By 1971, American revisionist westerns and their Italian equivalents had pushed the boundaries of cinematic violence and nihilism to previously unheard of limits. Anyone looking to market their movie as a blood-soaked slaughterfest had a hell of a bar to meet, but that’s just what the makers of The Hunting Party sought to do. Directed by journeyman TV veteran Don Medford, the film is far from the work of a New Hollywood auteur, and plays more as a purely commercial endeavor made for the sole purpose of capitalizing on the market opened up by The Wild Bunch and its ilk. Its grim sadism, over-the-top bloody violence and downbeat ending seem imitative and calculated rather than artistic, but its air of mercenary cynicism works strongly in its favor. It’s not here to play nice, it’s here to take your money and run. The whole project makes more sense when you realize it’s kind of a pseudo-Spaghetti hybrid: it was British financed, made by Americans, filmed in Spain, and scored by one of Italy’s finest and most prolific composers, Riz Ortolani.
Unfortunately, the film failed to find its mark critically or commercially. Critics in the States absolutely savaged it, considering it empty-headed and repulsively violent. Despite the glut of Eurosleaze flooding the market, the American western perhaps held a certain level of prestige in the minds of the moviegoing public, and mere bloodshed for profit was not going to cut it. It comes across as having greater aspirations but it truly belongs in the drive-in/grindhouse gutter. It’s the perfect western for horror fans, without technically being a horror-western.
It opens with a promisingly nasty piece of business. Impotent cattle baron Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) attempts to make love to his wife Melissa (Candice Bergen) and gets pretty intense about it, while the scene intercuts with outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) and his gang slaughtering a cow for real and eating its meat raw. Ruger then leaves on a train for a hunting trip with his rich buddies, and shortly thereafter Calder and company kidnap Melissa as they sweep through Ruger’s town on their way to a range war.
Calder wants schoolteacher Melissa to teach him how to read, and he beats back attempts by his men to have their way with her. Melissa turns out to be something of a firebrand, and she takes every possible opportunity to attempt an escape. Eventually Calder subdues and rapes her, after which she goes on a hunger strike rather than teach him any reading skills. In an out-of-place comical scene, Calder and his right hand man/best friend Doc Harrison (Mitchell Ryan) playfully tempt Melissa with a jar of peaches, and she finally breaks her fast and devours them while laughing at her captors’ antics. After that breakthrough, she gives in and begins schooling Calder on his ABCs, and before long falls in love with him.
Meanwhile, Brandt finds out his wife’s been kidnapped by Calder and his gang and decides to rope his pals into hunting them down with newfangled long range rifles he’d just purchased for their trip. (I should mention that Brandt learns about Melissa’s abduction following a scene in which he sadistically tortures a prostitute). The remainder of the film follows a simple pattern: Ruger’s crew pick off members of Calder’s gang from a safe distance where they remain unseen, and the gang retreats. Ruger has Calder in his sights several times but refuses to shoot him, opting instead to draw out a twisted game of cat and mouse. At one point Ruger loses a man and his friends quit on him, and Calder’s gang is finally reduced to just himself and Melissa. Eventually the three of them come face to face for a denouement in the scorching desert.
There are a few aspects to the plot that likely won’t sit well with the average modern viewer, most obviously that Bergen’s character falls in love with the man who raped her and the audience is asked to accept their relationship and root for them. But the 70s were famous for antiheroes, and characters in grimy films like this tended to be painted in various shades of gray. In several instances Calder is shown as legitimately compassionate and caring both toward Melissa and Doc Harrison, and you can’t help but have ambivalent feelings about him. Brandt, on the other hand, is an irredeemable sadist, and Melissa is clearly better off with Calder.
Hackman is electric as Brandt Ruger, radiating a savage animalistic intensity barely concealed by a facade of civility. To Ruger, Melissa is his property, and his will to get her back at all costs drives him to madness. Reed has a tough role that he handles fairly well, managing to be convincing as a crude brute with a deeply sensitive nature. And Bergen has the most difficult part as the object of both men’s drive and desire. She’s able to flesh out and humanize a character that could have easily come off as a one-dimensional archetype, and you feel for her plight and perhaps grudgingly understand her attachment to Calder.
Once again, the main thing to note about this movie is that it’s bloody as hell. Medford does his best to out-Peckinpah Peckinpah by filming even messier slow motion blood squibs during the shootout set pieces. Beyond that we get the gory aftermath of a direct shotgun blast to the face, stabbings, bodies stacked like trophies on a safari, etc. The violence is unflinching and mean-spirited. Again, it comes across as compulsory; it’s directly copying the self-styled auteurs influenced by the ugly brutality of war and social unrest and their effects on a disillusioned generation. It’s a TV guy imitating a style rather than making a statement, probably prodded along by producers saying, “just do The Wild Bunch. You know what I mean!”
But for all the hand-me-down aesthetics, it somehow manages to retain its own rugged, artless charm. On top of that, it looks gorgeous. Veteran Spanish cinematographer Cecilio Paniagua captures the wild beauty of the Tabernas Desert perfectly, and probably would have received an Oscar nomination were the project deemed more respectable by those squares at the Academy.
As it stands, The Hunting Party is a footnote from a fascinating era deserving of reappraisal by fans of splatter cinema. Track it down.