Directed by George Englund — 1971, US – 93 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85 – Rock Musical / Western
IN BRIEF, surreal, and sometimes moving, rock-musical Western about the psychedelic adventures of two hapless gunslingers in love.
Zachariah is all but unique, a bizarre yet strangely compelling rock musical/cowboy movie, masterminded by the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre and producer/director George Englund. It may have begun as a psychedelic send-up of Westerns, as well as Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha which it borrows from wholesale), but by the final sequence this tale of two gunslingers in love has – perhaps in spite of itself – achieved much more.
Zachariah is a simple tale of two young friends – would-be gun fighter Zachariah (John Rubinstein) and blacksmith Matthew (Don Johnson) – setting out for adventure, first with the ditzy rock ‘n’ roll bandits called The Crackers (played by the band Country Joe and the Fish), then with the notorious gunslinger, Job Cain (Elvin Jones). Zachariah becomes obsessed with proving that he can be the greatest outlaw, which drives away the gentle Matthew, despite Zachariah telling him, “I love you.” On his own, Zachariah is seduced by the historical bandit queen, Belle Starr (Pat Quinn), but soon tires of her glitz. He returns to a Wise Old Man (William Challee), who teaches him the joys of simple living. Later the reformed Zachariah runs into Matthew, now the baddest bad man in the West, who challenges his former (boy)friend to a duel to the death.
I’m writing about this film more for its effect over time – namely, I can’t get it out of my head – than for the initial experience of watching it. On a first viewing, it was alternately fascinating, in its attempt to fuse rock music/ the Western/ gay experience, and groan-inducing in the way it reduced its era’s quest for meaningful self-identity in the trappings of a would-be sensational “head trip.” What’s most striking about the film, at first, is the sometimes leaden dialogue (which bears little trace of The Firesign Theatre’s typical wit), plot holes you could drive a stagecoach through (it’s a perfect example of what I call The Swiss Cheese School of Screenwriting), and fabulously surreal but ultra-cheap sets, which reflect both the designers’ fertile imaginations and their tiny budget. But there is more to the film than that.
It’s a revealing glimpse into its era, what you might call ