As Bruce Langhorne (who composed the music for Peter Fonda’s directorial debut The Hired Hand) said, “Nobody at Universal knew what to do with it. They said, hey, this isn’t a movie. The hero doesn’t win in the end. It completely violated the formula” Langhorne’s collaboration with Fonda almost did not happen because studio executives complained to Fonda that they did not know who he was. Fonda promptly shut down their concerns by explaining to them that Langhorne had played with Bob Dylan on Bringing It All Back Home (Langhorne was the inspiration for “Mr. Tambourine Man”) and had performed with many other famous singer-songwriters. The cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond succinctly summarized the film’s failure as a typical Western” “It was too real. It was like a European movie.” Fonda, fresh from the success of Easy Rider in 1969, had been given creative and financial freedom when he filmed Hired Hand during the summer of 1970 in New Mexico, yet the following year during the summer of 1971, it had a limited theatrical release and its distribution company pulled it from theaters. A billboard and a theatrical trailer marketed it as an action-packed western, presenting a completely different film than what director Martin Scorsese (in its 2001 restoration thirty years later) accurately described as “impressionistic, an extraordinarily delicate picture.”

A deep disappointment and distrust of the studio system ensued for Fonda that caused him to retreat away from Hollywood into the independent film industry for the majority of his career during the following decades. Although Fonda had become disillusioned with Hollywood, he praised the local New Mexico Film Commission (“very good and very helpful”) during the making of his directorial debut. Fonda found the ghost town of Cabezon (where his character Harry Collings meets his tragic demise) inside a book “at a little store in the middle of nowhere.

The location of Harry’s estranged wife Hannah’s house was found similarly in a spontaneous way. As production designer Lawrence G. Paull recalled, the crew “spent four or five days scouting for an area to build the family farm. We found it in Espanola on an Indian reservation. The setting represented part of his life that he had walked away from. I wanted it to be welcoming and warm and put that big question up of why Peter left, why the character came back.”

Alongside Paull’s frontier pioneer homestead circa 1881, other key formal elements of the film were Langhorne’s soundtrack in conjunction with the cinematography of Zsigmond. Langhorne “started thinking about the time and place, late 1800s America” and played “40 instruments” including banjo, dulcimer, Farfisa organ, fiddle, flute, guitar, harmonica, etc. Langhorne’s music is both earthy and ethereal, reflective and rustic. Cascading chords echo in the opening images of the film and are an audio parallel to the morning sun dappling down upon the shimmering, sparkling stream. Both Paull’s family farm and the first scene in the film radiate warmth because of Zsigmond’s camera focus and lighting.

The Hired Hand

The first scene in the film features Harry Collings (Peter Fonda) fishing on the banks of a river while his younger friend Dan Griffen (Robert Pratt) swims and then stumbles onto the shore. Fonda described this scene in primordial terms, “The way I look at it, we all came out of the water a couple billion years ago and I think we pretty much fell on our ass.” Fonda’s remark about the hubris of man applies to both the central character Harry Collings and Dan Griffen in novelist Alan Sharp’s screenplay. Harry’s hubris is in the abandonment of his wife Hannah and his daughter Janey to travel with his friend Arch Harris (Warren Oates) for several years. Harry’s hubris finally catches up with him when they arrive at a broken down, dusty, ramshackle tavern where they drink rotgut whiskey. Harry has had enough of this vagabond wandering. Dan has the hubris of youth that Harry once had. He does not understand Harry’s yearning for his wife and daughter. He says “to hell with him” and tells Arch that the two of them can continue on their journey west to California without him. Arch quietly understands. Both Fonda and Oates convey this weariness in facial expressions rather than through expository dialogue. The performances are subtle and superb.

Dan’s hubris, he sleeps with a Mexican woman (Rita Rogers), results in McVey (Severn Darden) killing him. This is an event that happened in countless Westerns before Fonda’s and usually ended in an action-packed duel between desperadoes and gunslingers. However, Fonda does something completely different with this scene. As Dan bleeds on the cantina’s dirt floor, he cries out like a child for his mother before he dies. The audience does not usually see such a display of vulnerability by a male character in a western.

