(Originally posted on 12/12/03)
Clint Eastwood's underappreciated Bronco Billy is an affectionate ode to the fading myth of the American West and the enduring power of the American Dream. Eastwood, in one of his first roles to examine his own Western icon status, plays the titular cowpoke, a former New Jersey shoe salesman-turned-sharpshooter. Billy is equal parts showman, dreamer, and den mother to a clan of outcasts that includes a Vietnam deserter (Sam Bottoms), a disgraced doctor (Scatman Crothers), a Native American and his wife (Dan Vadis and Sierra Pecheur), and a thief (Bill McKinney). The troupe makes a meager living putting on a cheerfully hokey cowboys-and-Indians show at carnivals, orphanages, and insane asylums, believing that fame and fortune -- or at least enough money for a few beers at the local watering hole -- waits just around the corner. At one out-of-the-way stop, Billy recruits as his new assistant Antoinette Lily (Sondra Locke), a snooty heiress who's just been deserted by her dim bulb husband (Geoffrey Lewis). Slowly, he teaches her that life isn't something that's given to you, but what you make it. "Who do you think you are?" she asks Billy with a sneer. "I am who I want to be," he replies, verbalizing the film's steadfast conviction that the American Dream is alive and well. What's on its last legs, however, is the legend of the American West. Billy's crew, playing to dwindling audiences, represent the last vestiges of a bygone era of gunslingers and Native American warriors. The story can sometimes be silly -- Lewis' stay in a mental institution is both contrived and burdened with clunky symbolic baggage -- and Locke, as usual, gives a performance that's equal parts feisty and cloying. Yet the film's sincere affection for the antiquated cowboy is palpable, and allows slightly heavy-handed moments like Billy and company performing their climactic show in a patchwork tent made of American flags to retain their subdued, authentic poignancy.