Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider was one of several films in the late 1960s and early ‘70s to promise a loose and hip American cinema that blended genre filmmaking with abstract formalism, radical politics, and detailed character portraiture. That promise didn’t last long, as pop cinema became preoccupied with franchise merchandizing and America doubled down on a capitalist ethos that didn’t jibe with Hopper and co-star/co-writer Peter Fonda’s doomy sentimentality. Easy Rider eerily anticipated its own irrelevancy—its most famous line goes, “We blew it”—though Hopper and Fonda refined the film’s poetry in subsequent works. In 1971, Hopper starred in and directed the audaciously self-lacerating The Last Movie, which nearly destroyed his career, and Fonda directed and appeared in The Hired Hand, a western that divorces Easy Rider‘s alienation of its glorifying self-pity, offering a morally thorny examination of loyalties that seem to cancel themselves out.
Because it’s tethered to an unconventional yet somewhat familiar genre narrative, The Hired Hand is an easier film to engage with than The Last Movie. Harry Collings (Fonda) has been drifting throughout the fabled American west with his partner, Arch Harris (Warren Oates), for years. Recently, they’ve added a young man, Dan (Robert Pratt), to their little caravan, and this trio is understood to represent various archetypes: Harry and Arch are rugged wanderers, whose wisdom is tinged with sadness, while Dan is foolishly enthusiastic and impatient for adventure. Dan, of course, is destined for tragedy—a youth who’s slaughtered by hypocritical older men for a trumped-up crime, in one of the film’s many parallels to the Vietnam War. Dan’s death is staged as a brief yet piercing aria of loneliness. Gurgling on his own blood, Dan cries out for his mother before dying of a bullet wound to his neck.
Even by the standards of countercultural westerns, The Hired Hand is a deeply sad film. Harry longs to return to the home of the wife he left for the open road, Hannah (Verna Bloom), while Arch was going to go off with Dan to California to see the ocean, which he memorably likens to a “blue prairie.” After Dan’s death, Arch accompanies Harry to see Hannah, as they have no idea what sort of reception to expect. The hard, resolute, heartbroken Hannah tells Harry that he no longer has a right to expect to be her husband. Harry offers to work as a “hired hand,” promising not to tell their daughter who he is. Making himself subservient to Hannah, Harry offers her a pronounced mea culpa, facing an emasculating kind of humbling.
Collaborating with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, composer Bruce Langhorne, and editor Frank Mazzola, Fonda fashions an aesthetic that reflects his own trembling, charismatically recessive vulnerability as an actor. The Hired Hand is a feast of faces, and seismic emotional currents are often communicated via fleeting physical gestures. There’s a startlingly erotic moment when Hannah tells Arch that it doesn’t really matter which man ends up in her bed, and a cut reveals that Arch has placed his hand on her foot as they sit outside looking out at the night on the porch. The longing, love, and aloneness of these people is so pronounced it feels physically material, and few films have evinced such interest in the toll that men’s adventures take on the women left behind to pick up the domestic pieces.
These intimate exchanges are punctuated with bravura montages that blend multiple planes of action to suggest an inexorable passage of time—a ruefulness that’s intensified by the plaintive score. Alan Sharp’s superb script doesn’t emphasize action, but rather moments of inaction that are informed with a dread of what may lay ahead. Together, the montages and the narrative structure give the film a pointed, poignantly diaphanous quality that’s heightened by the piercing performances. Like the heroes of many ‘60s and ‘70s films, Harry can’t figuratively go home again, as he can’t truly atone for his abandonment of his family. He’s lost and bound to Arch, who understands his torment. This is another of The Hired Hand‘s parallels to the Vietnam War, as these men suggest veterans who’re unable to reconnect with family with whom they can no longer empathize. Long before the film’s inevitable finale, Harry is understood by Fonda to already be dead.
This image has a wonderfully gritty earthiness, with colors that are appropriately muted yet robust. Blues and browns are particularly vibrant, and the delicacy of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond's prismatic sense of lighting has been well preserved. Facial detail is vivid here, from piercing eyes to bearded jaws to the dust that often partially obscures the characters. And the landscapes have a primordial majesty, exuding an ineffable sadness that springs from the artful combination of all the aforementioned elements. The monaural soundtrack boasts a similar subtlety, meshing gunshots with the treading of horses with the farming of land with composer Bruce Langhorne's score, which resounds here with exacting crispness. Dialogue can be difficult to discern at times, though this appears to be inherent to the film's aural design, further underscoring the characters' alienation.
A 2003 documentary, "The Return of The Hired Hand," includes evocative interviews with most of the film's key collaborators. Peter Fonda talks of the monumental shadow his father, Henry, cast, as well as the subsequent shadow that is the legacy of Easy Rider. Fonda doesn't play the role of the singular genius here, as he generously acknowledges the influences of screenwriter Alan Sharp, cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, actors Warren Oates and Verna Bloom, composer Bruce Langhorne, and others. Fonda's audio commentary unavoidably abounds in similar observations, though his conversational tone is appealing and complements the film's own wandering biorhythms. Meanwhile, an audio recording of Fonda and Oates's appearance at the National Film Theatre in London in 1971 allows one to hear from Oates, who died in 1982, while Charles Gormley and Bill Forsyth's documentary "The Odd Man" offers a scruffy and lively glimpse into the art of Scottish screenwriters, including Sharp. Rounding out the package is a litany of odds and ends, including trailers, radio spots, deleted scenes, a short tribute to The Hired Hand by Martin Scorsese, and a lovely essay by film critic Kim Morgan. Though this supplements package is lacking in new material, it's nevertheless unusual, informative, and essential.
Peter Fonda's beautiful, unjustly overlooked western has been outfitted with a gorgeous transfer and an eclectic collection of supplements.