Tell Them Willie Boy
|Robert Redford donned a cowboy hat and
strapped on a holster to appear in two westerns with
Katherine Ross in 1969. One of them went on to become
a box office smash and a cultural touchstone which
still appeals to modern audiences. That one, of
course, was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film
which made so much noise in the culture that echoes of
it reverberate still in Redford’s Sundance Institute
and its eponymous Film Festival, both of which were
seminal forces in the development of the modern indie
The other Redford western was this film, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, which was truly a prisoner of its time and, while praised lavishly by the NY Times in its day, is embarrassing to watch now. One of the things I enjoy about evaluating historical films is to note how the known facts, established in the era being portrayed, somehow become cobbled and shaped to conform to the attitudes of the era when the film was made. This film is the poster boy for that phenomenon.
In 1909, the American newspapers reported breathlessly about “the last great manhunt,” in which as many as 50 mounted and armed law enforcement officers spent about three weeks tracking a single horseless Paiute through hundreds of miles of the most rugged and God-forsaken terrain that the American Southwest had to offer. Here is the report of the San Francisco Call, written during the manhunt, and a summary from the Los Angeles Herald written shortly after the hunt was over.
The facts as they were reported in 1909, and as they were still understood in 1969, are outlined as follows:
Willie Boy, the Paiute, wanted to run away with his very young girlfriend. He had already tried once and failed, thanks to the efforts of her father. After a brief absence from the girl’s area, Willie returned to claim his woman, and he was not to be denied a second time. Fortified by liquor, he snuck up on the father while the old man slept, shot him dead through the eye, and ran off on foot with the girl and his rifle. She was about 13 when he first took her as a lover, and about 14 or 15 when they ran off together.
A posse was formed and the manhunt began. About three or four days into the pursuit, Willie killed the girl. It is not known precisely why. It is possible that she was not running away willingly, but was actually kidnapped, and it became too much of a burden to both control her and escape a posse at the same time. It is also possible that she wanted to run away with him, but he killed her because she could not keep up. (Of course, those are not the only possibilities. More on that in a bit.)
After a few days, the posse split up to cover more possibilities. Within about a week, part of the posse came upon Willie, who was entrenched high above the trail within a rock formation that proved virtually impregnable. In a brief shoot-out, Willie forced the hunters to retreat by shooting three of their horses and severely wounding one of the deputies. The stalkers headed back to civilization for supplies and medical care, while Willie sought another suitable place to hide.
The great hunt ended in an anti-climax about two weeks later. The posse, expanded to some fifty men, finally came upon Willie’s new hiding place, but the fugitive was already dead and his body was already quite decomposed. He had saved his last bullet to kill himself, which was no simple task with a long rifle. In order to shoot himself under the rib cage to the heart, he had had to remove one of his shoes so he could pull the trigger with his toe.
This tale, portraying a cruel Native American man with a severe drinking problem, was not suitable for the cultural zeitgeist of 1969. The story was re-written to be the tale of a noble, misunderstood member of an oppressed minority.
In the film:
My review of the script consists of five words:
Are you fokking kidding me?
The great irony of all this faux-respect for Paiute culture lies in the casting. Hollywood was willing to rewrite the entire script to make Willie a misunderstood anti-hero, and to make his lover a grown adult instead of a girl in early pubescence, but the filmmakers were not willing to cast Native Americans to play them. Willie Boy was played by Robert Blake! The make-up artist didn’t make Blake look too much darker, which was at least a minor concession to sensible taste, but that small bit of subtlety was totally undermined by the fact that Katherine Ross was wearing so much blackface (or in this case dark brownface), that she looked like Al Jolson. In its own time, the casting merely looked dishonest. Viewed from our time, it looks demeaning and downright racist.
On the other hand, in retrospect it doesn’t seem that dishonest to cast Blake as a cruel, hot-tempered murderer.
Tell Them Willie Boy is Here also functions on another level that reflected the 1969 zeitgeist. The Willie Boy character is an anti-establishment figure in an era when everyone had to be anti-establishment to be politically correct. Hey, it was the Age of Aquarius, brother man. Author/director Abraham Polonsky said that Willie Boy symbolized an entire generation on the run from authority, and spoke to young people “being driven by circumstances and values they couldn’t control.”
This is where the Deltas need to come in and start mumbling “bullshit, bullshit, blowjob, blowjob.”
I could go on about the gratuitous love (or love-hate) story involving two fictional characters, and other Hollywood nonsense in the sub-plots and subtext, but why bother? I’d be beating one of those dead horses that Willie Boy compassionately shot to avoid killing any humans. (What a guy!)
SIDEBAR: Tell Them Willie Boy is Here is based on “Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt,” a 1960 non-fiction novel by Harry Wilson Lawton which, unlike the film, stayed quite close to the known facts. Thirty four years later, two authors named James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess allegedly debunked Lawton's work in a book called, "The Hunt for Willie Boy: Indian Hating and Popular Culture." Most of this book is based on the accounts of Paiutes several generations after the fact, but that's almost irrelevant since their great-grandparents would have not been able to contribute much because Willie Boy fled alone (or briefly with his girl), so nobody knew what went on except Willie, the posse, and the dead girl. The "debunking" is based on accounts that were second-hand to begin with and were passed on from generation to generation for nearly a century. We can pretty much discount all of that as legend. Indeed, the authors ended up being sued by Harry Lawton and revising subsequent editions.
But their book did raise one substantial point missed by Lawton's: the death of Willie Boy's girlfriend can be re-evaluated using some degree of modern forensic theory on the coroner's report. She died from a bullet that entered her back, moved downward through her body, and exited through the right abdominal cavity. That is consistent with a shot fired from above at long range. The authors speculate that it was therefore a member of the posse who shot the girl, probably mistaking her for Willie himself. That is speculation, but makes more sense to me than the other possible explanations of her death,