Posse (1975)

D: Kirk Douglas
S: Kirk Douglas, Bruce Dern

Surprisingly confident seventies western starring and directed by Kirk Douglas, whose company produced the film. Citizen Kane meets High Noon in this relatively low-key, quick-paced drama involving politically ambitious U.S. Marshall Douglas and his well-drilled posse in the pursuit of laid-back but ruthless outlaw Bruce Dern. As his mission reaches its end with the capture of his nemesis, Douglas has his sights on his campaign for U.S. Senator. His men face a more uncertain future. In spite of their leader's words of praise, rewards are thin on the ground. Meanwhile Dern, bound for the end of a rope but sill possessed of a deadly mouth, starts wheedling at deputy Bo Hopkins about the financial opportunities for train robbers.

Neatly realised if predictable, the screenplay by William Roberts and Christopher Knopf packs a surprising amount of detail into a brisk 92 minutes or so. There are plenty of secondary characters whose weight is felt in the story, from the skeptical journalist who watches from the wings to the community leaders in the town where most of the events occur. Initially enamoured of the square-jawed Douglas and the appearance of discipline and bonhomie which he exudes, they change their loyalties as the fissures in the surface become obvious. The film offers a wide range of action, from staged set pieces which Douglas handles with the precision his character manages his troops to more intimate confrontations based on words and the subtle interplay of character.

It begins with an atmospheric ambush scene shot in darkness by cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp. A traitor in Dern's camp sneaks out of a country barn in the middle of the night to the waiting posse. Clad in pale dusters and neat uniforms, Douglas' men launch an assault under cover of the night in which they slaughter the unsuspecting gang with merciless efficiency. Only Dern escapes. The cynical mood of the 1970s western permeates the film from this opening, and yet it is not permitted to overwhelm the story. Douglas' pragmatic approach to direction permits the script to work as it should. Koenekamp photographs cleanly and diligently with little pretence to aesthetic significance, and editor John Wheeler follows suit.

Most of the energy in the film comes from its consistent rhythm and from the generally strong, unpretentious performances. Douglas is marvellous as the assured, sneering Marshall whose villainy is firmly rooted in delusions of grandeur which speak enough in themselves so that the actor does not need to exaggerate. Dern is equally on form in the kind of role he seems to have been born to play, an unpresupposing bad guy who is as pointedly casual as he is precise in picking his targets.

The film runs along fairly familiar generic lines, incorporating pointers from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West in terms of its emphasis on the power and influence of the railroad.The posse travels in a customised train of a kind seen in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, yet the events which transpire within it have some echoes of political resonances of scenes from Leone's epic. Roberts and Knopf add to the mix the combination of Jesse James and Butch Cassidy in Dern's character which drives him to rob trains in the first place, and which gives the film one of its strongest visual twists when Dern drives the flaming train back into the town it has just left in triumph. Though familiar, these ingredients are served up in a pleasing way and with a notable absence of forced gravitas.

Posse is a minor classic of the western from a period in which the genre was finding it difficult to survive. It succeeds in incorporating the big themes of its predecessors and in communicating an appropriate sense of cynicism for the era, yet seems less weighted down by its responsibilities than most. It is not difficult to trace the no-nonsense personality of its star through all of this, making the film an interesting addition to the ranks of those directed by actors in which their screen persona and their cinematic art merge. No one would make great claims for profundity in this, nor for the film itself, but it makes it an interesting and entertaining viewing experience for those prepared to take it on.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.