who related personally to the things you said about it.


        • Thanks Blake. There are many great things about this movie, not least the direction, cinematography and performances. However, it’s the theme that speaks loudest to me and puts it in another class, so I’m glad if at least a little of that came across.


    • Thank you very much indeed.
      It is a film which doesn’t crop up in discussion as often as its quality would merit, and that’s one of the reasons why I thought it might be worthwhile posting something about it.


  2. Although not as iconic, Will Penny makes a fine companion to Jeremiah Johnson and, (dare I say it) Ride the High Country.
    Charlton Heston’s one of my all time favourites. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in anything where he didn’t deliver 100 percent, and it does annoy me when people say he wasn’t a great actor. Who else could move as easily between genres? Certainly no actors that are around today.
    The TV Western music is probably the film’s only weak spot – Boy, how I wish every film from that era had a Goldsmith score! Even so, as Blake noted above, any time you see the name Lucien Ballard behind the camera you know you’re in for something very special.
    Another fine write up, Colin.
    Best, Chris B


    • Hi Chris. The music is by David Raksin, who wrote some truly great scores in his time, although it does come towards the end of his cinema career. I can’t say it bothered me particularly though.

      You’re quite right to point out the versatility of Heston and his ability to switch genres convincingly. It wasn’t merely a matter of his doing this comfortably either – what set him apart was the way he made you believe he was the character up there on the screen at any given point. For me, even much maligned portrayals like his role in Touch of Evil still work.


  3. So glad you wrote about this film as it’s been ages since I saw it and I remember really liking it’s sad story and beautiful cinematography by Lucien Ballard. Must get the DVD. Have you seen “Line Camp”, the episode of THE WESTERNER by Tom Gries on which he based it? You can currently view it online here:


  4. Outstanding review, Colin. I recall that this fine, under seen film opened the same time as “Planet of the Apes”. In Fordham, they were even playing at neighboring theaters. The line for Apes was full but the one for “Will Penny” was non existent. My date was a bit disgruntled but we had almost a private showing.


    • Thanks Bill. Yes, I understand Will Penny didn’t exactly set the box office alight on release. Of course it’s not all that unusual for quality movies to underperform while the building of their reputation and appreciation of their strengths comes later.
      I have to say though that running the movie in opposition to Planet of the Apes would have added to the pressure considerably.


  5. Colin, your reply to “Bill” is, unfortunately, only too true. Over the years, I have seen many films that were considered to be “unsuccessful” upon initial release, become belatedly recognised as having true worth; “Will Penny” would have to be one in this category.

    It has been reported that Charlton Heston was more than slightly disappointed that this film failed at the box-office, despite receiving favourable reviews from most critics ; he placed the blame at the feet of a disinterested studio. One wonders whether the uncompromising nonconformity of the film and sombre conclusion were influential in determining Paramounts’ lack of faith in “Will Penny” and the decision to restrict expenditure upon publicity.


    • Rod, I’m obviously not in a position to say how much or how little effort Paramount put into publicity on this movie. However, on one of the extra features on the disc Heston does allude to studio doubts about the lack of a conventional happy ending. That may indeed have had some influence on the way is was subsequently marketed. Either way it does highlight the worthlessness, in artistic terms anyway, of depending on box office receipts to determine the quality of movies.


  6. A very strong write-up of the film, Colin. I viewed it a few years ago and also enjoyed the story and Heston’s portrayal. In terms of the theme of the passing of the Old West and a previous way of life….do you remember if the film (either in opening text or dialogue) indicates the year that it is set? (I can’t remember any such date at the moment and wasn’t able to find anything in a preliminary search.)



    • Thanks Chad, and good question. I can’t recall any mention whatsoever of the time period during which the movie is set – there is no on screen text and the dialogue throughout offers no clues either, or none that I picked up on.


        • Definitely no motor vehicles on show and I’m no expert on weaponry – although it’s said the filmmakers did strive for authenticity on that score.
          My gut instinct would be to place the action somewhere in the 1880s, but I’ve nothing concrete to base that on.


  7. Just watched this for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Boy, Colin, you did it again………..just completely captured and brought to to the fore things that some might not see. Thanks…I imagine this will get many more folks to watch this. I got an extra surprise out of it when reading the credits. The title song was sung by Don Cherry, an old friend and golf partner, (his famous song was Band of Gold).. We met so many people, I had forgotten about Don…….now have contacted him, and he will be in our book. Thanks again for a great write up…….brought out some things I hadn’t thought of. KEITH


    • Thanks for that Keith. You know, some movies really are a pleasure to write about.

      I continue to be impressed by the extent of your acquaintances in the entertainment world. I guess your work and location helped put you in that position but it’s still great that you were able to have that opportunity.


