Film fans who have never seen, much less heard of, The Hunting Party are not alone. The 1971 Western – directed by TV veteran Don Medford and starring Gene Hackman, Oliver Reed, and Candice Bergen – was savaged by critics upon its release. Variety, for example, argued that “seldom has so much fake blood been splattered for so little reason.”
After receiving reviews like this, The Hunting Party would disappear from theaters soon thereafter. The film was relegated to heavily edited TV screenings, its allegedly over-the-top content the stuff of rumors at a time when VHS copies were rare.
Following on the heels of brutal westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), but arriving before ultra-gory horror flicks like The Exorcist (1973), The Hunting Party occupies a strangely liminal space in film history. This seems appropriate for a film in which the bad guys are undoubtedly wretched but the good guys still have blood on their hands.
The script was penned by producer Lou Morheim (The Magnificent Seven, 1960), and writers Gilbert Ralston (Willard, 1971) and William Norton (I Dismember Mama, 1972), while the cinematography was handled by veteran Spanish Director of Photography Cecilio Paniagua (Lisa and the Devil, 1973). The legendary Riz Ortoliani composed the score.
The Hunting Party is certainly worth watching, regardless of critical consensus of the time period. Its central conceit is a power struggle over land rights between wealthy land baron Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) and illiterate outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed). The struggle heats up early on in the film when, Calder, mistaking Ruger’s wife Melissa (Candice Bergen) for a schoolteacher, kidnaps her so that she can teach him to read.
It would be a stretch to say that The Hunting Party is actually about Melissa’s precarious position, trapped between two ambitious men. After all, she is still an object, subjected at one point to her husband’s sexual sadism, and at another, the sexual assault of her kidnapper. Contemporaneous viewers were horrified by Melissa’s lack of agency; no doubt current viewers would feel the same way, especially in a post Mad Max: Fury Road world. This is not a feminist fable, but neither does it condone misogyny.
Others may find the fact that Melissa eventually falls in love with Frank unbelievable and repugnant. Yet, considering the film’s 19th century setting, what choices does Melissa Ruger really have? Despite the inauspicious start to their relationship, Frank Calder is the only man in The Hunting Party who treats her with any sort of respect or tenderness. Like his best friend (and sublimated love interest) Doc Harrison, played by Mitchell Ryan, argues, “[Frank] ain’t what other people see on the outside.”
If there was any doubt as to the plausibility of Melissa throwing her lot in with Frank Calder and not trying to return to her husband, there are two scenes which make the differences between the men crystal clear. After deciding that she’d rather starve than teach Frank to read, Melissa’s steely resolve is softened by a jar of fresh peaches. Frank and Doc gobble them up with comic intensity and at one point, Frank winks at Doc with good-natured glee.
Later, after murdering several of Frank’s crew members from a distance with his high-powered shotgun, Brandt stacks their bodies up like cordwood, much to the disgust of his own crew, one of whom vomits at the sight. Brandt merely smiles and winks, like it’s no big deal, even as his best friend remarks in horror that “they’re not game we bagged. They’re seven men, human beings!”
From a purely aesthetic standpoint the film is gorgeous, and that includes the incredible practical gore effects and frequent scenes of drawn-out, painful deaths. Ortolani’s music is perfect for the film as well, with a melancholic tension that indicates from the beginning that things are not going to end well for any of these people.
In fact, no one makes it out of The Hunting Party unscathed. The hallucinatory final scenes are bleak as hell and anyone who asks “what was the point?” might be missing the film’s main point after all. The Hunting Party depicts a battle between the haves and have nots in its most grisly, gritty form. Modern audiences will recognize the devastating effects of toxic masculinity on the three main characters, all of whom are stuck playing the kind of vicious game in which no one wins.
The Hunting Party was released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber on 11 July 2017. The disc also includes reversible cover art and a trailer for the film as well as trailers for other Kino Lorber movies. The commentary track, provided by Nathaniel Thompson and a rather voluble Howard S. Berger is a must-listen. The pair places the movie firmly within the time period it was made as well as the time period it depicts, and they offer a detailed discussion of not only the film industry of the time, but also how sociopolitical events impacted the story. They talk about the careers of Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, and Oliver Reed, and how the film’s portrayal of “right-wing power-crazed individuals” is still relevant today. A twelve-minute, single-camera interview with actor Mitchell Ryan is also illuminating. He talks about on-set shenanigans involving Oliver Reed and while we’ve heard similar stories before, despite Reed’s reputation, it reveals that he was in many respects a man of honor.