Hannie Caulder (1971) – A Review
Raquel Welch is Hannie Caulder, a frontier woman who is out for revenge in the wild west. She’s looking to gun down the trio of varmints that raped her, murdered her husband, left her for dead and burnt down her home.
Hannie survives her attack from the Clemans Brothers gang and soon encounters bounty hunter Robert Culp, who knows an awful lot about killing. Sympathizing with her situation and seeing she’s very ill prepared, he agrees to train her in the ways of the gun so she’ll be more than capable to fill the three brothers with lead when she inevitably catches up with them.
Hannie Caulder is not a complicated story at all. In a way, Hannie’s straight forward, simplistic goal is refreshing. It’s always clear what her ultimate objective is and things never get confusing or detoured away from what Hannie is after. It’s clearly established at the start and it’s the sole motivation for Hannie until the end. There’s no dead weight in this western tale to distract from it.
Yet, that’s also oddly a bit of a problem too. The story is so incredibly streamlined and to the point, that it doesn’t offer much in the way of tension or have enough memorable characters, scenes or moments to really help it along.
It’s almost like they filmed the general plot of the story and didn’t worry about adding any additional details, obstacles or drama to it than the bare bones of a basic by-the-numbers revenge story. It’s not done in a any fancy or stylish way. You couldn’t classify it as a spaghetti western (even though it was filmed in Spain), but more of a very standard western with nothing that helps distinguishes itself, other than having a female lead.
There are moments where director Burt Kennedy provides some fun flourishes. We witness a portion of the opening bank robbery from the inside of a double barreled shot gun. I wish there were more unique moments like that. For the most part there’s not much style going on.
The best scenes are between Welch and Culp as he trains her and she becomes a gunslinger. It’s the classic ‘mentor training student’ kind of stuff. She exercises her arms, practices how to shoot straight and learns how to be ready when facing an opponent who wants to kill her.
That is a lot of fun, as we watch Hannie evolve from this helpless victim into someone who is going to be a deadly adversary against the Clemans boys. All those scenes lay a tantalizing foundation for payoffs that we know Hannie will be faced with later in the movie. You can be sure she’ll graduate from just shooting at bottles to aiming at dastardly bad guys.
Yet, her inevitable confrontations with the brothers aren’t all that tension filled or result in truly satisfying climactic showdowns as I would’ve liked. I don’t think it’s spoiling much in saying she does indeed get her chance at killing each of the brothers. And the scenes play as more routine than the hoped for dramatic and rewarding encounters that the stage was set for.
It’s a shame too, since the story of a western heroine alone could offer a unique gender swap on the classic masculine wild west heroes. Today with the hype and attention of ‘strong woman characters’ in movies that is constantly being touted and pushed, Hannie Caulder is an early example that this idea of having ‘a strong female character’ in a movie is nothing new. It had been done before.
Decades before the trendy embracing of the concept of ‘a strong woman’ in a movie, Welch had done it. I guess, most folks today either aren’t aware of that or have just plain forgotten. Or maybe it’s because it was over forty years ago and it’s too long ago to count. I sometimes think most ‘movie fans’ today think the invention of cinema began in 1985. They probably aren’t even aware of the 1994 film Bad Girls either.
Unlike some of the ‘strong female’ characters we’re expected to admire in some films today, you do get behind Hannie and want her to succeed because she earns our admiration. We’ve seen what she has gone through, her struggle, her determination. You’re rooting for her to catch up to Borgnine and the boys and get her chance to stare them in their eyes and use what Culp has taught her to get her justice.
When Welch comes up against offhand dismissals by rugged cowboys because she’s a female, and gets smacked on her butt and basically ogled, you want to applaud her when she doesn’t take their gruff.
There’s a terrific exchange between her and the sheriff. He doesn’t like the commotion she’s causing in his town, but Hannie has no intention of stopping until she buries all the brothers. “You’re a hard woman Hannie Caulder.” to which Welch replies, “Like the man said, there aren’t any hard women, only soft men.” She becomes a hero with her attitude and determination. No one can stop her from exacting the revenge she’s so obsessed with.
This was probably a role that Raquel really enjoyed playing. Hannie’s attack, disposal and resurrection somewhat mirrored Welch’s own struggles to be taken seriously as an actress. She was attempting to get out from under her famous pinup image and prove her talents against constant dismissals. It’s likely she brought along her own experiences and feelings in real life to the role.
The cast they pull together in this is really impressive! Aside from Culp and Welch, there’s Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin as the despicable trio of brothers who Raquel is gunning for.
Just looking at these guys you know they’re bad news. They’re quite easy to boo. The three of them can easily play these type of roles in their sleep.
And that’s exactly what they do. They bring their great distinctive faces and presences to the screen to play these baddies, but the characters themselves aren’t anything special and they aren’t given anything really memorable to play. They’re cookie-cutterish bad guys and aside from the actors who they cast, there’s nothing notable about them.
At times they plays things a bit too light and comical. I sometimes suspected they improvised those bits just because they were getting bored with how shallow their roles were written and just wanted to have a bit of fun and bring something else to these guys. Essentially they’re real bad guys, done.
Christopher Lee shows up in the only western the legendary actor had appeared in. He plays a blacksmith, does his lines and quietly fades away. Again, he’s given virtually nothing to do. I always forget that he’s in this. Him showing up is almost an afterthought.
Along with Welch, Culp is the real standout in Hannie Caulder. He is very good as a calm force that can be a tough teacher and a brutal killer, but he also has traces of a soft side. I would have liked had he and Raquel been on a longer adventure and we got to watch their relationship grow gradually. They both have a nice unexpected chemistry.
The publicity and posters for the film at the time used Raquel’s pinup image to convey a bit of a sexy western with her leggy poses, a gun strapped to her naked thigh. Don’t be fooled. That’s not what this flick will contain. Those are just publicity images. They’re great sexy photos, but they don’t represent what Hannie Caulder is.
I suppose that was the easiest and most reliable way to sell the movie to audiences at the time. Most of Raquel’s films would use her looking sexy on the movie poster to market it. Even when she had a minor role, Raquel Welch in a bikini would be the reliable image to draw audiences attention.
In a period western, it wasn’t possible to get Raquel into a bikini, but they still manage to show off some of her assets. She’s probably the most improbable looking frontier housewife ever put on film. Yet during most of the movie she plays it straight wearing her poncho and leather pants, that fit quite snugly.
Which actually provides the funniest moment in the movie. Let’s face it, it might be a leap to envision Raquel as a frontier woman. I don’t think she has the typical build or look of many women during this time period. So, when a cowboy notices her walking past wearing her tight fitting leather pants and not realizing she’s a woman he mutters, “God, that guy’s built.”
Hannie Caulder is not a bad movie, just an average one. It’s fine for what it is, – a western revenge tale without any bells or whistles. It allows Raquel one of her better roles, her and Culp click nicely together, there are some very good moments in it and it’s complimented by a rousing western score by Ken Thorne.
Running less than 90-minutes it gives you what you expect, but nothing more. I felt like there was a lot of wasted opportunity to make Hannie Caulder more special. With the cast, the no frills story and Raquel taking the gun slinging lead, I think it could have been a much more memorable film than just an alright one.