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Blu-Ray Review: Kino Lorber’s Will Penny (KL Studio Classics) 

Will Penny

Charlton Heston is Will Penny in the Romantic Western.  New to Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.  

The Film 

Will Penny is one of the harder types of Westerns to pull off.  Often times a Romantic Western Character Piece collapses under the weight of itself.  Writer/Director Tom Gries’ film manages to sidestep cliché and becomes a showcase for one of Charlton Heston’s best performances.

At the end of a cattle drive, Will Penny (Heston) is left with nowhere to be fast.  He could go with the Cattle Rancher (GD Spalding) but his good nature gets the better of him and allows another to take his train seat to Kansas City.  Will takes up with Blue (Lee Majors) and Dutchy (Anthony Zerbe), young cattle drivers looking for the next gig.  Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasance) and his vicious sons almost kill Will, Blue, and Dutchy leading Will on an unexpected journey that will lead him to find a family and possibly love with a woman (Joan Hackett) and her son (Jon Gries).  If only he can keep them from the violence of Quint. 

Will Penny at every turn surprises with its subtlety, humanity, humor, and hard edges.  It’s that combination that makes the film so unique in Heston’s career.  The film manages to never feel like a plot-driven film which many Westerns are.  Though it never feels ponderous or lacking in narrative drive. Rather Gries’s film is one that takes unexpected detours and gives us unique characters that with the exception of Preach Quint are always adroitly written.  Even Pleasance isn’t a stereotype but rather an archetype. 

Many people think of Charlton Heston as the sweaty manly man of the original Planet of the Apes, not realizing how good he was.  Will Penny the character and the movie is a reminder of just how wonderful and interesting Heston could be.  Gries understands Heston the star and Heston the actor – and specifically how to separate and combine the two during the entire runtime of the film.  

The choices Gries makes with casting Heston’s “friends” like Slim Pickens or Ben Johnson and GD Spalding at the beginning of the film only to have them be in a single scene though the bulk of the film is with actors Heston has no association with is a bit of brilliance.  Watch how Heston reacts and bounces off of the likes of Pleasance, Majors, Zerbe, Hackett, and Jon Gries.  The unfamiliar makes Heston better especially when working with Gries and Hackett.  The work is so lovely and accomplished that one wonders why Heston wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.  

Will Penny is the kind of character-based Western that one hopes they will discover with the promise of a character-based Western. Unlike most Will Penny delivers. 

The Transfer

The all-new HD Master – From a 4K Scan of the 35mm Original Camera Negative like the film is a bit of brilliance.  The sharp transfer is the kind of fine-grain shot on 35mm image that looks like a 4K UHD.  Bravo to Kino and Paramount for this impressive Blu-ray disc.  

The Extras

They include the following; 

  • Audio Commentary by Author/Screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner, Film Historian Henry Parke, and WILL PENNY Script Supervisor Michael Preece
  • Remembering WILL PENNY: Featurette with Charlton Heston and Jon Gries 
  • The Cowboys of WILL PENNY: Featurette with Charlton Heston and Jon Gries 
  • Theatrical Trailer

The all-new Audio Commentary by Author/Screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner, Film Historian Henry Parke, and Will Penny’s Script Supervisor Michael Preece all begin by introducing themselves including Joyner calling himself as “Will Penny Fan Number 1”.  Some of the details include the origins of the script from a TV show he was working on; Heston calling it his favorite film; a side conversation about the directors Preece worked with during the era including Gries and Sam Peckinpah; how Preece met Gries during filming an episode of I, Spy; the work of cinematographer Lucien Ballard – and quite a few anecdotes from the production and others because Preece worked with him on more than one occasion; a great story about Heston and taking up running because of Bruce Dern; the story of how Jon Gries was cast in the film without his father Tom’s knowledge; the production filming in Bishop and Mammoth California – and anecdotes to the reasons why and the difficulties shooting; the casting and personal history of Ben Johnson – including mention of why he left the business; the production design of the film and how it worked with the cinematography; the career of Heston at the time and the films that he was choosing that were different than the massive films of the late 50s and early 60s; and much more. The trio delivers a great informative commentary track that’s more of a relaxed conversation with Preece giving some great details from not just this production but other films he worked with Tom Gries on and other films. 

Remembering WILL PENNY: Featurette with Charlton Heston and Jon Gries (13:20) – in this archival interview with Heston, Gries, and Western Historian Miles Hood Swarthout.  Some of the details include Tom Gries was a TV director and his first feature; the script and Heston’s first interaction with both the script (which he loved) and how they got him to star in a film with a new director; the work of Joan Hackett – how she was cast and working with Heston and Gries; Heston’s praise for Jon Gries; Gries’s own account of how he was cast in his father’s film; Gries’s discusses his relationship with Heston – in the film and in real life during the production; the realism of the entire film – how it was achieved and plot points; Heston’s hat – and how much he loved it; Tom Gries and Heston and their collaboration – the things they both strived towards during the production; and much more.  

The Cowboys of WILL PENNY: Featurette with Charlton Heston and Jon Gries (3:26) – is an all-to-brief look at the various cast members who played the various cowboys of the picture including Ben Johnson, Bruce Dern, Donald Pleasance, Anthony Zerbe, and Slim Pickens.  

Rounding out the special features include Will Penny (3:10); 100 Rifles (2:56); Breakheart Pass (3:07); The Big Country (2:56); Journey to Shiloh (2:19) 

The Final Thought 

Will Penny is one of the finest westerns of the late 1960s.  Kino has delivered another great Blu-ray with beautiful picture and sound.  HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATIONS!!! 

Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray edition of Will Penny is out now 

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