by Jef Burnham
Now available on On-Demand DVD from the MGM limited Edition Collection.
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Peter Fonda made his directorial debut with 1971’s The Hired Hand. This languid western about a man’s divided loyalties to his estranged wife and his travelling companions starred the director himself alongside Warren Oates, marking the first of the duo’s three collaborations. The Hired Hand stands as one of my personal favorite films. Until recently, however, I had seen neither Fonda’s follow-up, Idaho Transfer (1973), nor the third and final picture he helmed, Wanda Nevada. Knowing nothing about his final film but based solely on my affection for The Hired Hand, I found the opportunity to view Wanda Nevada for the first time absolutely irresistible when MGM announced it as part of their Limited Edition Collection. Unfortunately, The Hired Hand it most certainly is not.
Set in Arizona against the backdrop of the Korean War, Wanda Nevada stars Fonda himself as Beaudray Demerille, a drifter and grifter, who wins 13-year-old Wanda Nevada in a game of poker. Played by Brooke Shields fresh off of the controversial Pretty Baby (1978), the orphaned Wanda dreams of singing at the Grand Ole Opry and fancies herself something of a dignified lady. The pair bickers incessantly until they happen upon a map left by a murdered prospector pointing them toward the only known source of gold in the Grand Canyon. And then they bicker some more. It’s a strange, rambling sort of picture full of bank robbers, murderers, hustlers, pedophiles, and even an Apache ghost that serves as guardian of the Grand Canyon or some such.
Although moments throughout work and work well, the film really starts to fall apart once they find the “treasure” map. They of course go in search of the gold, and all the while they encounter one kooky character after another as they pass through the Grand Canyon. Henry Fonda makes a brief appearance as one such random encounter, and Severn Darden, who played the heel in The Hired Hand, also appears as a random in the Grand Canyon sequence. In the end, though, I surmise that you could attribute the overall failure of the film to its mixed messages about pedophilia and particularly to the presence of the Apache ghost, since, until the ghost appears halfway into the picture, the film showcased no supernatural elements whatsoever.
As per usual with the Limited Edition Collection, Wanda Nevada appears here sourced from the highest-quality existing print. Although not remastered in any way (these are made-to-order DVDs, after all), the overall visual presentation of Wanda Nevada is solid, even if the film itself is not.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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