Peter Fonda’s Hired Hand Is a Masterpiece of 1970s American Cinema

It would have been fascinating to see what the late director might have done had the Western been received as a success. Photo: Universal Pictures

One of the great triumphs of Peter Fonda’s career was originally one of his great disappointments. In 1971, riding high on the success of Easy Rider (which he had produced, co-written, and co-starred in), the actor made his directorial debut with a low-key Western called The Hired Hand, starring himself, Warren Oates, and Verna Bloom. Its studio, Universal, tried to bury it with a one-week release (after trailers and posters that made it look like a blood-drenched revenge flick), and the movie wound up as something of a disaster, dismissed by critics and audiences alike. Fonda, who had been intensely proud of the film and of his work behind the camera, was devastated.

But then, in 2001, the film was restored and rereleased, finally recognized as a masterpiece. (You can actually see it in full on YouTube.) Its director-star belatedly basked in the glow of its accomplishment, and it was a well-deserved, long-overdue glow. The Hired Hand, which has been described at various times as a feminist Western, an acid Western, a revisionist Western, and not a Western at all — none of these descriptions, by the way, is entirely wrong — represents one of the greatest examples of the genre. It blends an old-fashioned setup with a thoroughly modern approach, as if someone had thought to hijack John Ford’s 1946 classic My Darling Clementine (starring Henry Fonda, Peter’s father, and a film which the young actor-director made his crew watch before shooting The Hired Hand) and drag it kicking and screaming into the present day.

The Hired Hand follows two drifter pals, Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) and Arch Harris (Oates) who take revenge on a landlord who kills their young companion, and then gradually make their way to a small ranch run by Hannah (Bloom), Harry’s wife, whom he hasn’t seen in many years. The men had originally planned to head to the Pacific, but their experiences along the way have made Harry long to return home. That home, however, is not quite what he expected. Living independently and raising their daughter by herself, the Widow Collings, as she’s now known, shows no immediate affection for Harry, but she agrees to let them stay on as hired hands. A subtle, lyrical psychodrama ensues, as Harry wrestles with his complicated feelings for this woman who is effectively no longer his wife — she has had other men over the years, and isn’t afraid to admit it — and a certain attraction also begins to blossom between her and the gentle, wise Arch.

Such emotions could easily fuel a turgid, sleazy pot-boiler, but Fonda directs with grace and understatement, staying focused on his actors, particularly Bloom and Oates, and letting the drama play out through minute gestures and glances. (He’s helped immeasurably by an elliptical screenplay from the Scottish writer Alan Sharp, one of the great unsung heroes of 1970s American filmmaking.) In one particularly gut-wrenching scene, Hannah informs Harry that she has desires just like anyone else: “I walked about this room at nights like this going crazy for a man, any man, didn’t matter. And sometimes when there was a man out there, he knew about it, and he’d come in. Sometimes I’d have him or he’d have me, whatever suits you. But not all of them. And not every time I wanted to. And when the season’s work was over I’d pay him, no matter how well he worked or how well he pleased me. ’Cause a man in a woman’s bedroom thinks he’s her boss. And sooner or later they’d start to move their tackle out of the shed and in here, and I didn’t want that. ’Cause I already had one man in here, and I didn’t want another.”

Bloom, who sometimes referred to this as the best part she ever had, delivers these lines coolly, but not cruelly. She talks to Harry with the matter-of-fact demeanor of someone explaining things to a child, but we also sense just the slightest edge in her voice, as if she’s paved over years of hurt and is worried the pain might start to break through again. Despite everyone holding their emotions back, there’s an undeniable tenderness to their exchange. Watching it, we realize that, although the movie began as the story of Harry and Arch, it’s ultimately Hannah’s story.

Later, in a scene that demonstrates how important shot selection can be, Hannah and Arch sit on the porch at evening, talking. The conversation plays out mostly in close-ups, until one full shot of the two of them reveals that Arch has been caressing her outstretched foot. We don’t know who initiated it, or how long this has been going on, and neither of them knows exactly what to do with the situation in which they’ve found themselves. He removes his hand, and she brings her foot back under her dress, almost as if they’ve been witnessed. It’s one of the most haunting moments I’ve ever seen in any film, let alone a Western. (Fun fact: Apparently, when they were shooting this scene on location in New Mexico, an outdoor theater five miles away was showing Easy Rider, and the film’s music kept wafting into the scene and ruining the sound, as if the universe were trying to remind Peter Fonda that he was straying too far from his Captain America persona with this moody little whatsit.)

Mixed in with the delicate, naturalistic performances, however, is a sense of stylistic experimentation that also feels thoroughly new. Fonda and his editor, Frank Mazzola, use freeze-frames and slow-motion shots and repeated shots and processed images and triple-frame dissolves to lend the whole story a dreamlike quality. One might worry that such flourishes would take us out of the picture — but quite the contrary, they’re so expressive that they draw us in even further. Something about the film’s curious rhythms, languorous and uneven, feel true to the unpredictable cadence of real life. As does the majestic cinematography, courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond, who shot this the same year he did McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and considered it the first legitimate studio feature of his career.

Fonda always believed that his identification with Easy Rider, with hippies and drugs and motorcycles and rock and roll, caused the failure of the melancholy, subdued Hired Hand. That may have been true, but it’s worth noting that the Western itself was enduring a slow, drawn-out death in the late 1960s and early ’70s — with occasional cultural dispensations given to extremely violent or controversial ones. Either way, Fonda’s directing career never quite recovered.

He did make two more features, however, both imperfect but of some interest: Idaho Transfer (1973), another botched release, is a low-budget environmental sci-fi drama in which a group of teens travel through time and find themselves stuck on a desolate, lifeless Earth post–ecological collapse. That too is an understated, moody little work, with the actors’ affectless performances sometimes suggesting alienation, sometimes inexperience. It does, however, portray an elegiac unease with the dying dreams of the ’60s, as the protagonists find a small tribe of future humans who are deaf and mentally disabled, living at one with what’s left of nature and, seemingly, happy. The journey through time has left our heroes sterile, and they realize that these new people will now inherit the Earth. (Only not really. In a final, truly bizarre twist, the lead character escapes even further into time, and finds herself used as fuel by the drivers of the future.)

Made with a bigger budget but not nearly as artistically accomplished, Wanda Nevada (1979) was a Western-comedy set in the 1950s, with ne’er-do-well gambler Fonda and orphaned teenager Brooke Shields wandering the Grand Canyon in search of gold. It’s filled with Western clichés, which Fonda directs with his typical light hand, but despite its comic-adventure elements, the film is unsettling in ways both intentional and unintentional: The villains are mysteriously crucified and eaten by buzzards — in close-up! — while the weird relationship between Fonda and Shields’s characters strikes an off-putting note.

It would have been fascinating to see what Peter Fonda might have done with his directing career had The Hired Hand initially been received as a success. In some ways, he suffered a fate similar to his Easy Rider partner and erstwhile nemesis Dennis Hopper, who had his own spectacular post-superstardom carte blanche meltdown with the amazing, once-lost-to-the-ages disaster/masterpiece The Last Movie. You could tell that Fonda was itching to get behind the camera again. After the subsequent rediscovery of The Hired Hand, he mentioned wanting to give it one more shot. Alas, it never happened. In the meantime, he did leave us with one of the enduring masterpieces of 1970s American cinema.

Peter Fonda’s Hired Hand Is a Masterpiece of 1970s Cinema