By 1971, Raquel Welch had developed an impressively eclectic filmography, and within that, a solid little niche in westerns with leading roles in Bandolero! (1968) and 100 Rifles (1969). She took to the genre beautifully, and her mixed Bolivian heritage provided a certain flexibility in portraying characters of different origin or descent (e.g., Mexican, Native American, and Caucasian). Similarly, director Burt Kennedy had several westerns under his belt including Support Your Local Sheriff. Together, the pair followed up with one of their most iconic films: the story of vengeful gunslinger Hannie Caulder.
A frontiersman’s wife, Hannie survives the murder of her husband and her own multiple-rape at the hands of three vile bandits played by legendary character actors and western stalwarts Ernest Borgnine, Jack Elam, and Strother Martin.
The attackers torch the house, leaving Hannie alone, shattered, and homeless — but alive, and forever changed. Grief turns to rage, and she resolves that the evil men must pay with their lives, and rightly so. A chance encounter puts her in the company of grizzled bounty hunter Thomas Luther Price (Robert Culp), and she convinces him, against his wishes, to train her to kill.
Hannie and Thomas visit a renowned gunsmith named Bailey (Christopher Lee!) to fashion her a weapon, and he cooks up an incredible lightweight, dual-triggered design which allows Hannie to shoot and reload with speedy efficiency without needing to use her thumb to cock the hammer. As Bailey designs and fabricates the unique weapon, Price trains Hannie – whilst trying to convince her to abandon her mission of death.
Because this film does have a central rape-revenge aspect, I want to be sensitive in addressing it, especially in light of pervasive rape culture that has been exposed by recent tragedies, even in our supposedly-enlightened modern era. I also don’t want to over-emphasize the rape to the detriment of the revenge, the exacting of which comprises the bulk of the film. While rape as a motivation has become a cheap and overused trope in modern fiction, this particular instance was groundbreaking, mainly because the revenge was performed by an empowered female victim rather than a vengeful male character.
What’s a bit odd – and often criticized – about the film is the dynamic of the three rapists. While we follow Hannie’s journey, the film occasionally circles back to the bandits and their exploits. They’re an inept, cantankerous, and argumentative lot, and their interactions court slapstick. These sequences are often criticized as being too comedic and disarming, but they didn’t give me that sensation at all – I just found the characters all the more despicable for their annoying behavior.
Speaking personally, for several years my own knowledge of the film was informed mainly by its poster, which has a confusingly staged design that’s at odds with the film’s theme.
Raquel is looking unavoidably gorgeous, but her seductive pose, in his poster and others, indicate that the film’s marketing traded on her sex appeal. While probably successful in herding fans into movie theaters, it seems a counterintuitive move for a film with such a positively feminist outlook. What’s even odder is that she’s looking kind of chummy with the guys flanking her. As it turns out, they’re her rapists and man, is this poster weeeeeird.
There is one aspect of the film that I take particular issue with, but it involves a major spoiler.
Expand for spoiler
In the final showdown, the last of Hannie’s nemeses gets the jump on her and she’s ultimately saved by a mysterious man in black – a sort of guardian angel who has been following her movements. Not only is this a completely left-field deus ex machina, but it ultimately robs Hannie of the fullness of her vengeance, and the film of the fullness of its feminine power. It’s a completely unnecessary cheat, and it leaves the film in a weird and unsatisfactory place when the credits roll.
I like this movie – a lot. The inciting event is necessarily unpleasant, but Hannie Caulder, even with its beautiful female lead and sexy marketing, doesn’t exhibit the sleazy or exploitative tendencies of other “rape revenge” films. The rape event is treated as an act of violence and defilement, not eroticism, and sets into play the film’s entire narrative arc. I take this film for what it is – a great western, with an incredible cast, solid action, and most of all a terrific and motivated heroine.
And mad props for this shotgun POV sequence.
Previously available as a barebones edition from Olive in 2011, Hannie Caulder returns to Blu-ray as a part of the “Olive Signature” lines of releases, with some additional features and an improved presentation that includes optional subtitles.
The package is quite nice, with new artwork and a full slipbox (a 5-sided case as opposed to an O-ring sleeve). The slip has a vellum-like matte texture that feels quite nice. A booklet is also included, containing an essay by Kim Morgan that mostly focuses on the film’s rape-revenge aspects (this is a deviation from the originally announced essay by Miriam Bale).
— CultOfBluRayAddicts (@COBRAcollector) November 14, 2016
The disc boasts a new digital restoration, and while it looks great, I didn’t view or own the previous Blu-ray edition so I can’t comment on any improvement, or offer up screen comparisons.
Special Features and Extras
While the lack of a trailer is a noticeable omission, the goodies on the disc, particularly the commentary, are welcome.
Audio commentary by Alex Cox
Alex Cox is best known as the director of films like Repo Man and Walker, but he’s also a film expert who gives a terrific analysis of the film in the historical context of western trends.
“Exploitation or Redemption?: An examination of rape-revenge movies (12:13)
Film scholar Ben Sher recalls the rise of rape-revenge films in the 70s and the problematic balance of titillation and feminism in such pictures, and of course where Hannie Caulder falls in that context.
Win Or Lose: Tigon Pictures and the making of Hannie Caulder (21:17)
Historian and author Sir Christopher Frayling looks at discusses the history of British horror and exploitation creators Tigon Studios, and specifically their production of Hannie Caulder, which was described as an unusual departure for the studio, and having a very low budget.
“Sympathy For Lady Vengeance”
The essay by Kim Morgan from the booklet is also viewable as a 10-page feature on the Blu-ray disc.