Annie (Amanda Plummer) and Jenny (Diane Lane) are two teenagers in the Old West who have been orphaned but seek solace in one another's friendship and the pulp magazines they love to read, especially those detailing the exploits of outlaws. Seeking to reach California, they stow away on a train that they are unaware doesn't go anywhere near the state, yet as luck would have it as night falls the engine is stopped on the tracks by a fire of logs set there deliberately by the notorious Dalton-Doolin gang. It turns out the three carriages are carrying nothing of worth except pigs, useless to the outlaws, but Annie and Jenny cannot believe their luck - an actual gang to join!
The Western hit a sharp decline as a genre come the nineteen-seventies, and by the point this example was made the market had evaporated to the extent that it took two years to be released after it had been completed. Heaven's Gate is often blamed for the damage the whole style took, but in truth the rot had set in immediately after Sam Peckinpah had made explicit the waning of the Old West in the face of modernity with The Wild Bunch; something about that film had set off a frame of mind where it had simultaneously set minds a-thinking that Westerns had no real place in this new world of technology, and other genres stepped in to take its place, notably action thrillers.
Therefore you had a lot of movies aping Peckinpah and his contemporaries back in the very late sixties during the seventies, only not as many as there had been in, say, the fifties, and by the eighties Hollywood had pretty much given up on them, the occasional vehicle inspired by a star nostalgic for their youth aside. Cattle Annie and Little Britches (the latter meaning Jenny) was one of those, originally destined to be a John Wayne effort only he was too ill to sign on, so Burt Lancaster was hired instead. This would be his last Western; he was not so identified with them as Wayne, but had made a fair few, and displayed his accustomed commitment and grace in the role of Doolin.
Doolin is getting old himself, as one of the themes was how these two teenage girls were regarding the gang as a romantic ideal when in fact they are better consigned to the old days as time marches on, left as that part of fiction and entertainment that is best suited to the fantasies of the escapist audience. This, at least, was nicely conveyed, yet there was a difficulty in that premise in that you were being asked to care about people who either were too blinkered to realise they were living in the past, or were an aspect of life best left behind, and that created a problem when engagement with the gang meant engagement with folks who just didn't understand that enough was enough. Not helping was an episodic structure that resembled leafing through a yellowed pulp booklet after blowing the dust off.
Not so much a discovery of a relic that could have been valuable and taught you a lot, more gingerly examining an item that informed you there was a reason Westerns were no longer au courant and confirmed the suspicions of the cynics that they were not worth returning to. In that fashion, this shot itself in the foot, neither dark-hearted enough to embrace the corrosive loss of innocence the plot entailed, nor demonstrating why this was even a decent instance of diversion in the frame of what it sought to condemn. It was desperately mild, none of that Peckinpah fire in the belly, and only the promise of seeing Lancaster and Rod Steiger share scenes (which barely occurs) or a young Plummer and Lane as protagonists (director Lamont Johnson, at a loss, gives them the Western equivalent of a wet T-shirt scene to drum up interest) was contained to lend interest to the affair. Scott Glenn was Dalton, but like Lane barely registered, John Savage was an unconvincing Native guide, and if you wanted to like it, it was too slight to do itself any favours. Frustratingly, you could see a pretty decent movie in there struggling to get out. Music by Sahn Berti and Tom Slocum (horrible electric guitar over the end credits).