Chances are, if you’re a cinephile, you’ve heard of a good chunk of the big cult films out there. While they may be obscure in some circles, the likes of Troll 2, Eraserhead, and Death Race have been thoroughly explored by movie buffs for years. That’s what Uncharted Territory is for. In this series, we take a look off the beaten path at forgotten films that, for good or ill, deserve your attention.
While Sam Raimi’s underappreciated The Quick and the Dead may feature the western’s most famous female protagonist, Sharon Stone’s gunslinging stranger known only as ‘The Lady’ was hardly the first female gunfighter. In fact, as far as things go, she was a bit slow to the draw – ever since Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, female leads have been popping up in both European and American Westerns at a less than ideal – but no less interesting – rate. But out of all the lady gunslingers to grace the silver screen, there’s always been one that I’ve found to be woefully overlooked. And that is the titular character of Hannie Caulder.
Hannie Caulder is the story of, well, Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch), the wife of a peaceful homesteader in the countryside. They live a relatively quiet life out in the wilderness – or at least, they did before the three Clemens brothers, lead by Emmett Clemens (Ernest Borgnine) stopped by their house in the wake of a robbery gone south. To make a long story short, Mr. Caulder is killed, Hannie is raped, and the three men leave the house aflame in their wake.
Yes, Hannie Caulder isn’t a traditional euro-western. Instead, it fuses the already unpleasant and violent genre with the even nastier flavors of early-70s grindhouse films, more specifically, the ‘rape revenge’ subgenre. Thankfully, most of these elements are merely aesthetic, and the story is far from the exploitation fare of I Spit on Your Grave. The actual rape itself is a mercifully short scene, and the majority of the movie is spent on Hannie’s training.
See, soon after escaping the blazing inferno of her homestead, she comes across the wizened bounty hunter Thomas Price (Robert Culp), who she gets off on rather shaky terms with. Regardless, as these stories usually go, Hannie is persistent enough to win his respect, and they set out on a quest to Mexico to get a firearm fashioned for her, before heading off for a final showdown with the brothers.
It’s a relatively simple narrative, one that fits comfortably into Hannie Caulder’s 85 minute running time with very little filler. Well, besides the movie’s frequent cuts to the wacky escapades Clemens brothers, which happens to be my biggest problem with Hannie Caulder. Let’s make no bones about it – the Clemens are absolutely despicable characters. They’re rapists and murders who have about as much regard for human life as a zombie, so giving them strange, almost slapstick-y cutaway scenes just doesn’t work at all.
Thankfully, when the focus is on Hannie and Thomas, it’s quite a good time. When they’re not traveling, the two are warming up to each-other, be it via means of discussing the effects of killing on one’s psyche (more on that later) or Thomas giving proper instructions on how to position yourself in a gunfight. Thomas and Hannie don’t have much of a backstory to them, but they manage to stay immensely likable through sheer force of personality. The supporting cast does a great job playing off of them as well, with special mention going to the hardened sheriff who is absolutely terrified over Thomas, suggesting more about his character than any exposition dump could ever dream to achieve.
However, the most enjoyable side character of the lot is easily the gunsmith Bailey (Christopher Lee), who lives on the beaches of Mexico with his(?) children. As always, he’s fun to watch, especially when playing off Thomas. And I admit it, I’m a sucker for training montages, and intercutting one with Bailey performing an incredibly detailed assembly of a Tranter self-cocking revolver hits all my high notes.
Of course, the guns in the movie do more than just look pretty. As to be expected from the genre, there are quite a few bloody shootouts, although a startling few of them actually involve Hannie herself actually killing anyone. It’s not a matter of her being unskilled as much as it is a matter of her being human – it’s one thing to say you want to kill a man, but staring him down while you do so is something else entirely.
This is an angle that never got explored much in euro-westerns – hell, I can’t think of any westerns at all this side of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence or Unforgiven that put so much weight on this topic – but it’s a very interesting one to see applied to a genre that became synonymous with its sadistic level of violence and cold-hearted protagonists. It isn’t until the final act that Hannie actually begins killing people, and when she does, it takes a toll on her.
It’s a poignant message, one that manages to defy the usual morality of both genres it’s emulating, where all the over-the-top carnage and paint-like squibs of blood are more than necessities for restoring order to town or righting a wrong. Because while she may ride off into the sunset as the credits roll, it’s safe to say that a part of her died at that final showdown.
Watch Hannie Caulder on Amazon.