While Ride in the Whirlwind sbould be compared with the film that preceded it, The Shooting, it is not a carbon copy. It shares many elements in common with the companion film. The most obvious is the cast members of Jack Nicholson and Millie Perkins, but there were also many of the same locations, the same crew, and even the same horses.
Despite these similarities, the differences are more distinctive. First and foremost, the style is different. If these two pictures are considered “acid” westerns, then The Shooting is far more “acidic.” Whirlwind is actually quite linear in comparison. Rather than being oblique with major plot elements left to the viewer’s imagination, this time the narrative is clear and direct. There are four different groups of characters with conflicting motivations, and we get the general idea of what they are about. The first group are outlaws; another is a group of cattle-hands trying to pass through; the third group are the vigilantes, and the final group is a farming family in the wilderness.
The premise is that the cattle-hand protagonists end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. They encounter the outlaws, who unsuccessfully try to pass themselves off as cattle-hands. After an awkward meeting between the two groups, they camp out and find themselves under fire from the vigilantes before they can depart. They are completely innocent, but in the eyes of those with the guns, they are guilty by association.
Only two of the three cattle-hands survive the initial shootout, played by Cameron Mitchell and Jack Nicholson, and they make it out of the camp on the same horse. From here begins the existential dilemma on who is and isn’t an outlaw. Who is good and who is moral?
After escaping out of the valley, they encounter the farming family. They assure them that they are good people, not outlaws, but they have to do certain things in order to escape from their accusers. One thing they need to do is take the farmer’s horse, which is theft. They try to justify it because otherwise they will hang for something they didn’t do, but theft is theft. In the farmer’s eyes, they are taking his horses and that is unjust. They are intruding on the family, eating their food, making them uncomfortable and putting them in harm’s way. As the story unfolds, the ‘innocents’ commit other acts that blur the lines further. Every man that turns towards the immoral has to follow a series of actions. While we side with the main characters that we believe are good people, it is perfectly justifiable that they would be seen as evil under the circumstances.
Nicholson and Perkins play completely different characters than in the previous film. Nicholson’s character is unlike most of what he would play in his later, illustrious career. He is softer spoken, kinder and gentler. He tries to endear himself towards Perkins, whereas most outlaws would not care one bit. He plays the character well, but in an understated, muted fashion. There is no chewing scenery here.
Perkins played a sort of Femme Fatale in The Shooting, but here she plays a meek, naïve and inexperienced young farm girl. She is not nearly as savvy or manipulative. In the special features, Perkins says she tried to play the girl as if she was imitating one of her chickens. That makes sense, as the girl is physically and socially awkward, and does not know how to behave around people outside her family.
It is clear that even when the duo has the family hostage, that Hellman wants us to like them. They remain kind and respectful, and plead that they are not evil people. They even play checkers to pass the time. They can be as nice as they want, but the existential crisis remains. They are in control of the situation, holding people against their will and forcing them to keep their presence quiet. The circumstances of how they ended up in that situation are immaterial. There are there, and in the eyes of the victims, they are just as criminal as the stage robbers.
Even though both of these films were shot inexpensively, they get the most out of the small budget. Visually, both films look far better than other independents from the era, even if The Shooting has more showy shots. Whirlwind is more straightforward, mostly because that is what the plot calls for. There are more characters and more events to unfold, which require shorter shots with more cuts. There are a few exceptions where the camera is allowed to breathe, such as the visually striking scene when the pair are climbing to get out of the valley. Another impressive shot is the final scene. It may be the prototypical cliché shot of a character riding off into the sunset, but it adds some panache. Rather than just watching him ride off, he is enveloped into the misty clouds, or the whirlwind as the title implies. It looks good visually, but it also fits the film thematically. The world has changed for this character, and we know that even though he survives, it will not be a pleasant existence. He has come full circle and is what he hated.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
Commentary: Again, we had the same participants from The Shooting and they had a similar dynamic. The film historians would comment based on their own knowledge and experience, while peppering Hellman with questions about the production and background.