After Dan’s death, Harry buries his corpse while Arch reads scriptural verses from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. Zsigmond displays two contrasting shots that mirror Jesus’ prophetic teachings that Arch reads. There is a shot of a silhouetted face surrounded by darkness when he recites “But the kingdom of the father is spread upon the earth” followed by a shot of Harry and Arch riding on their horses past Cabezon peak as his recitation ceases (“and men do not see it”). This quote crystallizes Harry’s “grass is always greener on the other side” outlook that made him neglect his wife and daughter. 

The Hired Hand

After Harry crucifies McVey with a gunshot wound to each of his feet (another Christian image) as vengeance for his friend Dan’s murder, Harry and Arch ride away. The mysticism continues, although it is not through explicit religious imagery. The cinematography of Zsigmond follows Harry and Arch throughout diverse landscapes of New Mexico–the sunset shadows in the desolate Rio Puerco valley (Cabezon peak in the background); the blindingly bright gypsum crystal dunes of White Sands; and the aspen trees, evergreen forests, mountains, and lakes of Chama where a gentle rain falls upon the waters as thunder booms in the distance during the summer monsoon season. Editor Frank Mazzola’s freeze-frames, slow motions, and superimpositions of Zsigmond’s images create a montage that is a hazy, psychedelic tapestry perfectly complemented by Langhorne’s hypnotic music. Zsigmond admired Mazzola for his ability to infuse “poetry into the story” and Mazzola described editing the film as a process of “total magic…middle of the symphony…the muses are taking over and you’re on automatic pilot.” Fonda summarized this sequence as a “ride of purgatory…through this incredible tortured landscape where the horses seem to be walking on clouds.”

The Hired Hand

The Hired Hand

Fonda rhapsodized about Harry’s return home in an Edenic and Greek sense (“back to the garden”) and Zsigmond frames this image in a pastoral, painterly perspective with Harry and Arch on the right side of the frame riding through the blossoms on the breeze from the cottonwoods and the flowers in the meadow, tree trunks dividing the frame, while Harry’s daughter Janey perches atop a wagon watching them on the left side of the frame. 

The Hired Hand

While the first half of the film is quite visual, the second half of the film leans more heavily on Alan Sharp’s screenplay as Hannah (Verna Bloom) is introduced, a defiantly strong female character who is unadorned (unlike many previous American westerns, Verna Bloom wears no makeup or fancy, stylish dresses) and unashamed of her own sexuality as a woman. After Harry learns that she has slept with previous hired hands, he confronts her (even Arch admonishes him not to pass judgment on Hannah). Hannah stands up for herself in a monologue that is both feminist and modern. She talks about how she would get lonely when Harry was gone, but also how she did not want men to move in with her because she would not be bossed around by any man.

The friendship of Harry and Arch is contrasted with Hannah both through Sharp’s screenplay and the images of cinematographer Zsigmond. Harry and Arch are shown more often outside working, while Hannah is shown more often inside the farmhouse. Zsigmond’s camera is set at a distance from Harry and Arch, merging them with the clouds, the land, and the instruments of their labor, such as a sickle. Zsigmond’s camera is closer to Hannah, especially in a scene on a windy night when she carries an oil lamp while visiting her sleeping daughter Janey. Zsigmond was inspired by baroque art: “The way we shot Hired Hand, it looked really different than other westerns. There was no electricity in those days. We had some old-fashioned lighting sources. I think about Georges de la Tour with his paintings of people holding candles. I’m always thinking about light and shadows. The shadows are more important.”

The Hired Hand

After Arch leaves so Harry and Hannah can rekindle their relationship, Arch is captured by McVey and his men. Harry tells Hannah he has to go rescue his friend. Hannah, both angry and crying, thinks this is Harry falling back on his old ways of rambling, that he will leave she and Janey behind once again. Verna Bloom’s performance in this scene is heartbreaking.

In one of the saddest scenes in cinema history, Harry is gunned down in the ghost town of Cabezon while attempting to save his friend Arch. The film feels during this scene as if it has turned full circle to its beginning (Dan’s death), another moment of vulnerability from a male character, startling and striking because this is not typical for a western. There is a close-up on Fonda’s bearded, Christ-like face, contorted in pain and weeping. Fonda referred to this scene as a “pieta.” Mazzola brilliantly edited this scene–Arch holds Harry while Mazzola superimposes Hannah waiting for them on the front porch of the home.

