Monte Walsh


Elegiac is a word that has been used more than a few times to describe westerns that began to appear in the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s. While many movies tagged with this term do have a certain sorrowful quality to them, I can’t help feeling that it’s been overused at times. On the other hand, there are occasions where this description is highly appropriate, Monte Walsh (1970) being one of them. This is a remarkable film, a work of gentle and understated power, one which can break your heart and yet fill it up with renewed optimism at the same time. Being well aware of the fact that filmmaking is a collaborative effort, I’m loath to place too much emphasis on the contribution of one individual. However, and despite the fact there’s uniformly excellent work from all those involved in the film, I do feel that a large part of what makes Monte Walsh such an enriching experience comes down to Lee Marvin’s performance in the title role.

The film is split into roughly two halves, with the first part spending less time on plot development than the careful establishment of mood and character interaction. This technique is particularly important in creating believable human beings, people we get to know and consequently care about as the twists and turns of their lives unfold. Monte Walsh (Lee Marvin) and Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) are two veteran cowboys, men starting to feel the sharp bite of age in a world on the brink of huge changes. This fact is apparent right from the outset, when the two friends ride back into town after a hard winter to be met with ominous news. The harsh weather has taken a heavy toll on the ranches, wiping out many and allowing corporate interests to step in. Monte and Chet can count themselves among the lucky ones though; they at least have the offer of doing the only job they really know or care about. Their new masters, never seen and contemptuously referred to as “the accountants”, are an unsentimental breed, however, and owe an attachment to nothing beyond the bottom line. As the need to ensure investments remain profitable rules supreme, the initial group of cowhands is gradually whittled down in the interests of efficiency and cost effectiveness – the tight little community the viewer has come to know and identify with is being broken up before our eyes. To begin with, the younger men, those who have more chances of finding alternative employment, are given notice. Still, these chances are few and far between on a frontier that’s becoming hemmed in by both the barbed wire fences of new owners and the economic restrictions of a new era. One of the first redundancies is Shorty Austin (Mitch Ryan), and his departure is significant in that his meager opportunities set him on a path that will bring him into conflict with the law, his former friends, and ultimately shape the course of events in the second half of the picture. Throughout it all, the overriding theme is a sense of loss, and this is seen principally from the perspective of Monte. As viewers, we’re invited to watch as Monte loses first the job he knows and respects, the friends he’s had all his life, the woman he loves, and the only way of life he’s ever experienced. On paper, this should all add up to a pretty depressing time for the audience, yet the stoicism, the determination, the unstinting hope and essential humanity of the lead character means that there’s a kind of life-affirming optimism at the heart of the movie.


Jack Schaefer wrote one of the most famous stories to be made into a western movie when he penned Shane. He also provided the source material for Monte Walsh and thus added another iconic frontier hero. Instead of a wandering gunfighter, although Monte’s no slouch on that score either, he presented a man battling to come to terms with a world that seems to be suddenly passing him by. I guess it all boils down to a meditation on integrity, the determination to remain true to the experiences and life one knows, and ultimately to oneself. As such, the movie is a curious and successful combination of the melancholy and the triumphant. For all the disappointments, and they come thick and fast as the tale goes along, there’s always a hint of hope. John Barry was one of the greatest composers of film scores and although his name isn’t one normally associates with westerns, he created music that’s literally pitch perfect and complements the images on the screen. He was one of the best at conveying a sense of expansiveness and those dusty scenes of the mustang round-up would be a whole lot poorer were it not for his contribution. Still and all, it’s the main theme  The Good Times are Coming – with lyrics by Hal David and vocals by the incomparable (Mama) Cass Elliot – that dominates it all. At first, this piece may seem like a paradox, an irony, in such a story but it’s actually entirely appropriate. Monte Walsh is a man who’s been bruised by life, but never beaten, a dreamer who’s both in thrall to the past and in love with the future – the ultimate cowboy perhaps. And then there’s the directorial debut of William A Fraker, that master cinematographer who took the reins in only a handful of films. His eye for landscape, his ability to draw genuine performances from his cast, and his impeccable sense of timing are wonderful and it’s regrettable that he directed so few movies.

