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Hannie Caulder

Posted on the 19 September 2015 by Christopher Saunders

Hannie Caulder

"There are no hard women... only soft men!"

Burt Kennedy's Hannie Caulder (1971) is a curious seventies artifact. Part Spaghetti Western, part feminist revenge saga, it's a clear precursor to I Spit on Your Grave, Kill Bill and myriad similar flicks. Well-intentioned it may be, this Women's Lib Western is a mess.
Fleeing after a botched robbery, the Clemens Brothers (Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam and Strother Martin) murder a station master and rape his wife Hannie (Raquel Welch). Hannie joins Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp), a bounty hunter who teaches her to shoot while trying to dissuade her from revenge. Nonetheless, Hannie proves her mettle, and she's soon facing off against the three villains by herself.
Hannie Caulder's main problem comes in squaring intent with execution. Raquel Welch fares surprisingly well, a taciturn vigilante shooting villains and telling off sexist sheriffs. Yet the film qualifies her growing toughness with demeaning, almost exploitative touches. Her rape scene is lurid enough in its first incarnation, must we revisit it in flashback? The camera enjoys lingering on Hannie in maroon serape and tight-fighting pants. It's female empowerment framed for the male gaze.
This disconnect extends beyond its protagonist. Hannie Caulder opens with a bank robbery mixing gory shotgun murders and cornball humor. The Clemens Brothers become trigger-happy Three Stooges, but it's hard to find their antics funny after they've gang-raped someone. There are incongruous touches throughout, from a ludicrous slow-motion kill to the silent "preacher" (Stephen Boyd) who drifts about apropos of nothing. Kennedy can't decide if he's making The Wild Bunch or Support Your Local Sheriff, and the film suffers.
Yet Hannie Caulder isn't a total loss. After a pokey first third, the film comes into its own when Hannie and Thomas retreat to Mexico. This scene allows Hannie to hone her skills and the protagonists to bond, losing the plot for atmosphere and character development. It culminates in a live-fire exercise with Thomas and Hannie staring down some Mexican bandits on the beach. Afterwards, it's satisfying to see Hannie take her revenge, though the denouement seems a bit rushed.
Off-beat casting choices help: Robert Culp as a philosophical bounty hunter, Christopher Lee as a scruffy gunsmith. Yet Kennedy's real coup is casting Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin and Jack Elam - three of the scurviest villains ever to inhabit a Western - as brothers! Not since James Mason, Eli Wallach and Curt Jurgens in Lord Jim has there been such a splendiferous villain team-up. Borgnine devours scenery, Martin whines and blusters, with Elam delivering sardonic quips. They nearly steal the film.
Despite these pleasures, Hannie Caulder isn't a success. Female-centric Westerns aren't very common, so it's a shame this one doesn't work. Nonetheless, those looking for a hot-to-trot Raquel Welch and hammy villains will find something to enjoy.

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