One interesting aspect of this commentary was the level of Nicholson’s involvement. He was not the star that we know today, and he wrote and acted in the film. We don’t think of him as a writer, and it says something that the character he wrote for himself was so far from the type he would play throughout his career. For the screenplay, Nicholson researched stakeouts at the library, and this particular story was based on a real shootout that took place over three days.
It was impressive hearing Hellman discuss how the cabin burning took place. It looks spectacular on the screen, yet they had to contain the fires so they could continue shooting without destroying the set. Had to show multiple stages of the fire, and of course, it ended with the set destroyed. It was risky to try to pull off with the limited budget, but it worked amazingly well on screen.
This was a productive year for Hellman. He had made two Philippines movies prior to this, so with these two westerns, he had made 4 movies in 12 months. That is a third of his career output in one year, which is saying something.
House of Corman – This was a conversation between Roger Corman and Monte Hellman. It’s a very chummy talk. One thing that they do not bring up, that Hellman revealed in the commentary, was that Corman did not want to make the films once he saw the screenplays. He didn’t think they could be commercially successful. Instead they talk about Corman’s decision to make two westerns, and his influence on American filmmakers by that time. His influence was considerable, and Hellman was one of his protégés that would not have the same career otherwise.
The Diary of Millie Perkins – In The Shooting, she put dirt on her face to cover discrete makeup. She wanted some sort of unique look, so the mud became her makeup. She talked about her horseback riding, which she handled quite well, a lot better than the other actors. She had an interesting relationship with Jack during the time, and they are still friends. They bonded.
Whips and Jingles – This is a Will Hutchins interview. He talks about running up hill with chalk. He was in decent shape, but not an easy run and had to call a medic. One thing that comes up often in all these features is Jack and Monte arguing about budget, but they had to pay out of their pockets if they ran over. He accidentally stumbled into a Parisian theater in 1969 and was surprised to see The Shooting and RTW playing. He had no idea it had been released anywhere.
Blind Harry – This was a short discussion between Hellman and Harry Dean Stanton. Jack said don’t do anything, play yourself, just act. That’s interesting because he’s been accused of doing that on a couple occasions. Harry was head of the gang so he didn’t have to do anything. This was a major influence on his future approach to acting.
The True Death of Leland Drum – Hellman talks to B.J. Merholz and John Hackett, actors in Ride in the Whirlwind. They were amateurs, which Hellman makes the point is not a dirty word. They talk about the horse wrangling, which is a recurring theme in all of these supplements because a high percentage of the budget went towards horse wrangling due to the teamsters union.
Heart of Lightness – Hellman speaks with Assistant Director Gary Kurtz. They talk about all the rain early in The Shooting that caused production delays. The crew was small, with one or two in the art department, one horse wrangler, two cameramen, two sound men, and one on wardrobe. Again, it is quite a final product for such a slim production.
The Last Cowboy – They talk to Calvin Johnson, the horse ranger that worked on the films. He had worked on westerns since he was 10 years old. They revisit the locations. Pahreah was one of the towns where they shot, which is long gone now. Talks about shooting at the “staircase” near Bryce Canyon where they had the final scene in The Shooting. The locations were just gorgeous.
An American Legend – This was my favorite supplement on the disc. It is a critical piece by Kim Morgan on the career of Warren Oates. Much of it is a career retrospective, but she also discusses the “it” factor that made him such a renowned actor. She says it starts with the face. He was a type of “gorgeous ugly,” as she puts it, recounting his attractive, grizzled look. The Shooting was his first leading role, which began a Hellman collaboration over a few films. He was thought of as a character actor, which is unfair, probably because his lead films were in smaller, grittier films from Hellman and Peckinpah. He died too young. Who knows what the future auteurs of the 90s and 00s could have done with him?
Even though there are far better movies in the Collection, this disc is loaded with two quality films and a ton of features. One of the notable absences on the features is anything from Jack, although he has been in retirement lately and may not have been up for it.
Criterion Rating: 9/10