Aging outlaw Arch Deans (Gregory Peck) is on the run after inadvertently killing a deputy during his latest bank robbery. When Sheriff Henry Gifford (Jack Warden) captures his partner, Billy Two Hats (Desi Arnaz Jr), Arch surprises the cynical lawman by risking his neck to save the young half-breed Indian. However, as they escape Arch is wounded by a long-rifle fired by Gifford’s friend, frontier store owner Copeland (David Huddleston). The pair find refuge at homestead belonging to a greedy farmer named Spencer (John Pearce), who ill-treats his stutter-afflicted young wife Sarah (Sian Barbara Allen). Arch pays Spencer to drive him to the nearest doctor while Billy agrees to watch over his homestead, but the pair are ambushed by Indians. While Billy and Sarah begin falling in love, the ever-dogged Sheriff Gifford is hot on their trail.
Prior to his late career revival with The Omen (1976), Gregory Peck tried his hand at an array of offbeat roles, including I Walk the Line (1970), Shootout (1971) and this unusual western, none of which seemed to fit. Here he adopts a broad Scottish brogue for his eccentric outlaw and though not quite nailing the accent provides a lively, engaging turn that enlivens this otherwise pedestrian wild west yarn. Filmed in Israel, Billy Two Hats was dubbed “Shalom on the Range” by a number of comedians at a time when any non-Hollywood western, including Italian ones, were seen as something of a hoot. In fact, director Ted Kotcheff makes fine use of those sun-scorched, arid landscapes to underline the sense of his characters being adrift in a vast inhospitable region. He also pulls off a pair of memorable action set-pieces, one involving our outlaws fleeing a near-invisible bullet fired from Copeland’s frighteningly accurate rifle, another that finds Arch bunkered under a wagon, fending off the Indian attack.
Shot in the earthy brown tones typical of a Seventies western, the script has a streak of wistful melancholy typical of a post-Sam Peckinpah, post Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) western, though not quite as pointed in its assessment of that familiar refrain: “them days are over.” It was scripted by Alan Sharp, a Scottish writer then fresh off a pair of under-rated and similarly character driven westerns: The Hired Hand (1971) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972), and whose recent work includes Rob Roy (1995) and Dean Spanley (2008). The plot hinges to a degree on Gifford’s inability to reason why Arch would risk his life to save a “no-good half-breed” like Billy, but while the warm father-son relationship is amiably played, its attempts to dissect racism are muddled at best. There is a vague hint that Arch and Gifford embody the fast-vanishing west while Billy and Sarah represent the future, yet the film sets aside any ambitious themes and lapses into a stalk-and-chase thriller somewhat akin to Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), albeit offset by moments of character-based comedy and an ill-characterised interracial romance.
Desi Arnaz Jr, son of sitcom stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, strains hard to seem enigmatic and while he isn’t terrible, neither he nor Sharp’s script succeed in making Billy compelling enough to justify his name-as-the-title status. Aside from this movie, Arnaz Jr’s notable cult film roles include Marco (1973), a musical based on the life of Marco Polo co-produced by children’s film specialists Rankin-Bass and Japanese special effects outfit Tsuburaya Studios, and House of Long Shadows (1983) the last horror movie directed by Pete Walker. He also appeared in a small role as his father in the musical biopic Mambo Kings (1992).
It’s up to Gregory Peck to inject some vitality into proceedings. He is very watchable as an oddly polite outlaw who can’t abide seeing women roughed up and always offers to pay for something rather than steal it.