In addition to starring here, Fonda also makes a fine job of his directorial debut with this cold, almost existential western which begins with three drifters (Fonda, Warren Oates and Robert Pratt) making their way to California.
Their journey is interrupted by a confrontation with McVey, a sadistic merchant (Severn Darden). The evil man kills Dan Griffin (Pratt) in an exchange of gunfire, and in return is wounded by Harry Collings (Fonda).
Griffin’s death causes Harry to reflect on his life. Filled with a nostalgic homesickness, he decides to return to the wife and daughter he abandoned seven years earlier. Arch Harris (Oates) decides to go with him.
Fonda’s wife Hannah (the superb Verna Bloom) reluctantly accepts his return and hires the two men as farmhands, who work the land by day and sleep in the barn at night.
Hannah is torn between her husband and the older Arch Harris but, eventually, she and Harry give in to their mutual desire and reunite as husband and wife.
Then Arch is kidnapped and tortured by McVey. Out of loyalty to his fellow wanderer, Harry leaves his family and his farm once more to go save Arch.
Fate intervenes and Harry is killed in a climactic shoot-out with McVey. He dies in Arch’s arms. An old fashioned plot twist has Arch and Hannah together in the end.
This has all the clever bleakness and cyclical sense of destiny now associated with its writer, the mordant Alan Sharp, and is richly rewarding in its portrayal of the tough reality of frontier life.
The film is also notable for the stunning photography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who later filmed Deliverance (1972), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) (for which he won an Academy Award). Some audiences might prefer more action, though, and perhaps a less pretentious visual style.