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THE HUNTING PARTY

A gotta-see-it-to-believe-it product of the early seventies, when the production code governing film content had just been abolished, and American moviemakers responded by unleashing a veritable tsunami of sex and violence.

The Package
     THE HUNTING PARTY (1971) is among the wildest of the so-called revisionist westerns of the early seventies. Inspired in equal parts by the ultra-violent Euro-Westerns of the late sixties and Sam Peckinpah’s ground-breakingly bloody THE WILD BUNCH, these films included SOLDIER BLUE (1970), McCABE AND MRS. MILLER (1971), DOC (1971) and DIRTY LITTLE BILLY (1972).
     The revisionists’ stated aim was to demythologize the old west, but more often than not what they ended up with were gratuitous spectacles of violence and ugliness. That was definitely the case with THE HUNTING PARTY, which is notable these days for its prestigious cast: Gene Hackman (mere months before his breakthrough role in THE FRENCH CONNECTION), Oliver Reed and Candice Bergen.

The Story
     Brandt Ruger is a wealthy cattle baron--and all-around psychopath--with a cowed schoolteacher wife named Melissa. One day Melissa is kidnapped by Frank Calder, a notorious outlaw who rides with a couple dozen fellow bandits. Frank claims he just wants her to teach him to read, but it’s clear from the start he has a thing for Melissa, and nor is she entirely unresponsive to him--he’s certainly much nicer than her husband.
     Speaking of which, Brandt happens to be on a train en route to a massive hunt; his activities during the train ride include burning a whore’s vagina with a cigar. The following day he learns of his wife’s kidnapping and flies into a rage. Brandt doesn’t much care about her, he just hates his “property” being taken from him, and nor is he too keen on wasting money on a ransom. Rather, he hastily gathers together a hunting party, arms them with expensive long-range rifles and tracks down Frank’s gang.
     Brandt and his party announce their presence by taking out several of Frank’s men from a distant bluff, then they shoot several more at a nearby watering hole. In both cases Brandt refrains from shooting Frank or Melissa, but otherwise treats his pray like they’re animals to be hunted.
     Not that Frank’s gang is much better: during a nighttime stopover at a desert inn one of his men tries to rape Melissa, and is halted only when she stabs him. The man is finished off by Brandt, who stabs him in the neck and continues the increasingly brutal hunt.
     Eventually Frank and Melissa, the only surviving members of Frank’s gang, are left to cross a blazing desert on foot. There (in a twisted take on the finale of GREED) Brandt finishes them off, shooting Frank several times in the chest and Melissa in the crotch(!) before keeling over from heatstroke.

The Direction
     THE HUNTING PARTY’S opening sequence, juxtaposing a horse slaughter with Melissa being painfully raped by her husband, adequately sets the tone. It’s an ugly film in every sense of the word. Director Don Medford really has an eye for graphic violence, from the sight of exploding blood bursts on actors’ torsos to a lingering close-up of a freshly killed man’s twitching legs. There’s plenty of blood, perversion and perhaps the scummiest “hero” this side of Popeye Doyle (who appropriately enough was also played by Gene Hackman). For that matter, nearly everyone in the film is evil and/or psychotic to varying degrees, with the one sympathetic character, Melissa, getting manhandled in nearly every way imaginable (giving us a good view of Candice Bergen‘s enviable physique!).
     It’s a good thing there’s so much nastiness on display, because it’s all that keeps the proceedings afloat. The photography is cheap, the set-ups pedestrian and the pacing catatonic--and at nearly two full hours the film is far too long. But with so much bloody mayhem on display it’s definitely not boring!
 

Vital Statistics

THE HUNTING PARTY
United Artists

Director: Don Medford
Producer: Lou Morheim
Screenplay: William Norton, Gilbert Alexander, Lou Morheim
Cinematography: Cecilio Paniagua
Editing: Tom Rolf
Cast: Oliver Reed, Candice Bergen, Gene Hackman, Simon Oakland, Mitchell Ryan, L.Q. Jones, Ronald Howard, William Watson, G.D. Spradlin, Rayford Barnes, Bernard Kay, Richard Adams, Dean Selmier

     

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