When director Monte Hellman and pal Jack Nicholson set off for Utah in early 1965 to make a pair of movies for producer Roger Corman, “Ride in the Whirlwind”, written by Nicholson, is the only one they had originally intended to make. While more straightforward than its companion film “The Shooting”, it’s no less political.
The first thing we see is the robbery of a stagecoach by a gang led by Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton). It doesn’t go so well, as the stagecoach driver is shot and one of the gang is captured and hanged. As three traveling cowhands, Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Nicholson), and Otis (Tom Filer) pass through the countryside, they stumble upon the scene of execution. Later they stop by a remote cabin to camp for the night, and the inhabitants offer up their hospitality to the travelers. Unfortunately, the residents turn out to be Blind Dick and his gang. Bright and early the next morning, the local sheriff and a team of vigilantes lay siege to the area and they don’t really make any distinction between who might be in the gang and who might not. Both Otis and the gang are soon killed. The team of vigilantes, committed to their idea of justice, then set out after the escaping Vern and Wes, who lack supplies and soon enough even horses. The surviving pair come to the realization that the only way they can avoid hanging is to become criminals themselves.
Man, these guys are screwed. I believe Nicholson and Hellman get their point across about the stupidity of frontier justice. If such concepts are not tempered with caution and some kind of intelligence, those in charge of its execution aren’t much better than the poor bastards they hunt down and kill. In most of Hellman’s films he makes to some degree the point that men need to get past bullshit concepts of honor and “what’s right” and learn to let things go once in a while for their own good. This is brought home in the movie by a farmer (George Mitchell) who can’t accept the fact that Vern and Wes have little choice but to steal his horses. As a result, a lot more people lose much more than a couple of animals.
Nicholson gives an amazingly subtle (for him) performance. Cameron Mitchell, usually a role player, often in Westerns, probably does the best acting of his life as a man haunted by how quickly his life has gone down the tubes. Of the pair of films Hellman and Nicholson made together “Ride In the Whirlwind” is actually both more traditional and more nihilistic than “The Shooting”. Each film is arguably among the best Westerns ever made. It’s ironic that between Hellman, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah, some of the finest examples of the form were made as the genre seemed to be in its death throws. As Hellman’s reputation has grown due to “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Cockfighter”, a new audience is ready to embrace his other films. If they’re looking for greatness, this film is at the top of the list.
Get the whole story in our MONTE HELLMAN SPECTACULAR! Read the feature KUBRICK IDEAS ON A CORMAN BUDGET: THE GREATNEss OF MONTE HELLMAN. Plus, read our exclusive MONTE HELLMAN INTERVIEW: EXPLOITATION OR EXISTENTIALISM? Read all of our Monte Hellman movie reviews: THE SHOOTING, FLIGHT TO FURY, CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37, COCKFIGHTER, and the classic TWO-LANE BLACKTOP.