Film Review: Billy Two Hats,
Ted Kotcheff, 1974
"You know, when I first came out here, the Indians was in the thousands. And the buffalo? They were in the millions. Not no more. In the beginning it was a good life. You could stand in one spot and see the same herd of buffalo go by all day long. I never saw nothing like it. It was just like the whole prairie was moving."
Copeland, Trading Post owner
"Well, Indians don't fight in the dark. It's against their religion."Spencer
"Did they seem all that religious to you?" Arch
"How many (Indians) do you think there are?"Spencer
"Four, I think." Arch
"How do you know there's four?" Spencer
"I counted their feet and divided by two." Arch
Billy Two Hats, Ted Kotcheff, 1974
Billy Two Hats is a great film, despite being neglected by the standard works on westerns. It is a pursuit movie in which characters reveal their strength or otherwise in tight situations. The opening sequence is superb. The tension builds and one's curiosity is stoked by the virtual omission of dialogue for about fifteen minutes. This is a courageous and risky artistic device which really works.
The only problem I have with it is that Gregory Peck's Scottish accent is gash. However like many other gash accents, thankfully it disappears during the film. Scripted by Alan Sharp who also scripted the excellent Ulzana's Raid, it is also a well crafted film which benefits from an authentic feel which emanates from a writer who is clearly well informed about the American West and who is not sentimental about it. I just love the bit where Copeland searches for his buffalo gun, to shoot the fleeing outlaws. These Sharps rifles which were reputed to fire accurately up to distances of over a mile. The bullets made a loud humming sound as they rotated through the air towards their target.
The characters are rounded and believable. Jack Warden plays Sheriff Henry Gifford who accompanies the eponymous young "breed" (mixed race), played by Desi Arnaz jnr, to face his trial for holding the horses during a bank raid. He smugly tells Billy that his fellow bank robbers will be long gone and stops on the way at a remote trading post run by his old friend Copeland who is pleased to see him arrive. Copeland's wife, a native American, is less pleased to see Billy enslaved and surreptitiously communicates with the boy, making his stay as trouble free as she can, feeding him and giving him covert glances of sympathy and support.
Sheriff Gifford is confident that Billy is helpless, left by his fellow outlaws to take his punishment as he is a "breed". But we see Arch (Gregory Peck) in steady pursuit and when he approaches the remote trading post in the early morning he shows his frontier skills by muffling his horse's hooves.
Not wishing to spoil your enjoyment I will cease the synopsis here.
The ending has great similarities to Ulzana's Raid but it is no worse for that. Like Ulzana's Raid this thoughtful film explores the human condition, The values of the whites do not emerge with great credit. Sheriff Gifford's shallow racism is fascinating and believably contemporary to the time in which the film is set. His values are unquestioningly shared by his friend Copeland who has a native american wife and who does not see the paradox in it. This lends the film an authenticity which comes from an absurdity which is so true to life. Copeland's woman is a chattel, perhaps willingly so for the security it brings, but this is not explored. When Billy turns up her loyalties are revealed, and Copeland's reason for returning to his trading post is a concern that his squaw may have gone.
Much maligned for dubious reasons this is a great film, with not quite the depth of Ulzana's Raid. Despite minor flaws it's heart beats loud and I strongly recommend it.
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© Chris Smallbone February 2009