Lee Marvin has to go down as of the Hollywood greats. Starting out in supporting roles, he damned near stole the picture from many a legendary lead. By the time he made Monte Walsh, Marvin was in his mid-40s and looked every hard-living day of it. He always had character in his face, his voice and movements – you just knew this was a man who had been around, who had done things and was no stranger to life. Consequently, he fits the role of Monte like a glove, having the looks and experience in the genre to positively demand you believe in him. Despite winning an Oscar for Cat Ballou, I still feel this actor has never received his full due. Even today, he tends to be thought of as an action actor, a villainous character and tough guy. Well, he was a tough guy, but in the real sense of the term – an all-round man. He could play menacing as well as any but there was a whole lot more to him, power and subtlety to be exact. As Monte Walsh, he’s electrifying – you can’t take your eyes off him. Every bad break in life is etched into those craggy features and every sadness too, but there’s humor and tenderness beneath it all. I could pick out most any scene in the movie to prove my point but I’ll mention just two. The aftermath of Chet’s wedding is a sobering moment for Monte; the full impact of the changes to his world have just begun to hit home, and he heads for the refuge of the saloon. But as he enters he gets another shock – the place is deserted, a forlorn shell that’s a world away from the thriving hub it had once been. The realization and subsequent acceptance of this unpleasant truth is clear to see in just a few brief twitches around the eyes and mouth. Additionally, one of the most moving sequences comes when Monte arrives too late and discovers that his great love Martine (Jeanne Moreau) has passed away. His grief is completely internalized and controlled, yet there’s no question about its depth. As he opens her little jewelry box and finds both a lock of his hair and the unused money he once pressed upon her, there’s just the faintest glimmer of a tear in the corner of his eye – far more telling and powerful than any display of histrionics.


Marvin may have been the beating heart of the movie, but he had no shortage of first class support right through the cast. Jack Palance was another performer who could ignite the screen at will, an actor of extraordinary intensity who was capable of exhausting an audience emotionally. This film, however, saw him playing a model of restraint and self-control. Where Monte would not be cowed by the vagaries of fate, Chet was the more philosophical. Recognizing that time was no longer on his side, he took the pragmatic view and settled down to town life and marriage. Palance added a note of calmness and pragmatism to his performance here, more blissful than defeatist. However, it’s worth noting that it’s the ornery refusal to bow down that leads to Palance’s downfall. Monte held onto that quality throughout, refused to succumb at any point, and fares better in the end. Jeanne Moreau also gave a memorable turn as Martine, the woman in Monte’s life – even his lifeline to some extent – who can forgive him anything and would wait for him for ever. Moreau was all sadness and sexiness, a classically tragic figure. The wordless scene where she tries to arouse the interest of her man as he struggles to roll a cigarette is a beautiful moment of humor and sensuality. And the discussion she has with Marvin about their future together is an object lesson in how to blend romance and regret with ever allowing it to descend into the maudlin.

For a long time, Monte Walsh was one of those movies that I feared would never see the light of day on DVD. Then Paramount finally came to their senses and released it in the US. The film is correctly presented in anamorphic scope and looks pretty good with no distractions or damage that I was aware of. The only extra feature offered is the theatrical trailer, which I think is a shame as a commentary track would be welcome and appropriate. Still, I’m grateful to have the movie available on disc so I’m not going to complain too much. I think this is one of the great westerns, not only of the 1970s but of one of the greats period. There is a depth and richness to Monte Walsh that stands the test of time; I think it’s a perfect piece of filmmaking where I cannot honestly find anything to criticize. It’s one of those films that grows on you and draws you further in with each subsequent viewing, improving with age. To those already familiar with it, it should need no recommendation. And for those others yet to experience its magic, well you’re in for a treat. I recommend this one without reservation or qualification – the definition of a classic.



49 thoughts on “Monte Walsh

  1. Loved the review. One of my all time favorite westerns. Marvin ranks up there with the best(his POINT BLANK is the best adaptation of a Stark/Westlake Parker novel).

    I must admit I even have a certain fondness for the Selleck remake, owing more, I think, to Selleck’s presence, than anything. Selleck, along with his oft times partner Sam Elliot seem to have, in my mind, the look of cowboys. I can’t tell you how many westerns have been spoiled by miscasting over the years.


    • Thanks Randy.
      I feel the remake with Selleck is quite good on its own terms – the problem is it just cannot compete with the original.
      I agree that Selleck has the look and manner that belongs in westerns. He has done a number of TV pieces, but he just seemed to come along at the wrong time to get a proper shot at playing a cowboy on the big screen.


  2. By the late 80s, I thought I was reasonably familiar with the great westerns. Then, one evening, for the first time, I caught a TV screening of Monte Walsh. Although I was watching it on a small black-and-white portable TV, in a panned-and-scanned version, it still knocked me sideways. A truly magnificent western. A great review Colin. You’ve caught the essence of it. I had the song “The Good Times Are Comin’ ” ringing around my head for days after watching the film. Marvin’s understated performance is his very best.
    ” I rode down the grey. You had to sit him high.”
    They don’t come any better than Monte Walsh.


