A powerful drama masquerading as a western that promises slightly more than it is able to deliver. It's 1909 in Banning, California, and Blake, a Paiute who has been in the white man's world for a while, is now coming home to the reservation on which he grew up. His reason for returning
is twofold: he'd like to see all his old friends and what remains of his family, and he would also enjoy rekindling his romance with Ross. In the past, Ross's father, Angel, opposed their relationship; now Blake wants to try bypassing parental permission. There's a huge party to celebrate tribal
unity, and Blake makes a late date with Ross to meet after midnight. When Angel finds that Blake is still interested in Ross, he makes no secret of his opposition to the relationship and says he will shoot the youth if he insists on seeing Ross. Clark, an Easterner who fancies herself an
aristocrat, is the physician attached to, and superintendent of, the reservation. She patronizes the Indians--and Redford, a lawman who comes by. Even though she finds Redford interesting and exciting, she is repulsed by his lack of manners and refinement. Since she is a doctor and he a mere
sheriff, she treats him with disdain, depite the overpowering attraction. At night Ross and Blake meet in the woods, but their rendezvous is interrupted by the arrival of Angel and his sons. In the battle that follows, Angel is killed (in self-defense) by Blake, but the crime is murder in the eyes
of the law, and Clark tells Redford that he must capture the Indian. With Angel dead, Ross automatically becomes Blake's "woman," according to tribal custom, so the two run away together. Redford enlists the aid of local rancher Sullivan, who is eager to stalk an Indian. Cowhand Lipton and a few
others make up the group that regards Indian hunting as sport--like shooting deer. Redford has nothing against Blake and would like to get out of this assignment, but the sheriff hopes that his presence can deter the mob demanding an eye for an eye and that he can bring the young man back to
trial. Blake and Ross know the territory better than their pursuers and are able to elude the posse in the wilderness. Redford vacillates between accepting a job overseeing the security of President Taft, following an assassination attempt (he was eventually shot), and continuing the pursuit.
Sullivan and the others go on, however, and Blake shoots the posse's horses and wounds Sullivan. Then the small town begins to worry that the local Indians will revolt, and Redford must return to chasing Blake and Ross, as distasteful as it is to him. Ross is so tired she can no longer continue,
so she asks to be left behind rather than hinder Blake's escape. Her body is found the following day, and no one knows whether she shot herself or Blake shot her. Eventually the posse catches up to Blake, and there is a stand-off between him and Redford. Blake knows that Redford bears him no
malice but must do his job. When the men face each other, Blake holds up his rifle but doesn't fire. Redford shoots and kills Blake--and then learns that there was no ammunition in Blake's rifle. Blake chose death rather than surrender. Disgusted by the needless loss of life, Redford requests that
Blake be given his tribe's traditional funeral for a chief. Although the picture is nominally about Blake's character, it is Redford who is the focus as he passes through many moral and emotional phases, while trying to come to terms with what he must do. This story represents in microcosm the
entire history of the white man versus the native American, but the film tries to make too many sociological points, so the action sometimes is subordinated to the preaching.
When this movie was made, it had been 21 years since writer-director Polonsky had made his last one, FORCE OF EVIL. He'd been trapped in the McCarthy "witch hunt" and forced to go underground in order to make a living. Polonsky ghostwrote many scripts (which ones he will not reveal) before he
officially reemerged with MADIGAN in 1967. Hall's photography in WILLIE BOY is beautiful, and Polonsky allowed the actors space for character development. Despite the pains taken with the movie, it was not a success--perhaps because the studio held on to the film and then sent it out with less
than tub-thumping promotion. It was completed before BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID but was released after DOWNHILL RACER, so Redford fans had their choice of three movies to see him in during 1969. Polonsky gave the Indians some literate dialog--perhaps too literate. And Blake, who was a
contract player at Universal, was a mistake in the role. He looked right for the part (you may recall that he played "Little Beaver" in the "Red Ryder" movies and the young Mexican boy who sold Bogart a share of the winning lottery ticket in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE), but his New Jersey
accent was in evidence. TELL THEM WILLIE BOY IS HERE was shot in Thousand Oaks, California, with the help of the Morongo, Pechanga, Los Coyotes, Agua Caliente, Soboba, and Torrez-Martinez tribes. The major problem with the film was that it seemed studied, arty, and steeped in Polonsky's desire to
appear meaningful, in his triumphal return to directing. Nevertheless, the film should have had more success than it did.
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- Review: A powerful drama masquerading as a western that promises slightly more than it is able to deliver. It's 1909 in Banning, California, and Blake, a Paiute who has been in the white man's world for a while, is now coming home to the reservation on which he gr… (more)