Easy Rider helped change the mechanics of Hollywood when it was released in 1969. Both Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda were given carte blanche by Universal Pictures to produce whatever they wanted, with Hopper going on to produce the ill-fated The Last Movie, while Fonda decided to delve into the past with The Hired Hand, a western co-starring Warren Oates. This isn’t your standard rootin-tootin cowboy movie – it’s a counterculture tale of redemption that’s got a surprising amount of soul.
Fonda and Oates play Harry and Arch, two men who have roamed the American wilderness for seven years. Fonda decides to return to his wife which he walked out on, but he gets a chilly reception from the woman he left almost a decade before. However, soon Harry and Arch’s violent past catches up with them.
The Hired Hand is an assured (if a little ponderous) directorial debut from Peter Fonda, and he channels his father Henry in the role of Harry. It’s a low-key performance and he’s able to include a lot of nuance into this character. He also shares some good work with Sam Peckinpah favourite Warren Oates, while Verna Bloom is also good as the woman Harry left in order to find himself. The true stars of The Hired Hand is actually Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography and Frank Mazzola’s editing. Their work gives Fonda’s movie an offbeat style, helping it stand out from other westerns – maybe that’s why it failed to find any cultural standing in a genre filled with classics of many different shades.
A film that has long been forgotten and overshadowed by Easy Rider, The Hired Hand is a cinematic curiosity which has a lot to recommend. It might be a little dated, but this is an interesting relic of its time and it’s good to see a unique take on the western genre.