There's a moment in the thoughtful, touching 1968 Western "Will Penny" when a young man asks the title character how he knows so much about frontier survival. "Well," the aging, aimless ranch hand responds, "even a blind hog roots up an acorn now and then."
The proverb sums up the wayward life of Will Penny (Charlton Heston), a simple, kind-hearted drifter whose years have somehow slipped away during the treks from one range job to the next. Almost 50, his body is weary of the hard life. But with no family, home or stake, all he can do is ride forward.
Penny doesn't think much about what his life could have been until he meets Catherine Allen (Joan Hackett), an educated Easterner trying to make her way to San Francisco with her young son. When the two are deserted by their hired escort, Penny reluctantly becomes their protector.
The unlikely threesome grows close, and for the first time in his life, Penny feels a sense of belonging, a connection. But while he truly loves his newfound family, he is nagged by questions of whether he deserves--or can handle--this new lifestyle. But before Penny can resolve these anxieties, the homicidal Preacher Quint (Donald Pleasence) arrives on the scene to settle a score with him.
Hackett's strong performance as an independent, resourceful woman seeking a better life gives the film a dimension that many Westerns lack, while the genre's all-important bad guy quota is filled menacingly by the wild-eyed Pleasence and Bruce Dern, who plays the preacher's dim, malevolent son.
The requisite gunfights are executed dramatically, but the film's most compelling conflict is in the heart of Penny. After the dust settles, he must decide whether he will take the terrifying step of leaving the only life he has ever known, or whether he will abandon the only love he has ever found to ride off into the lonely, lonely sunset.
\o7 "Will Penny" (1968), directed by Tom Gries. 109 minutes. Not rated.