In 1980, the same year in which Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate damaged the reputation of the western— not to mention United Artists and the New Hollywood movement— almost irreparably, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in Bronco Billy, an elegiac farewell to the genre’s glory days.
The fastest draw, surest shot in the West, Bronco Billy McCoy is the star attraction of a travelling cowboy show. Something of a father figure to his eccentric band of performers, he takes in a new assistant in the form of abandoned heiress Antoinette Lily. As the show struggles to stay afloat amidst waning audiences and internal tensions, Lily’s newly fled husband is accused of her murder.
By the time of 1980, the western had gone from being the most popular and in-demand genre of American cinema to the status of specialty product. The emerging paradigm of the blockbuster was as a final nail in the coffin of the western’s hopes at ever regaining its standing as the predominant content of Hollywood filmmaking. One of the last remaining people under whom westerns appeared likely to succeed, even Eastwood seemed to regard this as the sad truth of the era, the genre on which he had established his name now— for all intents and purposes— a thing of the past. This is a viewpoint prominently set forth in Bronco Billy, the travelling Wild West show in many ways a surrogate for the western genre itself. Both fall victim to rapidly dwindling audiences, bored at the tiresome repetition of tricks and acts of an age gone by. Though the film as a whole exhibits a humourous tone, there is in this allegory a certain air of wistful regret; a sad acknowledgement that there is in this modern world no place for Bronco Billy and his crew. Eastwood embodies his character with the cynicism-laden charm of his more romantically inclined roles. The object of his affections is again played by Sondra Locke, here more vehement and volatile than in The Gauntlet, and a far cry from the meek young pilgrim of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Scatman Crothers and Geoffrey Lewis are the best of a strong supporting cast in the respective roles of show ringleader and accused murderer, each bringing entertaining characters to the mix. At its heart, Bronco Billy is a film about a family— albeit a decidedly unusual and makeshift one— and the conflicts which threaten to tear them apart. Yet throughout each trial and tribulation they remain united; linked by their mutual calling. Billy, at one key point of the film, informs the skeptical Antoinette that the beauty of Bronco Billy’s Wild West Show lies in the way it allows each of its participants to become something they always wanted to be. No matter how fiscally desperate their situation, he lyrically espouses atop his horse, they are living the dream. Likewise, Eastwood acknowledges that though the western may be a shadow of its former self, it still remains a bastion of escapism from the drudgery of real life, even going so far as to suggest there still remains hope for the genre. Given that his next two westerns were Pale Rider and Unforgiven, he just might have been onto something there.
Bronco Billy offers nothing particularly special in the way of story, existing in essence as a portrait of a family struggling to get by in hard times, but functions wonderfully as an allegorical exploration of the decline of the western. Both a lament and an ode to the great American genre, it is a fitting and respectful elegy delivered by one of the people most qualified to do so.
[notification type=”star”]65/100 – Bronco Billy offers nothing particularly special in the way of story, existing in essence as a portrait of a family struggling to get by in hard times, but functions wonderfully as an allegorical exploration of the decline of the western.[/notification]