Well-spoken English beauty Catherine (Sarah Miles) stumbles into the middle of a wild west train robbery led by rugged outlaw Jay Grobart (Burt Reynolds). Saddled against his will with the captive woman, Jay has his hands full keeping Catherine safe from his lecherous partners Dawes (Jack Warden) and Billy (Bo Hopkins) as they make their escape along with Indian sidekick Charlie (Jay Varela). Hot on their trail are Crocker (George Hamilton), the wealthy and arrogant husband from whom Catherine was actually trying to escape, and local lawman Lapchance (Lee J. Cobb). The latter ponders why a hitherto upstanding, decorated cavalry officer like Jay Grobart would rob the Great Western Mining Company. As Catherine discovers, Jay needs the money to buy back the children sired with his late Indian wife, Cat Dancing.
Adapted from a novel by Marilyn Durham, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing remains a film more notorious for shenanigans behind the scenes than its merits on-screen. Which is a shame given this was one of the last films penned by author and screenwriter Eleanor Perry who had come off a run of acclaimed, offbeat, sensitive dramas - e.g. David and Lisa (1962), The Swimmer (1968), Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) - in collaboration with her then-husband Frank Perry. Paired with the always-beguiling Sarah Miles and fresh off a career triumph with Deliverance (1972), Burt Reynolds delivers a brooding yet impressively sensitive performance light years away from his roguish antics in later star vehicles like Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and The Cannonball Run (1980). Speaking of which the director of those films, seasoned stuntman and Burt buddy Hal Needham handles the action choreography here including an especially grueling fight sequence between Jay and Dawes.
The film fits into an early Seventies vogue for grungy, relationship-driven revisionist westerns that aimed to address the racism, misogyny and supposed inauthenticity latent in old school Hollywood horse operas. Interestingly many of these have dated far poorer than the classics of the Forties and Fifties. Perry evidently intended to foreground the plight of an intelligent, independent-minded, educated, 'civilized' woman thrust into the savagery of the western milieu. Indeed it becomes deeply uncomfortable to watch as Catherine is bound, abused and fears the near-constant threat of rape. Even Jay's ostensibly kinder and gentler treatment of the heroine leaves one uneasy as he smacks her rump while schooling her on survival out west. In scenes where one dying character presumptuously bequeaths his 'share' of Catherine to Jay or when Crocker laments the high cost of maintaining both a prized thoroughbred and his wife, Perry draws pointed parallels between women and horses. Both perceived by frontiersmen as property to be tamed, trained or dispensed with if 'despoiled.' It becomes increasingly apparent that Crocker is more concerned with killing those men he presumes have already taken advantage of his wife than saving her.
Typical of its era the formless plot rambles from one random incident to another in attempt at realism that often comes across as plain sloppy storytelling. Even so the tedium of long rides through arid desert punctuated with violence and sudden death is an honest reflection of the dangerous west. Perry later claimed her script was substantially rewritten. Which makes sense given it is hard to understand how an avowed feminist could concoct Catherine's curious arc. She starts out a spirited, outspoken woman then over the course of her adventure transforms physically and (it is implied) spiritually into the mirror image of Jay's Indian wife: a meek, docile squaw. Constrained to domesticity Catherine cleans house, cooks dinner and dotes on Jay in dewey-eyed desperation for his approval. Can anyone honestly say this is a more progressive arc for a western heroine than say Grace Kelly in High Noon (1952) or Joanne Dru in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)?
On the plus side the cinematography by western veteran Harry Stradling Jr. is frequently breathtaking with some stunning scenery and John Williams supplies a wonderfully mellow score. Jay Silverheels, formerly Tonto on television with The Lone Ranger, plays a wise old Indian chief in a particularly moving scene where Reynolds tries to reconnect with his children and the neat twist wherein history repeats itself proves quietly devastating.