      • LOL, thanks Colin. Guess that is why many of my friends from my early 20s on have been after me for so long to write a book. Many of them met a a lot of the celebrities themselves. Most of the ones I knew were not big stars…..just a few of those….Hope, Sinatra, Dino, Andy Williams, Milton Berle, etc. What is going to be great for the book are the funny stories that go along with them! And there are some real doozies such as when Pat Henry, (Frankie’s comedic opener and my neighbor, (Jilly lived next door….then Pat), pulled a stunt on a dare from Perry, Billy Daniels’s, (Singer famous for Old Black Magic), wife. She said she would buy the full length mink, (donated by Abe Lipsey and his furier company, {Abe Lipsey dies at 94 | Variety Jul 13, 1998 – Abe Lipsey, a civic leader and philanthropist known as the “Furrier to the Stars,” } but THAT IS ANOTHER STORY…….super guy ABE was!) he was “modeling” for the Berle charity, if he would flash the audience nude. Well, Pat would do just about anything for a laugh AND to raise money for charities. Also, most folks had seen Billy head out to the restrooms, (Billy was a “notorious” cheapskate, LOL). Well, when Pat threw out the last thing……his underwear, Perry got nervous. Sure as heck, Billy opened the coat, and slowly turned a complete 360 while over doing different modeling poses so pictures could be taken. The runway was pretty high and not too close to anyone…..so, I don’t imagine the pictures came out well, (was really dark in there also).
        The was just ONE of the hilarious things that happened that night, LOL! Yep, have most everything written…..just need to put it together and get a few more interviews from those still living like Kirk Douglas, (he bought his golf slacks from my pro shop………..really DID have a 28 inch waist at one time!)

        Fun times! Read your article again and ready to watch Will Penny over now.with your additions fresh on my mind! Have a good one, Colin……sure glad I found your blog! KEITH

        By the way, I thank my parents and golf pro for those chances!


        • Sorry for the mistake above. PAT opened the coat and did the Naked 360, LOL.., not Billy. Billy was just coming back from the rest room to a huge shock of his wife, Perry, making out a humongous check for the Mink Coat, LOL! I am envious of me also, Colin. After 40 years writing about all these things are like reliving them all over again. Too bad most of our buddies are long gone. But, every few weeks another turns up that is still alive and kicking and KNOWS that he or she is! KEITH


  8. This is a very fine review of a very fine film, Colin! I’m glad you’ve taken the time to sing the praises of this movie, especially for its authentic look at the loneliness and drudgery of the oft-romanticized cowboy life. I think this is as clear an example of Heston’s skill as an actor as can be found: the man was a capital “S’ star all the way, known for his dab hand at bringing larger-than-life characters to the screen, but he was also more than capable of delivering a truly “human” performance. We also get the best big-screen turn from TV mainstay Lee Majors and Donald Pleasance is fun as a deliriously nasty piece of work. I also agree that Joan Hackett is wonderfully effective in this too, and that ending is a heartbreaking yet all-too-real depiction of someone backing away from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A very realistic choice that rings true to the character of Will, no matter that it makes me sad and angry at his turning his back on two people that needed him. A unique and rather beautiful elegiac western that’s all too easily overlooked amidst the other big action shoot-em-ups that debuted around the same time.


    • Hiya Jeff. Contrary to what some would have you believe, there are many examples out there of what a fine actor Heston could be when the material was right, even isolated instances within generally average pictures. Will Penny, however, really does show his talents off to greatest effect.

      I didn’t spend a lot of time – just mentioned them in passing really – detailing the contributions of the other performers. The things is all of them added something to the finished product, some (like Lee Majors for example) doing their best cinema work. But Heston and Hackett are so strong in their roles that they dominate the picture and draw your attention.


  9. Wonderful analysis of Will Penny — thanks so much. One of the TV series Tom Gries worked on was the short-lived The Monroes. He directed two episodes, “Night of the Wolf” and “The Hunter.” Both center around the precariousness of building a life in the wilderness and Gries does a great job conveying how immensely difficult it was. Ben Johnson was one of the regulars on the show, although he did not appear in every episode. He was in “Night of the Wolf” and I guess he and Gries must have hit it off, as Gries not only cast him as Alex the ranch foreman in Will Penny, but also lawman Marshal Pearce in Breakheart Pass. Anyway, this post made me pull out a Will Penny publicity still which I have scanned and added to my Ben Johnson website, should anyone want to take a look. http://benjohnsonfanpage.shutterfly.com


    • Thanks Paula. I’ve never seen The Monroes but thanks for bringing it to my attention. And that’s a fine website you have there – well worth anyone’s time browsing.


  10. Great review of a film that deserves to be better known. It’s funny, I would not say that I enjoyed watching it, rather that I appreciate the brutal look at a dying age and the honesty of Heston’s performance. I think Will Penny is a bit similar to the Mountain Men, another film about men facing the end of their way of life, although with more action.


    • Thanks Andrew. Heston is first class in the movie and the script creates the circumstances for him to excel. The Mountain Men is a great little movie and one we hear very little about.


  11. I saw a documentary recently about Heston. One of the producers for this film told Heston about it. Heston thought it was fine and to get George Stevens to direct. The producer told him that Tom Gries comes with it. Heston said, “That’s what I said, let’s get Gries to direct it.” And that probably worked for the best.


    • Yes Chris, I heard before that the deal was Gries had to direct or the movie didn’t get made. I think he did a wonderful job on it and it’s hard to imagine anyone else could have improved on it.


    • Thank you, Thom. There is great ensemble work but Hackett is one of the stand outs, her interaction with Heston has great warmth and a lot of integrity.
      This is a film that really deserves to be much better known.

      Liked by 1 person

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