There are very few movies with a reputation as bad as that of The Hunting Party. It’s mean-spirited, gory and not afraid to offend its audience, and those are just the positive things…
It starts with cattle baron Gene Hackman mistreating his wife Candice Bergen, possibly as compensation for his failure in bed (although this was unclear, maybe due to the jumpy editing, as this interlude is inter-cut in the UK with some non-BBFC-friendly animal slaughter). It’s nothing personal, as he swiftly moves on to stubbing out his cigar on prostitutes in a clunky metaphorical way. It’s an early prototype for Hackman’s Western Villain character (see Unforgiven and The Quick and the Dead), and he’s immediately right at home, leading a bunch of equally odious rich friends on a hunting trip using new-fangled rifles which can drop a target at 800 yards. At this point, ranch hand Oliver Reed makes the bone-headed decision to kidnap schoolteacher Bergen, as he wants to learn to read (?) The rest of the film follows them as Hackman changes the purpose of his trip and pursues Reed, Bergen and their gang across the desert – as was common at the time, Almeria stands in for the desert areas of the US.
Reed is more sympathetic than usual, despite playing his typical unshaven thug, and Bergen looks pretty, in much the same way as she did in Soldier Blue a couple of years earlier – she must have tired of atrocity-based westerns after this. I suspect her rough treatment and subsequent acquiescence/ Stockholm Syndrome is the thing that offended critics the most – she seems willing to tolerate rape and kidnap once she’s given a few peaches by Reed, in the single worst-judged comic interlude I can remember.
While most critics dismiss The Hunting Party as nothing more than a mean-spirited excuse to cash in on Spanish tax breaks and the permissive attitude to violence ushered in by The Wild Bunch a few years earlier, it’s actually a tense and reasonably intelligent depiction of obsession and its damaging effects. It’s certainly a better movie than the compromised and dull Shalako, which really looks like a multi-national attempt to make a western.
TV veteran Don Medford handles things more competently than most of his low-budget contemporaries, progressing the story at just the right speed and getting fine performances out of the multi-national cast. There’s also a terrific melodic score in the Morricone vein by Italian composer Riz Ortolani, only stumbling in the aforementioned ‘peaches’ scene. There’s nothing worse than broad European comedy underscored by plucked strings, though that didn’t stop most spaghetti westerns from attempting it. Even Leone was unable to avoid embarrassment in this type of scene.
As for the much-criticised gore, if anything the movie underplays the effects of being shot with a rifle from 800 yards, and is nowhere near the Savini-style splatter-fest that you might be led to expect. Given the era, you also get any number of unsubtle Vietnam metaphors, unavoidable with hindsight but also coherently handled in a western context.
All the cast play villains in one way or another, although some have doubts about the increasing headcount, leading to a continuous reassessment of the audience’s loyalties. It’s admittedly a harsh and unforgiving story, but that’s exactly the point, and Medford has the integrity to carry the story through to its only logical conclusion.
It’s not for all the family, but for western completists, it’s one of the more interesting movies of the early ’70s boom.