Largely misappreciated when it was released two summers after Easy Rider, The Hired Hand—starring and directed by Peter Fonda—is a touching and absurd example of the hippie western. Less radical than Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, not as cool as Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (also from Universal’s doomed “youth” unit), it’s still a film of considerable ambition and period piquance.
“A literal trip for turned-on audiences,” per Variety, Fonda’s directorial debut opens with a sunburst as a trio of saddle tramps skinny-dip and talk wistfully of California. Bugs skitter across the dunes. The oasis shimmers. Abetted by Bruce Langhorne’s suite for banjo, fiddle, and sitar, the atmosphere is soulfully lugubrious. This lazy mirage is a cowboy paradise of surpassing tenderness—Wyatt and Billy gone to heaven. Still, Fonda decides to return to the wife, child, and farm he abandoned seven years before—only Amerika won’t let him. He and his buddies stop in a ghost town controlled by an evil merchant who shoots one of them. Fonda and surviving pal (Warren Oates) push on to the farm run by the former’s wife (unglamorous Verna Bloom). Fonda masochistically offers to work as her hired hand but freaks when he learns that, in his absence, she slept with the help.
The Hired Hand insists on Bloom’s sexual needs, but the longhaired, narrow-hipped director-star is the movie’s resident sex object. (When Bloom expressed anxiety about her role, Fonda reassured her that “only one person took their clothes off in a Peter Fonda film, me.”) Melancholy and narcissistic, The Hired Hand is less the last roundup than the lost groove.