Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Film Review: THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY (1970, James R. Rokos)

Stars: 3.8 of 5.
Running Time: 23 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Academy Award Winning sepia-toned tribute to the Old West and Western film."
Notable Cast or Crew: Johnny Crawford (THE SHOOTIST, EL DORADO), Kristin Harmon (OZZIE & HARRIET, Ricky Nelson's wife 1963-1982), Wild Bill Tucker. Written by John Carpenter, Nick Castle (co-writer of ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, was "The Shape" in HALLOWEEN, directed THE LAST STARFIGHTER), Trace Johnston, James R. Rokos, & John Longenecker. Music and Editing by John Carpenter. Cinematography by Nick Castle. Ricky Nelson (RIO BRAVO, "I'm Walkin'", et al.) and Ruth Hussey (THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, ANOTHER THIN MAN) are credited as "Voice Overs," but not on the original print.
Best one-liner: "You're spendin' all your money at the movies, you oughta put some of that into payin' your rent!"

THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY was a USC student film from producer John Longenecker and his "Super Crew" of four young filmmakers (including Carpenter and notable crony Nick Castle). It won the 1970 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film, and played theatrically alongside prints of select Universal pictures for the next two years. Sadly, this is probably the closest Carpenter will ever come to an Oscar, though I suppose we're pretty damned far from an idealized world where, say, THEY LIVE is beating RAIN MAN for best picture. Carpenter was 22 at the time, and though he had made a series of short films dating back to when he was 8, this was his first involvement in a, shall we say, "serious project" (though I know Carpenter himself would bristle at that terminology).

It's a portrait of a young man (Johnny Crawford as Billy) who spends his life wrapped in the protective (?) gauze of an idealized celluloid past, specifically that of the old Hollywood Western. He roams about town, enduring mild misfortune and general alienation, and ultimately divorces himself from reality, choosing cowboy daydreams over modern malaise. As such, I'd say it's a slightly darker film than John Carpenter's twangy, nostalgic country guitar riffs would lead you to believe. (I feel as if many members of the Academy may have zoned out during the flick and mistook the trappings of sentimentality for actual sentimentality- or, maybe I did just the opposite.)

Billy's a wayward soul, and his love of the Wild West (through film) leads him to adopt the posturing and accoutrements of the era. His apparent hero is a grizzled old timer, Wild Bill Tucker, who bears some resemblance to his namesake and will talk a blue streak about old bygone days with little to no prompting.

Wild Bill is certainly a mentor figure, and he's bestowed Billy with an antique watch, yet it appears that even Billy is bored by him- the camera continually pans to a ticking clock on the wall as he chatters away. It's also unclear if Wild Bill is reciting lines or just endearingly rambling- but I suppose it doesn't really matter either way.

Billy goes forth into the world, a solitary man lost in an abstract world of his own making. The din of traffic becomes a cattle drive, a passing businessman becomes a dueling opponent, the neighborhood bar becomes a musty tavern.

But a few doses of reality remind Billy of the dangers of living one's life on the (theoretical) silver screen: In 1970, they ask for I.D.s at bars- take a walk, kid. The punks who'll roll you for cash, steal your watch, and call you 'faggot' can't be easily gunned down with a gleaming silver six-shooter.

The pretty girl at the park who'd like to sketch you (Ricky Nelson's wife, Kristin Harmon) isn't enchanted by your tales of 'why John Wayne wore his holster low' or 'how to properly corral a horse.' In fact, she's so bored, she gets up and leaves (in a mirror image of Billy leaving Wild Bill's?).

Is it a cautionary tale for those who would live their lives from a reel of film? A warning to young filmmakers who emptily parrot the things that they love, embracing monotony in the process? Or maybe, through cinematic sleight of hand, it is what it appears to be- an elegiac yearning for the days of Broncho Billy Anderson (THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY) which culminates in the original Broncho Billy's "Resurrection" via a a young man's flight of fancy?

So how do we take the ending: a color reverie, where Billy replays his exchange with Harmon's young artist with romanticized, (horse) operatic results?

The responses I've read seem to think of the ending as inspirational, but I can't help but feel that the final image we're really left with is elsewhere, unseen, in the world of black-and-white: the sad-eyed boy, chawing on a toothpick and playing dress-up, boring anyone who'll listen, and wondering why those rose-colored days of yore will never make an encore performance.

Though he didn't direct, it's tempting to place the film in a larger Carpenter context– alleyway scuffles like THEY LIVE, an urban Western landscape like ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, or even imagery of picket-fenced suburbia that recalls HALLOWEEN. But I believe that we must resist those temptations, as fun as it is to speculate. We can say with certainly, however, that the shadow of Hawks looms over the film, and even beyond the subject matter- star Johnny Crawford had played in EL DORADO, Ricky Nelson starred in RIO BRAVO (Carpenter's favorite film), and Ray Montgomery (who plays the Store Owner here) had appeared in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, MONKEY BUSINESS, and AIR FORCE.

In the end, it's a solid student film. And though it's a bit of a stretch, we can see a few of the thematic preoccupations that would typify Carpenter's later work. Nearly four stars.

-Sean Gill

You can obtain a copy of THE RESURRECTION OF BRONCHO BILLY directly from John Longenecker HERE.


Jason said...

I'd never even heard of this. Carpenter and the Oscars... wow!

Now if only he'd make that pure Western he's always threatened...

Sean Gill said...

I haven't seen it yet, but Carpenter did write a 1990 TV Western called EL DIABLO which starred Anthony Edwards and Lou Gossett Jr., but I feel as if he missed the boat on a "pure western"- knuckleheaded financiers will probably only put up for his tried and tested genres- horror and sci-fi.

PictureAmerica said...

June 29, 2011


Hey - your article is thoughtful. Thank you.

Co-Writer / Producer
Academy Award / Live Action Short Film

Anonymous said...

The link to buy a copy of The Resurrection of Bronco Billy does not work. Where can I buy a cleans copy? The You Tube version is awful - bad video and audio. Hopefully, the seller has a much better version.



Sean Gill said...


Yeah, you're right– that web site appears to have been taken down since I posted this. I was in touch with the producer John Longenecker last year, and while his new official site does not seem to list a way to buy The Resurrection of Broncho Billy like the old one did, I think the contact form email over there is probably the best place to start.