Monte Walsh (1970)
Monte Walsh (1970)

Genre: Western Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: October 7th, 1970 MPAA Rating: PG-13

Director: William A. Fraker Actors: Lee Marvin, Jeanne Moreau, Jack Palance, Mitchell Ryan, Jim Davis, G.D. Spradlin, Bo Hopkins




hough sprinkled early on with rowdy Old West antics, “Monte Walsh” quickly adopts a mournful, somber attitude toward its subject: the steady dissolution of the cowboy and his way of life. Predating Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” by over two decades, William A. Fraker’s directorial debut examines a similar loss of identity in a changing world, though with much less redemption in both character and tone. It also analyzes the shift in honorable lifestyles and inescapable upbringing (like in Anthony Mann’s “Man of the West”) with less violence and vigor.

Aging cowboy Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and his jovial partner Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) head into town after a long winter of trapping in the wilds. With work scarce, the duo accepts a proposal from Cal Brennan (Jim Davis) to tend to his ranch and herd horses. But before long, even those archetypal farmhand jobs dry up, forcing Monte and Chet to face the harsh realities of their dying way of life – and perhaps settle down with love interests Martine (Jeanne Moreau) and Mary (Allyn Ann McLerie), respectively.

“Wish I knew something other than cowboying,” ranch hand Shorty (Mitchell Ryan) despondently proclaims after being let go from Brennan’s employ. This sense of hopelessness permeates the entirety of the picture, from Walsh’s disillusioned companions to his own unwillingness to surrender the only career he knows. It creates an uncompromisingly realistic and forlorn outlook that’s difficult to shake as the film continues to heap tragedy after tragedy upon its downtrodden protagonists. Though change is imminent, Walsh refuses to accept it, even abandoning an opportunity to earn a substantial wage portraying a caricature of himself. Resultantly, he loses his chance to settle down in a respectable life with the woman he loves. Chet fares better for a while, taking up shopkeeping as a new profession – but his fateful ties to the desperation of the departing West aren’t severed for long.

Beginning with raucous cattleman pranks, spirited bar fights, and taunting vixens, “Monte Walsh” soon succumbs to the treacherous truths of disappearing occupations, encroaching civilized expectations, and even apathy (no one seems to care when Walsh’s midnight horse-riding escapade ends in massive amounts of destruction). “Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever,” Chet bemoans. Following Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” though with far less action and bloodshed, Fraker’s solemn vision offers even less hope for its heroes, as Mama Cass’s theme song plays like an ironic requiem ushering them into an uncertain future.

– Joel Massie

  • 7/10