Three cowboys — Vern (Cameron Mitchell), Wes (Jack Nicholson), and Otis (Tom Filer) — are riding their horses across the old west when they come upon a cabin that is inhabited by one-eyed Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) and his friends. Though they suspect that Dick may be an outlaw, the cowboys accept his offer to stay the night. The next morning, they wake up to discover that they are surrounded by a posse. Mistaken for members of Dick’s gang, Vern and Wes go on the run. Eventually, they find themselves hiding out at the home of Evan (George Mitchell), Catherine (Katherine Squire), and their daughter, Abigail (Millie Perkins). While Wes and Vern wait for their chance to escape, the posse grows closer and closer.
A minimalistic western with a fatalistic outlook, Ride In The Whirlwind is today best known for being a pre-Easy Rider credit for Jack Nicholson. Nicholson not only co-produced the film but he also wrote the script. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that Nicholson not only gets the best lines but that he also comes close to getting the girl. Of all the roles that Nicholson played before his star-making turn in Easy Rider, Wes probably comes the closest to being what would be considered to be a typical Jack Nicholson role. Wes is sarcastic, quick with a quip, and alienated by mainstream society (represented here by the relentless posse). Nicholson gives a confident performance and it is interesting to see him co-starring with some of the same actors, like Harry Dean Stanton, who would continue to be associated with him once he became a star. Though the film may be dominated by Nicholson, Stanton also makes a strong impression and comes close to stealing the whole movie.
(Also of note is an early appearance by Rupert Crosse. Years later, Crosse was set to co-star with Nicholson in The Last Detail but his early death led to Otis Young being cast in the role.)
With its dark outlook and anti-establishment theme, Ride In The Whirlwind was before its time and it struggled at the American box office. (According to Monte Hellman, it was very popular in France.) It would be another three years before American culture would catch up with Nicholson’s anti-establishment persona and Easy Rider would make him a star.