    • Hi Dafydd. You just reminded me of something I ought to have addressed, the use of dialogue in the film. It’s quite sparse really and all the better for it. Words are always chosen carefully and delivered with real feeling. There’s a lot of quotable passages and lines and I get the sense that all the cast fully understood the weight of those words and the necessity to express them as carefully and skilfully as possible.


  3. This was one of my favorite films among those I watched for the first time this year. I loved it so much I wound up buying a copy of the book after the film ended and hope to read it soon—the first western I ever read was Schaefer’s Shane. Excellent review, Colin.


  4. What a wonderful review for one of the great and truly elegiac westerns there is, Colin. I have a real soft spot for this one. Plus, the fact that the lead and supporting actor who are the key cowboys of the tale had been, at one point in their careers, been western villains delivers an unexpected poignancy. I couldn’t put it into words, but you surely did with your piece, my friend. Thanks for this.


    • Very kind Michael, as always. Palance was, of course, also in Shane adapted from Schaefer’s more famous book. Both Marvin and Palance had a long-standing association with the western, as you say, and that only adds to the authenticity of the whole picture.


  5. Just like the film itself,this was a magnificent and touching review.Whereas the earlier period western across the wide missouri was a compromise to a sprawling classic with mgm taking scenes out,monte walsh seems to be intact with no loose ends.I have walked the dusty street of mescal arizona where this was filmed and pictured in my mind monte and chet riding into town.If the role of pike bishop in the wild bunch was first offered to burt lancaster,jimmy stewart,gregory peck,charlton heston,sterling hayden,robert mitchum and lee marvin among others,my question is,was lee first choice for monte ? This would certainly have a different feel and look if the aged howard hawks had directed monte with john wayne starring.Jack palance must have sensed just like with shane that he was involved with something special here because he is a restrained perfect fit.Jack could go over the top in spaghetti westerns that he thought would never see the light of day back in the states.Their will never be filmed again another man versus horse blow out bucking marathon the likes that is in this film.This is far and away the crown jewel of man against beast.What are the chances while camera rolls to film a bucking horse so mad that he smashes his face into a barrel ? I realised in 1970 when I first seen this that it was special.Sadly it just seemed to slip through the cracks as far as recognition goes.Had marvin played pike bishop though,he would be watched and remembered every day in that one but lee does bravura here and no one remembers.I have wondered when it came out and I feel positive that john wayne would have went to see his friends film if duke thought to himself ” Now this is what I need to be in more than chisum ! ”


    • Hi Raymie, good of you to stop by.
      There are few films which I feel achieve perfection but this is one of them. It’s not an unknown movie by any means but, perhaps it’s being unavailable on disc for so long is part of the reason, but it is one that hasn’t had anything near the recognition it deserves.

      I have read some criticism of the tone, suggesting that it’s a little uneven. I can’t agree with that assessment though. For me, the rhythm and tone is just right – it reflects the ups and downs, the quirks, joy and sadness of a man’s life. Were it relentlessly somber or overly amusing then it would lose that connection with the reality of life experience. The great strength of its structure and rhythm lies in its ability to draw empathy from the viewer; anyone who has lived a little can recognize some of the feelings of Monte.

      And I agree that the horse breaking scene is a phenomenal piece of work. It’s such an exhilarating sequence and I’ve never seen its like before or since.

      Thanks for the compliment, and for the interesting points you raised about the casting too.


  6. Good of you to draw attention to the skills of Marvin, Colin….I agree with your assessment of his ability to steal “the picture from many a legendary lead”! I haven’t seen Monte Walsh in its entirety but am now interested in spending some time with it.

    You perhaps have seen the piece I did on Boetticher’s acclaimed ability to create multi-dimensional (even charmingly attractive) antagonists…I showcase the venerable Marvin in a great scene in which his character plays upon relationship tensions in Seven Men from Now. If interested (or others are), here is the link:

    Thanks for your continued work, Colin!


  7. This is a wonderfully melancholy film that really sticks in the mind – I regularly listen to John Barry’s score on my way to work as I think it one of his best and most unheralded scores. Never seen the Selleck remake though I imagine he would be good in it – and thanks for pointing out the two connections to SHANE which i had not picked up on before.


    • The score is a real standout for me too Sergio. I greatly admire all of Barry’s work and it never ceases to amaze me how he was able to bring his talents to bear on such a wide diversity of genres.
      I love the melancholic aspects of the movie, and the music, but it’s the way that this intrinsic regretful tone is never allowed to completely overtake the characters that makes it even more special. I think the fact that the hopefulness that’s always hinted at, and is never fully suppressed, is part of what makes it a film that’s so rewarding to revisit.


