Look at the poster and marketing materials for “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the title character was played by Robert Redford.
Redford, who was coming off the success of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” three months earlier when “Willie Boy” was released in December 1969 (even though “Willie Boy” had been shot earlier), was the clear selling point for the film. His handsome face looms large in every poster and DVD cover art I can find of Abraham Polonsky’s revisionist Western.
But Redford plays a supporting role in the movie, a role that might legitimately and surprisingly be deemed the villain of the movie (at least until the climax, where he redeems himself to some degree). “Willie Boy” is actually played by Robert Blake, playing a real-life Native American man who was the subject of a massive manhunt in California in 1909. Redford plays Deputy Sheriff Cooper, the leader of the posse who has gone after Willie, and he subverts his natural charisma to play a hard, cold man.
There’s a strong Madison connection to the new Blu-ray edition of “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” released this week by Kino Lorber Classics. After Polonsky's death in 1999, all his papers were donated to the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, whose archives are housed in the Wisconsin Historical Society, including all his notes and documentation about making “Willie Boy.”
And on the Blu-ray, Wisconsin Film Festival director of programming Jim Healy and his brother, actor-filmmaker Pat Healy (“Take Me”), drew from those archives in recording an engaging commentary track for the film.
Blake plays Willie as sort of a Native American James Dean, cocky and defiant, refusing to kowtow to the white men who run his Southern California town. When he strolls into a pool hall full of white men, he’s looking for a fight. And gets one. Even the title is an act of defiance, a taunt by Willie Boy to the white lawmen to “Come and get me!”
Willie Boy is in love with a local Native American girl, Lola (Katharine Ross of “The Graduate”), and when her father catches them together, Willie Boy ends up killing him in self-defense. Cooper leads a posse into the mountains to catch him, but when Willie Boy ambushes the posse and inadvertently kills a bounty hunter, it becomes clear that this story can only end in tragedy.
The film contrasts Willie Boy’s passionate nature with Cooper’s closed-off, frustrated sheriff, particularly contrasting Willie and Lola’s love affair with Cooper’s transactional relationship with a local schoolteacher (Susan Davis). By the end, though, Cooper clearly feels a strange affinity with his prey, and a shared disgust with the so-called “civilized” world.
If you’ve only seen “Willie Boy” on late-night TV, the new Blu-ray really showcases the beautiful widescreen cinematography of Conrad Hall (who also shot “Butch Cassidy”) and the percussive, suspenseful jazz score by Dave Grusin. The film ends with a nearly dialogue-free 15-minute cat-and-mouse game between Cooper and Willie in the mountains that is enthralling to watch. (On the track, Jim Healy says that the original cut of the film had this sequence last for 45 minutes, and Redford was crushed when it was pared down.)
The Healy brothers’ commentary track weaves analysis and anecdotes about the film with details on the real story of Willie Boy and how much the movie deviates from the historical record (Answer: A lot). Polonsky’s papers list a lot of actors considered for the Willie Boy role, including Burt Reynolds and Trini Lopez. (Glaringly, none of them are Native American.) Even Redford was reportedly offered the role by Polonsky at one point and turned it down, although Polonsky later insisted he was kidding.
Pat Healy even recounts sharing a scene with Redford in “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” remembering the iconic actor showing up on set in a very un-iconic Hawaiian shirt and oversized baseball cap. The Healy brothers have done commentary tracks for Kino Lorber in the past on “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three” and “The Flamingo Kid,” and they pack a lot of information in while keeping the conversation seemingly loose and flowing.
“Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” was only Polonsky's second film as a director. After making the 1948 noir “Force of Evil,” he was blacklisted for 20 years for refusing to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee during Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. He likely identified with Willie Boy’s lonely, doomed fight of the little guy being persecuted by an unjust society.