How did one of the most rawly entertaining Hollywood features of the early 1980s get completely trounced and buried by an ignorant studio? That's the question posed by the checkered history of Cattle Annie and Little Britches, a superlative western directed by Lamont Johnson (One on One) back in 1980 and shamefully trashed by Universal Pictures.
With a premise that waxes more Doctorowian than either Louis Malle's Atlantic City (which also starred Burt Lancaster and was shot at about the same time) or Milos Forman's adaptation of Doctorow's Ragtime, Cattle Annie evokes history through the eyes of average citizens whose lives and fates have intersected with period celebrities. Yet in this case, the incredible story happens to be true, and not apocryphal as one might assume. It's the tale of two teenage scamps from the eastern U.S., Annie and Jenny, who so idolized the infamous Doolin-Dalton outlaw gang they'd read about in Ned Buntline's purple prose stories, that they hitched a train out west and convinced bank robber extraordinaire Bill Doolin and his men to take them on as partners in crime. In this seriocomic recreation of those events, Annie is played by Amanda Plummer, Jenny by Diane Lane, and Bill Doolin by Lancaster.
The film is as light on premise as George Roy Hill's overrated Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (it has the same plot of affable bandits pursued relentlessly by lawmen, and the same half-comic tone), but feels infinitely more fun. Johnson and scribes David Eyre and Robert Ward (who adapted Ward's novel) took a genre gamble by creating a western with two female leads, and enlisted the support of an all-star cast, including not only Lancaster, but Rod Steiger (as Doolin's chief nemesis, Marshal Bill Tilghman), John Savage and Scott Glenn. It would be difficult to imagine two more dominant egos than Lancaster and Steiger on the same set, but Johnson both ropes them in and coaxes old-pro performances from them, as he does from the rest of his ensemble. Stealing the film, however, is Plummer in her debut performance. Interpreting Annie as a manic greenhorn with a streak of to-the-death bellicosity but a tender spirit (and a self-professed desire for physical intimacy with a man), the actress projects a lovely ingratiating quality that must have spoken volumes, back in 1981, about the dynamite career to follow.
For better or worse, Eyre and Ward eschew a central narrative thread and opt for an episodic approach to the material, and in fact one may find oneself wishing for a more definitive through line on occasion. On an individual basis, however, the sequences feel as charming and as involving as anything in the western genre - from the gang's thrilling standoffs with Tilghman, to a gorgeous and lyrical scene of everyone bathing in a lake (capped by Annie swimming off to an affair with one of Doolin's partners), to Tilghman's shanghai of Doolin in a most unlikely, and comically inconvenient, location. Moreover, on the level of characterization, the picture also soars; it remains grounded in the central idea of Jenny and Annie "rehabilitating" the washed-up, burned-out Doolin-Daltons by re-introducing them to their capacity for villainry (and Doolin's reciprocal gift of instilling the girls with a sense of outlaw affirmation) and sees that arc through to the very end. One only wishes the film were longer; at a breezy 97 minutes (85 minutes in the British cut), it doesn't feel substantial enough to qualify as a full-blown masterpiece. Still, what's here is truly genial.
The specifics of the fate that befell this film remain completely unclear. Produced by Hemdale but distributed by Universal, it opened and closed within the single week of May 15-22, 1981, and then disappeared indefinitely. (Meanwhile, at about the same time, Friday the 13th, Part 2 opened in around 80 NY-area theaters and stuck around for most of the summer - a fact that speaks volumes about Hollywood's gutterball priorities and standards). Why the short shrift with such an enjoyable and engaging film and one that broke new ground in the small subgenre of the female western? To date, the movie has a small cult following, but it seldom screens on television and has never received a video issue outside of a slightly truncated VHS version released in the UK in the early 1980s. That means the chances of seeing this one are very slim, possibly nonexistent. What a shame!