Old west outlaw Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) wants to learn how to read so he and his gang ride into the nearby town and kidnap Melissa Ruger (Candice Bergen). Because he saw her reading to a group of children, Calder assumed that Melissa was a school teacher. Instead, Melissa is the wife of a brutal cattle baron and hunter named Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman). Even after Calder learns the truth about Melissa’s identity, he keeps it a secret from his gang because he knows that they would kill her and then kill him as punishment for kidnapping the wife of a man as powerful as Brandt. Stockholm Syndrome kicks in and Melissa starts to fall in love with Calder. Meanwhile, Brandt learns that his wife has been kidnapped and, with a group of equally brutal friends, he sets out to get her back. In Brandt’s opinion, Calder has stolen his personal property. Using a powerful and newly designed rifle, Brandt kills Calder’s men one-by-one until there is a final, bloody confrontation in the desert.
Coming out two years after Sam Peckinpah redefined the rules of the western genre with The Wild Bunch, The Hunting Party owes a clear debt to Peckinpah. Much as in The Wild Bunch, the violence is sudden, brutal, and violent. What The Hunting Party lacks is Peckinpah’s attention to detail and his appreciation for the absurd. Instead, The Hunting Party is just one shooting after another and, devoid of subtext or any hint of a larger context, it quickly gets boring.
Fans of Oliver Reed, however, will want to watch The Hunting Party because it features one of his best performance. For once, Reed is actually playing the nice guy. He may be an outlaw but he still cries when a mortally wounded member of his gang begs Calder to put him out of his misery. Gene Hackman is also good, even though he’s playing one of his standard villain roles. (The less said about Candice Bergen’s performance, the better.) The Hunting Party may be dully nihilistic but Oliver Reed shines.