The Hunting Party (Don Medford, 1971)
With the likes of The Great Silence (1968), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968 )and The Wild Bunch (1969) trailblazing a morally grey and violently grittier direction for the Western, the seventies proved to be a decade where the genre would swing to various extremes: from slapstick comedy to supernatural horror, to pessimistic nihilism. Don Medford's The Hunting Party (1971) would be one of the films which opted for the latter.
You're in for a tough and unapologetic Western when it cold opens with a real life scene of a cow having its throat cut. If that isn't shocking enough, it's intercut with Candice Bergen being raped by her sadistic husband played by Gene Hackman. Calamity Jane this ain't. While Hackman is away on a hunting trip (which involves torturing an Asian prostitute) with his rich pals, Bergen is kidnapped by a permanently perspiring Oliver Reed (still rocking the Urbain Grandier look) and his gang of outlaws, where she's also raped by him. There really are no good guys in this film, in case you were wondering. The outlaw posse is oblivious to who her powerful and sadistic husband is and only snagged Bergen to teach Reed how to read.
The outlaws are at a distinct disadvantage to Hackman's hunting party since they're picked off from afar with the aid of very long range rifles. This leads to some absolutely horrific and dishonourable
killings, including one person slain whilst taking a dump. As the film progresses, both men exhibit their stubborn ignorance in recognising the self-destructive paths they’re headed. Thus, it’s generally a downbeat affair as far as Westerns go. The one moment of light relief is the brief peaches scene highlighting the blossoming Stockholm Syndrome between Bergman and Reed.
This is a morally grey film with no real heroes... anywhere. Hackman is the films villain. Bergen is nothing more than a trophy wife to him; her abduction is seen as a slight upon his manhood rather than motive to rescue her. To add further to this, Bergen’s feelings for her captor is makes her another target in Hackman’s sights. On the morality scale, 'good' is completely absent. In one notable scene where Hackman wastes away various outlaws upon a bell tower, Bergen yells for Reed to take her with him while making a getaway. This wounds Hackman's pride even further; spurring him even to follow the pair through a desert during the film's memorable downbeat finale.
Outside of television work, Don Medford only helmed one other theatrical film, The Organisation (1971), which was the third entry in the Virgil Tibbs movies with Sidney Poitier - also released in the same year. A shame really, as the downbeat Corbucci veneer would have been a perfect fit for the rest of the nihilistic seventies. There's also Riz Ortolani's superb theme furthering the strong Spaghetti Western influence on the film.
Definitely not a film for everyone, in fact, it isn’t an understatement to consider The Hunting Party as a highly offensive film for today's sensibilities. Definitely not for a "modern audience". Personally, I was hooked by this bleak Western; its virtual two hour run time flew by, it was that engrossing. It's possibly in the same league as Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent's notoriously violent Cut-Throats Nine (1972) and Lucio Fulci's utterly miserable The Four of the Apocalypse... (1975) as far as depressing Westerns go. That lot make The Great Silence look like Way Out West (1937) by comparison, but The Hunting Party is better than either of those. Worth checking this out for Hackman’s and Reed’s performances; particularly the latter, as it was his one and only Western.