The Hunting Party (1971) opens with a scene of a steer being butchered cross-cut with a scene of sex. The hefer’s savage demise is equated with the violent sex that Melissa (Candice Bergen) endures at the hands of her sadistic husband Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman). Thus the film establishes that women are little more than cattle in this world of men. It’s a standard conceit of an American western. Women are commodified objects that men kill each other for.
The gruesome opening of The Hunting Party is hardly the most vile spectacle that the film has to offer. Once Frank (Oliver Reed) and his gang abduct Melissa, the obsessive is in hot pursuit. But unbeknownst to the rabble of horse thieves and rustlers, Ruger and his rich chums are sporting a new state-of-the-art rifle that has a range of a half a mile. Frank and his buddies are helpless.
The film balances scenes of Melissa’s rape and inevitable Stockholm syndrome with massacres. The film executes the scenes of bodily tissues being torn by bullets fired from far away in slow motion as if the victims were performing a macabre ballet. Bodies twist and turn as they fall lifeless to the earth while Ruger looks on through his rife sight. The romantic ideal of the lovable outlaw is transformed into a fragile human husk awaiting his death.
Fences and railroads are more often the heralds of the close of the old West, not firearm technology. Ruger’s rifle spells the end of the romantic west. Frank’s penchant for rape is matched by his childlike desire to learn to read because he is an outlaw with a heart of gold; he is an anti-hero. However, in the dramatic economy of The Hunting Party the outlaw, the lovable bandit, is expendable. The Hunting Party reiterates with every massacre the artifice of the Western myth. Frank and his gang can run but they cannot escape Ruger’s vengeance nor the new age of technology that he represents. The cattle baron will triumph because he can afford the latest innovations.
When, at the climax, Frank and Ruger face off for “ownership” of Melissa the former is unarmed and the latter comes prepared with his new rifle. In a moment that deliberately recalls Greed (1924), the men face each other under the desert sun. Then, in a denial of dramatic catharsis, Ruger guns down his wife and her captor from a safe distance. The showdown is an execution.
The Hunting Party is as brutal a western as any that came out as part of the revisionist movement within the genre. It was directed by Don Medford who cut his teeth in television on shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Screenwriter Gilbert Ralston (of Willard fame) also came from a background in television which accounts for the great narrative economy of The Hunting Party. Both director and writer take full advantage of the widescreen compositions of film, giving The Hunting Party a visual majesty that dwarfs the plight faced by its bandits.
In the years since its release The Hunting Party has drifted into relative obscurity. Since its Kino-Lorber release a few years ago it has found a kind of cult following among Western movie aficionados who have pushed for a critical revaluation of the film. It remains one of the more sinister entires in the Western genre from this era and would make a good double feature with the thriller Prime Cut (1972) where Hackman again plays an evil cattle baron.