PRINT October 2003


Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand

SOMETIME IN 1969, during the making of Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper introduced his costar and producer, Peter Fonda, to Bruce Conner, the San Francisco–based artist and avant-garde filmmaker best known for the 16 mm found-footage collages he began showing in the late ’50s. “Bruce’s work was not soiled by any desire to make features,” writes Fonda in his deliriously earnest 1998 autobiography, Don’t Tell Dad. Fonda goes on to describe Conner’s visits to his home in LA. “We screened his movies and talked about our dreams. After watching his films—which I could do for hours—we often played music together.” When Fonda scouted locations for his directorial debut feature, The Hired Hand (1971), Conner made the trip with him. Although his name doesn’t appear in the credits, Conner’s influence and that of his avant-garde colleagues Stan Brakhage and Bruce Baillie—both film poets of the western landscape—are all over Fonda’s film.

Well received in Europe and Great Britain, The Hired Hand lasted only two weeks on screens in the US before disappearing for thirty years. No prints were available; the original materials moldered in the vaults at Universal. But thanks in part to the current fetishization of ’70s Hollywood cinema, the film will have a second life, presented in select theaters (beginning October 17) and on DVD and cable by the Sundance Channel—an appropriate match, since The Hired Hand embodies the aesthetic on which Sundance was founded in the mid-’80s. Combining a classic genre (the western) with a markedly personal directorial approach, realistic characters with a mystical devotion to the land, and meticulous craft with a touch of visual and aural experimentation, it is as much an independent-film prototype as Easy Rider.

But surprisingly, given Fonda’s anti–Vietnam War position and countercultural persona, the film has little in common with the anti-imperialist westerns of the period, such as Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) or Robert Aldrich’s more ambivalent Ulzana’s Raid (1972). Rereading the codes of the western through the late-twentieth-century crisis around masculinity, Fonda and screenwriter Alan Sharp (who also wrote Ulzana’s Raid) focus exclusively on the politics of gender. Fonda takes the iconic figure of the cowboy wanderer that was raised to an abstract principle of machismo in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and places him in a narrative that, its minimalism notwithstanding, gives him a tortured, guilt-ridden psychology. When former Leone star Clint Eastwood made his bleak revisionist western Unforgiven (1992), he cited The Hired Hand as an influence.

Fonda’s film opens with an idyllic sequence of three men bathing in the dazzling water of a sunstruck river. The men appear as silhouettes—abstract figures—within a slow-motion montage of water, earth, and light. This sequence and a later one of two men slowly riding across a prairie tinted fiery red by the setting sun are near replicas of scenes from Baillie’s Quick Billy (1970), except that Baillie’s rough-hewn 16 mm images and the chance operations of his in-camera superimpositions are, in Fonda’s film, replaced by Vilmos Zsigmond’s controlled 35 mm cinematography (The Hired Hand was his first major feature) and editor Frank Mazzola’s multilayered opticals. When the youngest of the three men we’ve seen by the river is murdered by local bad guys—thus setting in motion a cycle of revenge that inevitably leads to a bloody denouement—his traveling companions, Harry (Fonda) and Arch (Warren Oates), give him a hasty burial. “The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it,” says Arch at the graveside, reading from his pocket Bible. The quotation could serve as the epigraph for The Hired Hand, where narrative progression is marked by the increasing alienation of the characters from the radiant natural world.

Exhausted by his itinerant life, Harry decides to return to Hannah (Verna Bloom), the wife he abandoned seven years earlier. Arch goes along for the ride. Hannah, who has been managing the farm and raising the daughter Harry has never seen, isn’t exactly welcoming. In Harry’s absence, she’s relied on hired hands for more than heavy lifting. “Out in the field, or in the hay, sometimes just down on the dirt,” she tells Arch, a tinge of self-disgust creeping into her defiant admission of lust. Even in the heady feminist days of the early ’70s, this attempt at grafting female desire onto the traditional figure of the pioneer woman must have seemed like sloganeering. There’s more subtlety in the triangular relationship that develops among husband, wife, and husband’s best friend, where feelings and loyalties are constantly in flux, and Harry, rather than Hannah, emerges as the object of desire. The triangle has a distinctly oedipal undercurrent: Hannah and Arch are parental figures, each invested in a different future for the ambivalent Harry, who is more boy than man. In the end, however, the violence that Harry thought he’d left behind decides his fate, and the bond between men proves stronger than that between husband and wife. “Hold me, Arch,” whispers Harry as he dies. Despite her pioneering ways, Hannah remains odd woman out.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight and Sound.