(Photos by Heather Leah Kennedy)
Rolling Roadshow events always feel like a privilege to attend. Saturday’s screening of the newly digitized Red Headed Stranger at Willie Nelson’s Luck Ranch was no exception. Sitting under the stars, surrounded by the real Old West town that was built for the film is a surreal experience to be sure. And that’s before getting into the film itself or the Q&A with Nelson afterward. It was honestly enough just to be out there, parking next to calm horses and drinking CBD coffee in a fake jail as the sun went down (I did not notice any effects, but the coffee tasted delightful).
Released in 1986, a full eleven years after Nelson’s amazing album, Red Headed Stranger has been lost to the digital age until a recently discovered version of it got put through AGFA’s digitization process. The versions we saw projected Saturday looked great and did honor to writer-director William Witliff’s work. Witliff passed away recently, lending a sorrowful note to the screening.
The film is more than a historical pop culture curiosity, however. Witliff’s script adheres more to the narrative suggested by Nelson’s album than typical storytelling tropes, resulting in a film that feels surprising and different. The first act, in which Nelson’s preacher character and his new bride (Morgan Fairchild) arrive in a small settlement ruled by a family of bullies, takes its time and rarely colors outside the lines of typical Westerns. There is little to indicate the film won’t be occupied entirely with this standard plot, almost like a television movie from the era, which makes it all the more surprising as the second act throws the whole thing away to repaint Nelson’s character as a murderous outlaw drinking and killing his way across his own damnation. The third act ties everything back together, but this is at times a startling film anchored to a morally dubious hero.
Morally dubious, but not unlikable, even when it’s hard to know what to think of the character. This is in large part due to Nelson’s performance. It’s interesting how well the Outlaws all took to acting. Kris Kristofferson is the most archetypical obviously, as the most successful at it as a result. Johnny Cash has a nervous energy that’s always interesting to watch. But Nelson is heartfelt and genuine. And, when he needs to be, frightening. He understates most of his dialog, preferring instead to sell the lines with this highly emotive face. Without overplaying his hand, Nelson is equally vulnerable and cold, heartbroken and dangerous.
Clearly the film means a lot to Nelson. Its long path to production (at one point it was to star Robert Redford) speaks to the labor Nelson and his cohorts put into getting it made. In the end, it became a small family affair, filmed on Willie Nelson’s land with family members both behind and in front of the camera.
This was made more apparent at the Q&A following the film. Obviously, the star of the show was Nelson himself, who spent most of the time responding with one line bon mots such as waiving away praise for his acting with “I never thought of myself as an actor. I react a lot.” The best was when interviewer Andy Langer claimed the ranch held 70 rescued horses and Nelson interrupted him: “75”. But also included was Nelson’s grandson Bryan Fowler, who played young Nathan in the film and claimed making it was the best time of this life, and Sonny Carl Davis, who plays one of the villainous Claver brothers and told a story of smoking weed with Nelson before filming his big death scene.
On screen they’re joined by classic actors such as R.G. Armstrong, Royal Dano and Katharine Ross to help make Red Headed Stranger both a regular Western of its time and a work that travels a bit off the beaten path. We had to travel off the beaten paths ourselves to even attend it, but clearly - for both us and the Nelson family - the effort was worth it.