The Hired Hand is the story of Harry Collings (Fonda), a man who some 7 years earlier abandoned his wife to be a saddle tramp, roaming the south-west, never really settling anywhere. He’s been doing this with friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates). Collings has been mulling over the idea of returning home and when circumstances force both men to move on again, he does just that. But his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom) understandably isn’t welcoming and Harris doesn’t feel the need to put down roots like Harry.
Although The Hired Hand on the surface displays the trappings of a classic western (including a violent past coming a-lookin’ for Collings) it wasn’t made to be one. Those seeking the hippie-dream-gone-sour of the biking classic were to be disappointed as well. The movie disappeared quickly from theatres and a couple of years later showed up on TV with extra scenes in it. Fonda himself never let it go, and with the later trend for revisionist westerns like Unforgiven it seems time for a proper reappraisal.
Fonda doesn’t like the TV version with the 20 extra minutes (though those scenes do come as part of the bountiful extras included here) so we get his original, less structured vision on this new release.
Anyone expecting the rush of Easy Rider was likely to be perplexed. For us though this is a considered, thoughtful film about a man’s place in his own world and the lifelong uneasiness that comes from never feeling truly tethered to anything until it might be too late. It's beautifully shot and has an evocative score by folk artist Bruce Langhorne.
Elements of The Hired Hand are ahead of their time. Having something in common with Terrence Malick’s ‘70s movies, there’s a contemplative, autumnal feel to events. A word that’s often used in relation to later period westerns is ‘elegiac’ and it certainly fits here.
A lot of highly regarded films haven’t been understood properly at the time of release and only end up as universally appreciated ‘classics’ many years down the line after re-evaluation grants them that status. Fonda might be hoping for that with a film he clearly obviously cares very deeply about. We happen to agree.
It's arguable that some people will still find it patience-testing, navel gazing noodling masquerading as a film. Others will appreciate the artistry of the filmmaking, the performances (Oates was never bad in anything, Bloom is excellent) and the poetry that comes from it.
We were in the latter camp and loved it, but it’s very much personal preference.
THE HIRED HAND (1971) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: PETER FONDA / SCREENPLAY: ALAN SHARP / STARRING: PETER FONDA, WARREN OATES, VERNA BLOOM, ROBERT PRATT / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW