This first feature directed by Robert Benton sets the tone for all the good work he was to follow it with. While there’s little in common between this darkly funny western, and say ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ on a story level, the underlying style and themes – a genuine appreciation of the complexity of human nature, a refusal to judge characters in simplistic terms, a sense of humor off-setting even heart rending situations, a subtle visual strength that never overwhelms the story, but always strengthens and feeds it – are all already in place.
Here he creates a western not quite like any other, as a rag-tag group of young boys, most on the run from conscription in the civil war (clearly a Vietnam-era reference) try to make it on their own as ‘outlaws’, or at least their romantic notion of such.
The main conflict is between Brian Brown’s straight arrow Christian boy, aping the ideals and notions taught him all his life, and the very young Jeff Bridges acting out his schoolboy idea of a tough guy. Along the way, as they encounter a series of real adults -- dangerous, hardened, seemingly with no ideals left at all -- both young men are slowly forced by circumstance to change their own self-image.
There are a few cheats here or there on a story level, and not every episode is as good as the next in this episodic tale, but this is a unique, creative and terrific use of the ‘old west’ to explore modern morality with wit, humanity and complexity.