In a small western town Myra Polsen (Sue Lyon) hides her lover Frenando Nunez (Julián Mateos), a wanted fugitive, from the law. When Myra's father catches them in bed together Frenando beats him up then escapes. Whereupon the old man vents his frustration on poor Myra, calling her names and slapping her silly before shooting himself. After the funeral Myra is approached by grizzled but principled U.S. Marshall Ross (Pernell Roberts). He tells her Frenando is wanted for bank robbery and murder, something she refuses to believe. Ross promptly ventures into the harsh desert to track down Frenando, accompanied by Mr. Brown (Leslie Nielsen), a sleazy and none too trustworthy Pinkerton Agency detective who seems strangely eager to kill the fugitive on sight. To the surprise of both men, Myra joins the search. She insists she can convince Frenando to surrender provided Ross swears he will bring him back alive.
Scripted by cult character actor Dick Miller, a staple of Roger Corman and Joe Dante movies, Four Rode Out is a small scale, character driven western very much of its time. In 1970 with the growing influence of a youth-led counterculture on mainstream cinema post-Easy Rider (1969), traditional westerns slowly fell from favour with the audience. For many westerns were hackneyed purveyors of deeply conservative values, sorely out of step with the times. Particularly in the aftermath of landmark films by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone that seemed to mark an apocalyptic 'end point' for the genre. Of course a great many classic westerns are more nuanced and morally complex than the counterculture crowd perceived them to be. Nonetheless a spate of early Seventies westerns began to incorporate overtly politicized themes liable to resonate with a younger audience. Hence Four Rode Out pays lip service to themes of persecution, prejudice and forbidden love without exploring them in any great depth. The plot centres primarily on four characters whom together serve as something of a microcosm of American society circa-1970, then mired in various social atrocities including massacres at Me Lai, Kent State University and Attica Prison. Myra embodies idealistic youth, Frenando is a persecuted minority, Mr. Brown is an establishment figure whose respectable facade masks self-interest, sadism and outright criminality (at one point Ross even implies Brown's interest in nabbing Frenando stems from latent homosexuality!) while Ross is a guilt-ridden conservative-liberal, compassionate but driven to do his duty. Pernell Roberts (here bald and sporting a bushy black beard looking radically different from his role as Adam Cartwright on beloved TV western Bonanza), Sue Lyon, Leslie Nielsen (then often cast as oily villains prior to his later reinvention as a comic actor post-Airplane! (1980)) and Julián Matteos all acquit themselves well. Yet their characters are largely one-dimensional. Or in the case of Frenando (no, that's not a typo: it really is Frenando, not Fernando), inconsistent as his callous treatment of the devoted Myra starts to look increasingly suspect.
Low on action, Four Rode Out harks instead to a longstanding western tradition of ethical debate wherein the hero tries to discern what is right and wrong while navigating a dangerous milieu. The characters talk endlessly about how best to deal with Frenando or whether he is indeed capable of murder but the drama proves starchy and less compelling than the brooding psychological westerns of Anthony Mann or Budd Boetticher. John Peyser, a television staple with only a handful of feature film credits including grindhouse favourite The Centerfold Girls (1974), infuses a plot that is really as basic as an episode of your average western TV show with elements calculated to appeal to an early Seventies youth crowd: a grimier more 'realistic' western milieu, rougher violence, mild nudity from former Lolita (1962) star Sue Lyon and a quasi-French New Wave style of staging and editing. The latter imbues the film with a certain dreamy, off-kilter ambiance that nonetheless treads a fine line between artsy and plain haphazard. Another attempt at a hook for the hippie audience is the folk rock(ish) soundtrack composed and performed on-screen by singer Janis Ian. Best known for her beguiling 1975 pop hit 'At Seventeen', Ian appears as a sort of ghostly balladeer expressing Myra's inner turmoil through song. After a talky and meandering first two-thirds the last act is more akin to a survivalist yarn with the four protagonists slogging through the desert, slowly losing water, horses and their last grip on sanity. The denouement aims for poignant tragedy but proves merely wearying and rather dreary.