Melissa Ruger (Candice Bergen) is married to rich landowner Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman), but they have no children thanks to his impotence, a state which he channels into outright aggression. Melissa works at a school part time, so when today her husband goes off to a hunting trip with his friends she opts to spend her time helping the children as Brandt shows off the incredibly powerful new rifles he has gotten hold of to pass out among his fellow hunters. They will come in useful, but not in the way they expect, for notorious bandit Frank Calder (Oliver Reed) had entered the picture...
And he has a simple request which he goes about getting granted through ill-advised means thanks to him thinking force is the way you get what you want rather than simple manners. If he had ridden up to the schoolhouse and simply asked with please and thankyou if Melissa could teach him to read, the he might have attained his wish, but as it is he decides to kidnap her, putting her through an ordeal that only ends when there is a trail of bodies littered across the landscape. Predictably, Brandt doesn't like the idea of someone making off with his missus, and the chase is on, forgetting about shooting animals and shooting humans instead.
This happened along when violence in cinema was growing bloodier, but not simply in horror movies as you might have expected, for thrillers and Westerns were the highest profile exponents of bloodlust in mainstream films. In the case of the latter, it was an attempt to hold onto the audience which was deserting the genre, and Soldier Blue, also starring Candice, had been the most recent famous example of the new action in Westerns which had been ushered in by Sam Peckinpah with The Wild Bunch a couple of years before. Many of these efforts were judged to be worthless, and in the case of Soldier Blue this was unsurprising, so where did that leave a less bold, yet no less bloody, work like this?
Briefly enjoying a notoriety of its own, that was where, then falling into obscurity as without the strong themes and drama to back up the scenes of violence, there was not much to appreciate. One issue here was it seemed unsure of what it was trying to convey, as while Bergen's other Western shocker had been an allegory of Vietnam, this was rather at a loss of what to say other than violent men destroy people's lives, including their own. The Melissa character was particularly misguided in that although she starts out resisting Frank and refusing to eat, two scenes change her mind: one, after spending his time preventing his captive from rape, he rapes her himself, not exactly hero material, and two, the bit with the peaches.
Bizarrely, Melissa is thoroughly won over to her kidnapper when he offers her a jar of peaches in syrup for a comedy sequence unlike anything else in the film, and including a comedy piano playing throughout courtesy of Riz Ortolani's otherwise ominous score. Somehow she is now passionately in love with Frank, and anxious not to see him harmed, unfortunate when Brandt and his party appear in the distant scenery and begin picking the bandits off one by one with their fancy rifles. If you thought at least you'd get to see two forceful actors in Reed and Hackman squaring off against each other, not to spoil anything but they don't share a word, which can be frustrating in a way but in another showed a determination of purpose in that Brandt treats his quarry like an animal, and any humanity on his or Frank's part would be unforgivable weakness to him, so all he sees of him is through his gun sights. Bleakness is what was being aimed for here, and the brutality that went with it, yet somehow The Hunting Party felt contrived.