Photography: Universal Pictures

The classic 1971 western has proven to be a timeless classic.

On the occasion of Peter Fonda’s 77th birthday — he was born February 23, 1940, in New York — we want to celebrate his greatest achievement as actor-director. Because, even though it lasted only two weeks in first-run engagements more than four decades ago, The Hired Hand continues to claim a special place in the hearts and minds of its most passionate admirers.

Martin Scorsese personally selected the 1971 western for a revival screening at the inaugural Tribeca Film Festival in Manhattan. Clint Eastwood has acknowledged its “gritty realism” as a major influence on his own Unforgiven. Quentin Tarantino treasures his copy of the movie’s original theatrical trailer.

And although it opened to extremely mixed reviews — “Time and Newsweek killed us,” Fonda cheerfully admitted during a 2004 interview with C&I — the late Stanley Kauffmann, an eminence grise of American film critics, ranked it among the very best films of the ’70s. And when he saw it again at the Tribeca fest, Kauffmann revised his original judgment: The Hired Hand, he wrote in The New Republic, was even better than he remembered.

“Universal tried to bury this film back in ’71,” Fonda said. “But the people who loved it really loved it. And they’ve kept on loving it.”

Back in the day, Universal green-lit the movie as part of a program to capture a slice of the “youth market” drawn to Easy Rider, the 1969 ground-breaker in which Fonda famously co-starred with Dennis Hopper (who also directed) and Oscar nominee Jack Nicholson.

“I’m sure they would have liked me to do another biker movie,” Fonda said. “But I wanted to try something different — something more like what my father (Henry Fonda) might have done. I wanted to do a western, because it’s the genre where you can explore the mythologies of America. And, yeah, because of my own psychological links to the genre, because of the many my dad did.”

Fonda was drawn to a scenario by Alan Sharp (Night Moves, Ulzana’s Raid), which he read in one sitting during a restless night while promoting Easy Rider in Italy. “I felt I had to do this one,” he said, “because there were no clichés in this script, just western mythology.”

He cast himself as Harry Collings, a saddletramp who tires of wandering and returns to the ranch where he left his wife (Verna Bloom) and young daughter seven years earlier.

And he cast Warren Oates, then best known as a character actor in comic relief or villainous parts, as Arch, Harry’s long-time friend and traveling companion. Arch follows Harry back to the ranch — and comes to appreciate, even more fully than his friend, the value of what Harry left behind.

“I saw a gentleness, a sensitivity in Warren that I guess no one had ever seen before,” Fonda said of his late, great costar. “I guess that’s why the people at Universal didn’t want me to cast him. They fought me on a lot of things. Like, when I told them that I wanted Bruce Langhorne to do the music. He was a composer, a musical virtuoso — but he’d never done a movie score before. When I told them I wanted him, they told me, ‘Look, Fonda, you can’t just be hiring all your friends on this.”

Like many westerns, Stanley Kauffmann wrote, The Hired Hand dwells on “the crossing, if not the passing, of a frontier,” comparing “life as adventure versus life of service.” Specifically, the film treats Fonda’s impulse to stop wandering and settle down as an acceptance of responsibility, not a crimping of freedom. In the world according to this revisionist western, Kaufmann noted, “Maleness is no longer synonymous with physical adventure, but with inner maturity.”

This theme is underscored by Verna Bloom’s exquisitely understated performance as Hannah, Harry’s long-neglected wife, who defies western movie convention — and upends audience expectations — by not immediately and tearfully accepting her prodigal husband. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, Harry angrily confronts Hannah with gossip about her sexual behavior during his absence. She is neither impressed nor intimidated by his rage. As Kauffman wrote: “In a response that may have been startling even as late as 1971, (Hannah) affirms her right to live as she pleased, to bed whomever she wanted, when she was left alone — forever, as she thought. Solely responsible for her life, she has lived it as she chose.”

And if Harry wants to regain a place of importance in her life, Hannah warns, he will have to earn it.

“In some ways,” Fonda said, “this movie is really more about Hannah than about the two guys. She’s what everything else revolves around. Harry rides back because he wants to be with her on the ranch. And Arch ultimately leaves — and gets into trouble — because he knows he’s attracted to her.

“She’s attracted to him, too, but she’s glad that he’s leaving. Because she’s kinda jealous of Arch. It’s like she tells Harry: ‘He’s had more of you than I ever had. It’s like you brought another woman back with you, and asked if she could stay with us, and sleep in the barn.’”

By the time Fonda finished filming on location in New Mexico with a pared-to-the-bone $1.5 budget, the Powers That Were at Universal Pictures had obviously cooled on the project. “I think they thought it was an ‘art movie,’” Fonda said. “So they released it in only about 52 theaters. And it was in and out in about two weeks.”

A week after Hired Hand opened, Fonda recalled, “I looked in Variety, to see where it placed on the list of the top 50 grossing movies. And it didn’t do badly — it was No. 5. But the following week, it was gone. Completely out of the top 50. Now, you have to ask yourself: How does a movie go from No. 5 one week to completely off the list the next? And there’s only one answer: It had been pulled from theaters.”

Even so, Hired Hand managed to sustain theatrical visibility for a few years after its first-run engagements. The movie continued to screen at colleges, museums and repertory cinemas, and played the bottom half of various drive-in double bills. Its reputation only continued to grow during subsequent decades, thanks to revival screenings and TV exposure. A restored version released on DVD in 2004 in solidified its status a classic that, while underappreciated during the time of its original release, has proven to be timeless.

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