“If, as a film director, I ever wanted to say something, you’ll find it in Bronco Billy.”- Clint Eastwood
Reported to be one of the director’s personal favourites amongst his own films, Bronco Billy is a tale that shows how the enduring power of friendship can beat out insurmountable obstacles. Bronco Billy and his Wild West Show are a travelling gang of performance artists who are all struggling to make ends meet driving from town to town across the Midwest of the United States. They are all outcasts whom Bronco Billy has taken off the streets and given a home as well as a job in his show.
Bronco Billy was clearly a very personal film for the director and arguably the role that has more of Eastwood’s true self in it than any other. Billy is a character who feels like he was born a century too late as he looks like he would have been much more comfortable riding on horses with his gang of cohorts through the old west, only taking what they need to survive and mainly living off the land. Alas that way of life is simply not practical in modern times yet Billy still does the best he can with what he’s got.
In one of the opening scenes, after a show that has not gone well one of his travelling companions enquires into when Billy thinks they are likely to be paid next. This infuriates Billy to the point where he pulls his entire travelling show to the side of the road in the pouring rain and threatens to fire them all and leave them right there if all they want from him is money. For Billy the rebellion, the freeness that their lifestyle enables them to have, as well as their sense of unity is more important than anything else. After a speech in which he reminds everyone that thinks will pick up again financially like they always do and not to forget that they’re working for the fastest draw in the west they are on their way again.
The Wild West Show is made up of Chief Big Eagle and his wife Running Water, Doc Lynch, Lefty and Leonard all of whom have their own roles to play in the Wild West Travelling show. They are not the most professional bunch to say the least as in the opening of the film during a performance when Doc announces Big Chief’s snake dance to a tent that looks to be barely half-filled. During the Chief’s dance we hear a scream and the camera cuts backstage where we learn that the Chief has once again been bitten in the face by a poisonous snake and has had to try some more of the Doc’s snakebite remedy indicating that this is not the first time it has happened. We meet Billy back stage with his new assistant who is about to be introduced into the first show in which she is to be placed on a spinning wheel on which Billy is to fire a gun and toss knives at while blind-folded. Billy tells her and the crowd there is no need to worry and Bronco Billy has never missed a shot in his life. Upon throwing the knives Billy accidentally cuts her on the leg thus ending the opening scene which shows us that that Billy’s Wild West tour has seen better days.
Billy at first seems irritable and short-tempered and at the beginning of the film the audience may seem puzzled as to why the group of performers would choose to follow a man who only seems to reprimand them and who hides no illusions that their money prospects are slim to nil. Yet as the film goes on we learn that Billy will do anything to protect those in his gang, such as when they all get into a fight at a local bar the group defends each other. There is also an unseen scene in which Billy manages to free Leonard from jail by having some type of a showdown with the towns local sheriff.
A love interest is brought into the film when Sondra Locke’s character, Antoinette Lily becomes tied up with the gang. Lily is an extremely rich, somewhat spoiled brat when we first meet her getting a quickie marriage with a man named John Arlington. She must do this in order to inherit a large sum of money that has been left to her by her father which will be mutually beneficial to her and her new “husband.” A flat tyre soon after means they are both trapped in the same town as Billy’s Wild West Show. It is not long before Arlington, fed up with the cold treatment he is getting from Lily, decides to steal some bracelets from her steals the car and leaves her stranded in the small town. In strolls Billy who tells who introduces her to his band of cohorts and offers to give her a ride to the next town.
As can be expected due to Billy’s and Lily’s backgrounds their relationship gets off to a bumpy start, such as when Billy throws Lily to the side of the road for calling him an “illiterate cowboy.” Lily asks the rest of the group how they can stand such a pompous and stubborn attitude from their boss where she is constantly reassured that he is not such a bad man once you get to know him. She is eventually brought on to be Billy’s assistant where she proves that she has some skills with a gun as Billy, much to his annoyance. During her first show she adlibs a few of the lines Billy has scripted for her causing him to become furious screaming at her after the show. As they continue to travel though, Lily discovers that Billy does have a heart of gold as he performs free shows for the sick and needy who wouldn’t be able to afford it otherwise. After a particularly fiery row she seeks advice from Running Water who tells her that the Apache word for “hate” is “love” and that the main appeal of travelling with Billy is he lets you be who you want to be, all you have to do is go out and be it.
Once they consummate their relationship however, Arlington comes back onto the scene revealing how the country’s press has written that Lily has been dead this whole time and she is forced to return back to her home in New York. Lily attempts suicide when she is back in New York, yet is interrupted by a phone call from Running Water who lets her know that Billy is in need of her badly at the moment. She flees New York and manages to join up with the gang at their next performance for a fond reunion with the gang now reunited and looking to continue the show for quite some time yet.
The romance aspect of the story takes a back seat to Eastwood’s ode to the old west and to those that try and keep that dream alive. In one particularly funny scene, when the gang is in desperate need of money, they attempt to rob a train with Billy riding his horse alongside the train firing his gun into the air. The train continues storming through paying no more attention to Billy than it would that of an annoying insect with the only person to take notice being a small boy on the train who remarks “Cowboys and Indians.” The train could be viewed as a metaphor for time and the world passing this gang by as they try to stay true to their way of life and the freedom that comes with it. In an early scene between Lily and Billy she asks him “Who do you think you are?” to which Billy replies “I’m who I want to be.” This line manages to encapsulate the entire theme of the movie; Billy is his own man and lives his own life not having to compromise his ideals for anyone.