The Hired Hand

Langhorne’s “Ending” is an aching, funereal piece. Langhorne’s echoing flute, elegiac fiddle, mournful organ, and slowly strummed guitar perfectly parallels Hannah’s sorrow when she realizes Arch has returned, however, Harry will never return. Fonda praised Verna Bloom’s poignant performance–“this change in her face is so powerful, not a word.”

The Hired Hand

Peter Fonda’s Hired Hand is contemplative, poetic, and reflective, displaying a depth of emotion and maturity that was not present in the American western genre before 1971 and, fifty years later, the film is still an underrated masterpiece.

An Interview with Hawk Koch:
The Making of Peter Fonda’s Hired Hand

Finding Locations for the Filming of The Hired Hand.

Hawk Koch was an assistant director on Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, as well as other key films during the New Hollywood of the 1970s. Hawk Koch later became an executive producer on many movies throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Hawk Koch served as President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 2012 – 2013. Hawk Koch published his memoir Magic Time: My Life in Hollywood in 2019. 

How were you first hired as an assistant director for Peter Fonda’s Hired Hand?

Peter and I both came from families that had roots in the film industry. I was working in Santa Fe as a first assistant director on Billy Jack. Peter and I were both staying at the local Ramada Inn. Peter and I had a conversation together about Hired Hand. They planned to start filming that summer. Peter asked me to join him and their crew.

According to the American Film Institute catalog, Hired Hand was filmed on location in New Mexico during June, July, and August 1970. Why was New Mexico chosen as the filming location?

Peter Fonda owned property in New Mexico, as did Dennis Hopper. They had both spent time in the state after the success of Easy Rider. The landscapes were inspiring for Peter.

Peter Fonda

What was it like working with director Peter Fonda on his debut film?

Peter was excited every day, he was a dreamer, he always had a child’s imagination. He and his business partner, producer Bill Hayward, grew up together as kids. The two of them were so excited to have one of the first Chevy Broncos. We used that black Chevy Bronco to find film locations. Peter always had in mind this Ulysses journey home for Hired Hand

Do you have any memories of the cast or crew?

We had a local New Mexico person (I can’t remember the name) who helped us with location scouting. We would drive around and Vilmos Zsigmond would wait for these spectacular, stunning sunsets. Then Paul Ray, our horse wrangler, would get the two horses and Peter and Warren would ride off into the sunset. I suggested Carl Manoogian (an excellent key grip) to Vilmos. Vilmos thanked me for Carl joining the crew. Vilmos was really surprised at how good Carl was. Ron Vidor was the assistant camera operator for Vilmos (he may have more memories of the filming).

John Poer was my second assistant director (he also may have more memories of the filming).

Larry Paull was our art director/production designer. Larry was brilliant. He created the 1881 frontier of the old West in Hired Hand. (Lawrence G. Paull later created the futuristic Los Angeles of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.)

Warren Oates was such a professional actor. Warren did what was asked of him, great guy. 

Several of Peter’s friends (Ted Markland and others) played some of the villains. They were fun and goofy. Severn Darden was a great comic and did a good job as a villain. 

Larry Hagman was probably the wildest person of all, he played the role of the sheriff.

Alan Sharp (the screenwriter) was there during the beginning of filming.

Were there any behind-the-scenes moments during filming of Hired Hand that stand out to you?

We were all kids and we were doing what we loved. We weren’t worried about where we were going to stay or what the food was like. 

Dennis Hopper stopped by the set. There were drugs around.

I remember Peter bringing his little daughter onto the set (she was 1 or 2 years old). 

What I remember the most is the energy on the set. I had only been working in the film industry for five years. It was a group of young people doing what we love most–creating and making movies. We had such a talented cast and crew. We were all great at our craft, although we did not know it at the time.

I wish we could do it again!

About The Author

Mark Lager’s film writing has been published in CineAction, Cinema Retro, and Film International. He has also written a Southern Gothic screenplay (“To Death With You”) and a short novella about the crisis in Syria (The Dust Shall Sing Like A Bird).

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