In 1908, a Paiute Indian named Willie (Robert Blake) has fallen in love with a white woman named Lola (Katharine Ross). After Lola’s father discovers Willie and Lola together, Willie shoots him. Willie claims that the shooting was in self-defense while the white citizens of California insist that it was cold-blooded murder, motivated by a tribal custom that would allow Willie to claim Lola as his wife upon the death of her father. Willie and Lola go on the run, trying to escape through the Morongo Valley.
Because President Taft is scheduled to make a trip to the area, the locals are eager for Willie Boy to either be captured or killed. Several posses form, all intent on tracking Willie down. A humane deputy sheriff named Cooper (Robert Redford) reluctantly leads the search for Willie. Cooper’s occasional lover is a school teacher named Elizabeth (Susan Clark) who insists that Cooper rescue Lola from Willie. The only problem is that Lola doesn’t want to be rescued and Willie would rather die than surrender to the white men.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is one of those revisionist westerns that were all the rage in the late 60s and the early 70s. (The same year that he led a posse in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, Robert Redford also tried to outrun a posse in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Willie Boy gets off to a good start, showing how Willie has to spend almost every hour of the day dealing with prejudice and racism. The film does a good job of showing that even “liberal” whites, like Elizabeth, are capable of being prejudiced. There are hints that Cooper and Willie share a mutual respect and both Blake and Redford do a good job portraying the weary respect that the lawman and the outlaw have for each other.
Things start to fall apart when Willie shoots Lola’s father. The scene is shot so confusingly that it’s hard to know what exactly happened and it feels like a cop out. Rather than definitely saying whether Willie had no choice but to shoot Lola’s father or that Willie intentionally committed murder, the scene tries to have it both ways and it doesn’t work. Once the chase begins, the movie is equally split between Cooper and the posse and Willie and Lola and the end result is that the two main characters end up getting short changed.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here was directed by Abraham Polonsky, a screenwriter who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. While this is definitely a film made from a left-wing perspective, its actual message still feels muddled. Willie is the driving force behind the plot but the film seems to be more interested in the less intriguing Cooper. The film ends on a note of ambiguity, which perhaps felt daring in 1969 but today, just feels like another cop out. Despite a great performance from Blake and a better-than-usual one from Redford, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here is an unfortunate misfire.