After a misadventure in Mexico draws the local law, hot-headed young sharpshooter Billy Young (Robert Walker Jr.) is abandoned by his partner and left to fend for himself. He finds an ally in seasoned gunman Ben Kane (Robert Mitchum) who helps him out of a few scrapes and takes him under his wing. Offered a job as a lawman in an unruly town, peaceable Ben initially refuses till he learns the chief troublemaker is one Frank Boone (John Anderson), who was responsible for a great tragedy in his life. Meanwhile Billy gets into a dust-up with Jesse (David Carradine), the man who left him to die back in Mexico. Ben tries to uphold the law only to discover Jesse is none other than Frank Boone’s son.
Remarkably this was one of three westerns writer-director-genre specialist Burt Kennedy made in 1969 along with The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, which also starred Robert Mitchum, and Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) a superb parody that was the best of the bunch. Kennedy made the jump from television to feature films in the mid-to-late Sixties but had the misfortune to do so just as his brand of old fashioned Hollywood westerns were going out of style, eclipsed by the more hard-bitten revisionist approach of Sam Peckinpah or the theatrical brutality of Sergio Leone and other Italian westerns. With the exception of the disjointed Hannie Caulder (1971), Kennedy’s westerns typically bore a more jovial, rollicking tone though he later diversified into dark thrillers like the original screen adaptation of The Killer Inside Me (1976) and Wolf Lake (1978) and even made the surprisingly well received sci-fi action comedy Suburban Commando (1991) starring pro-wrestler Hulk Hogan. In recent years Quentin Tarantino cited Kennedy along with Andrew V. McLaglen as responsible for the decline of the Hollywood western which is not entirely fair given both men made a handful of decent films.
With Young Billy Young Kennedy adapted the novel “Who Rides with Wyatt?”, a fictionalised account of Wyatt Earp’s war against a nefarious outlaw gang, only substituting the character of Ben Kane for the legendary lawman. The original work was written by Heck Allen, a prolific western author who also penned scripts for animated cartoons, several of whose books were adapted for the screen including The Tall Men (1955), Yellowstone Kelly (1959) and MacKenna’s Gold (1969). There were several westerns made around this time wherein callow youths learned life lessons from more experienced cowpokes. It was as if filmmakers were using the genre most beloved by the conservative older generation to lecture the wayward young punks of the late Sixties. Hence the moment amiable but tough Ben delivers a big speech lambasting the misguided, bleeding heart liberal politics held by a young woman played by Deanna Martin, daughter of Dean Martin, among several celebrity offspring acting in this movie.
The film draws Billy as naive, hot-tempered and easily swayed but basically a nice enough guy to whom Ben takes a shine and tries to steer onto the straight and narrow. Possibly because he recognises elements from his own past in the young buck but also, as we eventually discover via oft-repeated flashbacks, Billy reminds him of his own son who was gunned down by Frank Boone. The plot is threadbare, leisurely and oddly inconsistent in its characterisation of Jesse while Boone proves a one-dimensional villain straight out of an old serial. Kennedy resorts to some padding, recycling worn clichés about lone lawmen bringing order to a crime-ridden town and essentially has statuesque Angie Dickinson - flaunting her famous legs in skimpy showgirl outfits - reprise her classic whore-with-a-heart-of-gold role from Rio Bravo (1959).
Nevertheless there remains something warm and engaging about its familiarity. Robert Walker Jr. - who appeared in Easy Rider (1969) around the same time when he came to specialise in rebellious youths - does a fine job with a tricky role while the seemingly effortlessly cool and charismatic Mitchum commands the screen. There is plenty of action and some impressive stunt-work starting with the near-wordless (albeit confusing) intro with Billy and Jesse on the run after gunning down a group of generals in Mexico. The set-pieces are quite grandiose for Kennedy, who tended to stage things on a more modest scale, culminating in an impressive display of athleticism from Mitchum during the finale where he leaps aboard a rolling stagecoach to blast bad guys off the rooftops. Offbeat, borderline calypso-sounding score by Shelly Manne which includes Robert Mitchum singing the title theme. Very well, I might add.