Cattle Annie & Little Britches

Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981)

A little western, loosely based on the real-life adventures of two girls - AnnieMcDoulet and Jennie Stevens - who traveled West to learn more about outlaw life. They had read Ned Buntline's dime novels about frontier brigandage and desired to meet their idols in the flesh. The film is set in the late 19th Century, in a West that is no longer as Wild as it used to be, and when the girls finally meet the infamous Doolin-Dalton gang, they're confronted with a demoralized bunch of has-beens ... a wild bunch grown tired ... Their leader, Bill Doolin, feels inspired by the presence of the young girls, but his efforts to live up to their expectations put himself and his gang in danger of being dismantled by their arch enemy, the patient but determined sheriff Tighman ...

If you think - like Sergio Leone did - that women basically hold-up the action of a western movie, this is not a movie for you. It's a western and there's some western action, but it's secondary to the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the two girls played by Amanda Plummer and Diane Lane. The film is a bit similar to Fred Schepisi's Barbarosa, released around the same time. Both movies are light-hearted at the surface, but tragic at the core, painting an unromantic image of the West. Both movies are also coming-of-age tales set against the background of outlaw life: in Barbarosa a young man eventually adopts the identity of his mentor, a man who told him everything about the art of survival while being on the run; in Cattle Annie and Little Britches the overzealous girls learn from the worn-out but world-wise outlaws that it's a good thing to be brave, but a bad thing to be reckless.

Until recently it was rather difficult to find a decent copy of this largely forgotten movie, but I finally got hold of widescreen copy that does proud to Larry Pizer's breathtaking cinematography. Burt Lancaster (67 when the film was made) is too old for the part of Bill Doolin (who was shot at the age of 38), but he seems perfectly in touch with the dry humor of the script. There's also some fine acting by Rod Steiger and John Savage (as Bittercreek Newcomb, the good-looking gang member Annie plans her 'first time' with), but the movie definitely belongs to the girls. Amanda Plummer (Christopher Plummer's daughter) makes a sublime screen debut as the loud, foul-mouthed but nevertheless vulnerable Annie; 16-year old Diane Lane has a more laid-back acting style but she's the prettier of the two girls and has a couple of endearing scenes with Lancaster. 

This is a nice little movie, not a classic, but worthy of reappraisal. 

Director: Lamont Johnson - Cast: Amanda Plummer (Annie), Diane Lane (Little Britches) Burt Lancaster (Bill Doolin), Scott Glenn (Bill Dalton), John Savage (Bittercreek Newcomb), Rod Steiger (Bill Tilghman), Buck Taylor, Redmond Gleeson, William Russ, John Quade