Directed by Monte Hellman
Ride in the Whirlwind is one of Monte Hellman’s two bleak, sparse westerns made with Jack Nicholson in 1966. The other is an existential little thing called The Shooting. Like that film this one is brief and slow at the same time. They chronicle ever tightening nooses, so to speak, as a small group of characters are pursued to the ends of the world for crimes we never see them commit.
Vern, Wes and Otis (Cameron Mitchell, Jack Nicholson, Tom Filer) are three cowboys in the wrong place at the wrong time. They come across a small gang of outlaws at a hideout where they decide to rest for the night. They talk amongst themselves about the gang’s true intentions, but they figure if neither of them wants trouble then trouble can surely be prevented.
The next morning, however, a group of vigilante marksmen surrounds the hideout looking for the gang, led by Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton), and our three main cowboys get caught in the crossfire. In the barrage of gunfire, Otis is killed while Vern and Wes escape on horseback up the mountain. As they keep climbing they will eventually have to ditch the horses to evade the pursuing forces.
Blind Dick and his surviving gang member are lynched unceremoniously after their capture, signaling to us what will happen to Vern and Wes if caught. To the vigilantes they are nothing more than outlaws, based purely on being seen with Blind Dick.
Eventually Vern and Wes escape the mountains and stumble upon a farm inhabited by an older man, his wife and his daughter where they will hideout for as long as possible. When one of scouts from the vigilante group arrives he quickly determines that the outlaws are here.
Vern and Wes will try to escape on horseback but get into a firefight with the old farmer, killing him in the process. His daughter, Abigail (Millie Perkins) hardly sheds a tear as she watches the men who shot her father depart, as if to get shot in the old west is akin to a common cold.
The vigilantes close in, and after getting wounded, Vern holds the rest of them back so Wes can get away, providing an unsentimental but upbeat ending to the film.
Ride in the Whirlwind makes for a bleak view of the old west. Everyone is either hunter or hunted, and the lines between the two are quickly blurred. It matters not who these three cowboys were because they are defined entirely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose all that matters is who you are to the person holding a gun.
The driving force here is the posse of vigilantes who seek to do justice, but in doing so they go overboard, killing the men they’re after as well as two others and a third, the farmer, who is caught in the crossfire. When they see that the innocent farmer has been killed, all they can do is quickly apologize to the man’s widow, as if they just sideswiped her car in a Walgreen’s parking lot.
Up Next: Total Recall (1990), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (2018)