Hannie Caulder (1971) – Directed by Burt Kennedy – Starring Raquel Welch, Robert Culp, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, Strother Martin, Christopher Lee, and Stephen Boyd.
We’re kicking off Western Month here at the Anxiety with a look at the surprisingly engaging HANNIE CAULDER, an early ’70s, slightly feminist western that succeeds largely because of the movie’s long second act and the chemistry between Hannie (Raquel Welch) and bounty hunter Thomas Price (Robert Culp).
CAULDER tells the story of Hannie’s rise from frontier wife to killer, but the movie is at its best not when it’s a revenge flick but when it’s about Thomas teaching Hannie how to be a gunslinger so she can enact revenge on the the Clemens brothers (Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam) who killed her husband, raped her, burned her house down, and left her behind that CAULDER becomes noteworthy.
Not that Raquel Welch in anything in 1971 isn’t noteworthy, but despite what you might think from that movie poster up at the top of this review, or the publicity stills produced for the film, the film does surprisingly little sexualizing of Welch. In a sense, of course, you don’t have to make and effort to highlight Welch’s sexuality because it’s always present but the film offers only a few moments where it’s showing that off, and none of it remotely close to that suggestive pose on the film’s poster, which sees Hannie posing with her three rapists. Instead, the film largely keeps Welch covered up after she acquires some pants, which makes the occasional glimpse of her bare stomach beneath her poncho or her bare arms resonate even stronger than the gratuitous shot of her bare back and wet pants rising up out of a bath tub.
The movie opens with the Clemens brothers robbing a bank. One of the bank tellers sounds the alarm and the Clemenses have to shoot their way out of town. They head into the desert with the Federales on their tail, and then stop at a house with a bunch of horses inside a large pen. They shoot the man who comes out to tell them to move along after they’ve watered their horses, and then go inside and rape Hannie, the man’s wife. The film plays fast and loose with the plot – somehow the Clemenses (who provide the comic relief in a film that doesn’t really need any comic relief) have managed to evade the Federales long enough to spend the night taking turns with Hannie, and then decide to burn her house down, regardless of the fact that burning buildings tend to draw attention more than not, yet later when the film needs the pace to pick up, the Federales are right back on their tail.
And then they disappear, never to be seen again.
After the Clemenses are gone and Hannie is still in shock, bounty hunter Thomas Price rides up to get some water for him and his two horses. Hannie points a shotgun at him, and his disarms her. When he turns his back on her, she clocks him and knocks him out, but then covers him with a blanket near a fire, sitting nearby, still shell-shocked from her experience.
When Price wakes up she tells him she needs his help, but he refuses, gets on his horse, and leaves her behind.
Except she doesn’t accept his refusal, and dressed in only a poncho she stumbles along after him. He gives her a hat and pants, but still refuses to help. It’s only when he watches her have a nightmare about the rape that his position softens, and he takes her to Mexico to meet with his pal/gunmaker Bailey (Christopher Lee) to get him to build a gun specifically for her. Welch does a truly great job going from scared housewife to killer over the course of the film.
It’s in Mexico that the film really shines as we see Thomas soften, Hannie harden post-rape, and Bailey (an excellent Christopher Lee) and his children in between them. There’s a pair of mirrored scenes where each watches the other with Bailey’s children, and the space between these scenes are largely filled with Thomas training Hannie how to shoot. Bailey can see that the two of them would be good for each other. “Fine looking woman,” he says to Thomas from his porch. “She wants to be a man,” Thomas replies. “She’ll never make it,” Bailey declares.
Bailey gets another great line when he presents his specially made gun to Hannie: “Reason I take such pains with the outside of a gun is because I always thought death very unattractive … least I can do is add a bit of style.”
Robert Culp is fantastic. If Robert Redford and Peter Fonda had a baby, it would grow up to look like Robert Culp in HANNIE CAULDER. Thomas has that calm attitude, like no matter how crazy the rest of the world gets, his center is solid and ready for anything. Except, maybe, falling for Hannie. Culp is very under-stated in CAULDER and he’s so cool, so ready for anything that it does come as a shock when he dies after getting a knife in the gut from Ernest Borgnine.
It’s telling that Hannie doesn’t become a killer until after Thomas dies. When he’s alive, it doesn’t matter what Hannie does because he will always be better than she is with a gun. After Thomas dies, however, it’s like his spirit takes hold of Hannie and she sets out to kill the three Clemenses. When she collects the Dead or Alive reward she uses Thomas’ words, and she constantly hears him in her head when she’s readying to shoot someone.
Thomas’ death was something I hadn’t seen coming. Because the film spends so much time with Thomas and Hannie’s domestic fantasies, I really didn’t see Thomas dying – and especially not with 30 minutes to go – but it finally hardens Hannie to what she’s chosen to do, and from that moment on she’s focused on killing the Clemenses.
HANNIE CAULDER certainly isn’t an all-time great western, but it is a darn fine film thanks to the performances and chemistry between Welch and Culp, and well worth a watch if the film has escaped your attention. “You’re a hard woman,” the town sheriff tells Hannie. “There aren’t any hard women,” she replies, “only soft men.” It’s a nice line but it’s not the truth, as Hannie herself proves to us by the end of the film.