I had seen `The Hired Hand' when it first opened, on the bottom half of a double bill with `The Beguiled'. I had gone to the double feature to see Eastwood. I'd always thought Fonda was a dull actor and I'd figured he'd also be a dull director. Well, `The Hired Hand' blew me away, so much so that I never bothered to comment it on it on the IMDB for fear of not doing it justice. Until recently it was very hard to find, and the VHS copies don't do it justice; because, quite frankly, `The Hired Hand' is the most stylistically beautiful western I've ever seen and one of the great westerns of all time. WARNING SPOILERS The plot of `The Hired Hand' is deceptively simple. Harry (Peter Fonda), Arch (Warren Oates) and Dan_ (Robert Pratt) are sidekicks, drifting from noplace to nowhere, living free and, mostly, off the land. Harry is quiet and reserved, Arch is warm and Friendly. Dan is wild-eyed innocent, the kind of man both the younger Harry and older Arch had been when they began their drifting. Harry has become of late, wearing of the road, never more so after his fishing line accidently snags the body of a little girl drowned in the river. For Harry is a married man, who, at 20 married a woman 10 years his senior and had fathered a little girl. The responsibility had frightened him so much he had run away to wander for six years. Now, Harry knew, it was time to go home. Harry tells Arch and Dan over bad tequila in another dark, dirty cantina. However, Dan wants to go to California. He tells Arch and Harry his dreams about California, and their reactions reflect the weary knowledge that things are never as good as we believe they will be. Arch knows about Harry's wife and daughter and knows his place is on the road with Dan What none of the trio know is that cantina owner McVey (Severn Darden ) has taken a fancy to Dan's horse. While Dan is away from Harry and Arch, he is lured into a comprising position by McVey's slutty wife and is shot by McVey , `a husband protecting his wife.' Dan dies in front of Arch and Harry; and they know, but cannot prove their friend was murdered. Harry and Arch bury Dan and Arch reads profound words from Jesus apparently hand written on folded sheets. The next morning Harry and Arch set out to McVey's ranch to reclaim Dan's horse. While Harry keeps watch, Arch takes the horse. Harry looks through a ranch house window and sees McVey, asleep, laying on the bed, his big feet exposed. Harry shoots McVey through both feet, crippling him before escaping. Arriving at Harry's home, Arch first meets Hannah (Verna Bloom) and Harry's little girl. Immediately, Arch feels a longing for what Harry has. For Hannah is handsome, sensuous and passionate and Harry's little girl is adorable. Harry is not so sure. He is humbling himself to return, to be a hired hand to his own wife; to keep his identity secret from his own daughter. To feel the resentment every day from the woman he abandoned. Harry leaves Arch an opening and Arch does his best to resist the temptation. But, when Arch finds out from an obnoxious jerk that Hannah has been sleeping with the previous hired help, his resolution crumbles. However, Harry has overheard part of the conversation and insists that Arch tell him the rest. The next day he returns to town and posts a notice that he has returned and that his wife was no longer in need of `hired help'. While Harry has warned other men away, he still makes no moves on Hannah. He remains aloof, trying to sort out his feelings. Arch goes to Hannah and, as she sits on the porch, Arch tries to speak on Harry's behalf. Instead of replying, Hannah brazenly admits to Arch the physical longing she felt while Harry was away and how afraid she was he would leave again with Arch. Arch removes his hand from Hannah's lower calf and knows it is time to leave Harry to the happiness he will ultimately claim. Harry moves out of the shed and takes a bath. Hannah strokes her hair in anticipation of having the lover back she had so long missed. The love scene is brief but very telling, for Harry is still something of a child-man, and Hannah's love is as maternal as it is sexual. Arch leaves `for California' and Harry fully reintegrates himself into his life with Hannah and his daughter. But, one day, one of McVey's henchmen return's with Arch's horse and the little finger from Arch's hand. He tells Harry, If harry doesn't come with him, McVey will take a finger a week, and then begin on Arch's toes. Horrified, Harry prepares to ride out. Hannah, at once resentful and terrified, begs Harry to forget Arch and accuses them of planning this so that Harry and Arch could go away together. It's clear from her tone that Hannah believes nothing of what she says, even about abandoning Arch. Hannah just doesn't want to be alone again. Harry leaves with the henchmen, anyway and, that night, murders the henchman to improve his chances against McVey and his other men. Meanwhile Arch is trying to convince McVey's abused, slutty wife to bring him a gun. She doesn't, but it's obvious she helps Arch escape. However, Arch's freedom is too late, because Harry is already mortally shot by McVey and the remaining henchmen. Arch kills the remaining henchmen and Harry kills McVey before he can kill Arch. Knowing he is dieing, Harry asks Arch to hold him and the scene freezes on that embrace. However, that is not the final, for that is Hannah watching from the porch, then going inside as Arch returns and puts away his horses and gear in the barn. For Arch is now the `hired hand' who will claim for himself and his memories of Harry the life that both he and Harry wanted with Hannah and her daughter. END OF SPOILERS However, nothing I have said captures the pure lyrical beauty of `The Hired Hand;' for, how much can one explain about a five minute opening scene without dialogue of Dan swimming in the river while Harry fishes from the bank that is so beautifully scored and montaged that it is positively exhilarating, yet reinforces the plot by establishing the mood, history and future of the sidekicks? This is nothing short of brilliant filmmaking, and Peter Fonda has been very generous to his costars, even in cast billing. `The Hired Hand' is also exceptional technically, be it sound, editing, cinematography and optical effects. Warren Oates and Verna Bloom were never better, and, Fonda gives a beautifully understated performance which further reinforces Oates and Bloom. `The Hired Hand' is more likely to appeal to a generation raised on music videos than on the generation that first shunned it. It is available in either a single disk or a 2 disc `Special Edition'. This may be one of the few times the `Special Edition' is worth the extra money, especially if Fonda's commentary is as interesting as his FILMFAX interview. It's truly sad how Universal betrayed Fonda for his loyalty, since he turned down an opportunity to move the production to a more sympathetic United Artists. While `The Hired Hand' does not possess the epic sweep (or pretenses) of such classic westerns as `The Searchers,' `Dances With Wolves' or `Unforgiven', it is superior as art to all three of these films. Fonda has largely created the perfect counterpoint to the Sergio Leone masterpieces, `For a Few Dollars More,' `The Good, The Bad & The Ugly' and `Once upon a Time in the West'. While Leone's films where grim, sweeping and action packed, with surprising touches of humor and sentiment, `The Hired Hand' is lyrical, personal and tender, with surprising touches of sudden grim, bloody violence. It is certainly, in my opinion, the greatest `small' western in the history of film. I give it a 10.
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