      • Which reminds me that I need to plan a return visit as I don’t have this one on DVD actually (which I just realised to my great horror and surprise – I HATE it when that happens and my memory and my DVD shelves let me down …)


        • Anyone with any interest in westerns should hunt down a copy of the movie. Character driven pieces are always good for a rewatch and this is one of the best in that category.

          You mentioned the remake before and, as I said earlier, it’s not a bad effort – just that it has an awful lot to live up to.


  8. I recently watched a movie that also cast both Marvin and Palance, that being Attack, directed by Robert Aldrich. They both give strong performances in this tense WW2 drama. It’s a great movie even though it has a rather unimaginative title. Good story, the film incorporates good action, a surprise since it was taken from a stage play.
    I also watched Monte Walsh recently and agree completely with your great review, Colin. I was completely taken in by the characters and their dispositions and had a real melancholy when the film came to an end.
    I’ll watch anything Lee Marvin did. Very underrated actor.


    • Well, if I’ve encouraged you to check it out again Toby, then that’s very satisfying for me. I find it a very rewarding film and one that tries to do the west proud.


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  10. When forced to choose my no. 1 favorite Western movie, I always choose “Monte Walsh.” I like the film for too many reasons to recount here, but one of them is how Lee Marvin, who gave us such memorable villains in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Seven Men From Now” and ditto for Jack Palance in “Shane,” could create two such likeable and sympathetic characters.

    Jack Schaefer’s novel on which the film is based is much less well-known than “Shane,” but it is also a winner.

    Great review. Keep up the good work.


    • Yes, both Marvin and Palance were excellent villains in their time and Monte Walsh gave them the opportunity to play a couple of basically decent guys for a change. I really need to track down a copy of the novel though asap.


  11. Years ago a good friend of ours gave us a copy of this book, since then it has been reread by the both of us so much that it is falling apart. Just ordered a new copy! This is a vivid tale of cowboy life written in short story form as though the writter was keeping a journal of events from this cowboys life. He has the ability to let you feel the action unfold as he writes, putting you right in the middle of stampedes, death, train wrecks, bar room fights, lost loves, and general cowboy onreyness. Please don’t judge the book by the movie, it was a waste of film and Lee Marvin, having little to do with the book or the cowboy way of life and code of honor. This is a keeper you can enjoy over and over.


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    • Hello Thomas. While there are many deeply sad moments, especially towards the end of the film, I tend to think of it more as a bittersweet movie – stubbornly optimistic and celebrating the resilience of the central character.


  13. I can’t believe how this movie seemed to get by so many people. ?? It’s a mystery. I didn’t even know of it myself until by brother Bruce told me it was one of his favorite Westerns – then I picked up on it.
    Also, it is rarely shown on TV. Why? It’s in the upper class of Westerns IMO.
    Oh well, all we can do is try to spread the word.


    • I think the fact the film wasn’t all that easy to see for a fair bit of time may be part of the reason it’s not as well known as it deserves to be. Having said that, those who do get to see it come away with a very positive opinion of the movie.


    • Thanks a lot for stopping by and reading Dwayne. Your biography seems to be very well received and, as a big fan of Lee Marvin’s work, I can assure you I will be picking up a copy.


  14. Pingback: Monte Walsh (1970) | timneath

      • Actually, I only recently discovered this site, which deals with my two favorite genres. I am very impressed with the quality of the reviews, which I think are thoughtful and informative, and intend to read all of the older posts. Thanks for this interesting and very enjoyable blog.


        • That’s great. I’m delighted to hear you’ve enjoyed your visits so far and hope you continue to find something of interest. Feel free to comment on any entry that engages you – I “lost” comments on some of the older posts when I changed platforms a few years back but it’s nice to know they’re still being read.


  15. I saw this back when I was far too young to understand it. I need to give it a reboot. The remake with Selleck was filmed a mere 20 minute drive outside of Calgary. I had a few pals work as extras on it.


    • Yes, probably an example of a film that makes more sense or resonates more anyway with the passage of time.
      That must have been a marvelous experience for your friends.


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  18. Colin – somehow I have missed seeing Monte Walsh until yesterday. It’s a superb film: I could not fault anything about it. It has had a huge impact and I know I’ll be rewatching it often. Your review matches the movie: it is superb too. I might have suggested this before, but I think you should publish a complete collection of your reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m very pleased to learn you just discovered this movie, Steve. Westerns of that era are quite hit and miss but this is a definite success.
      Thanks too for the encouragement.


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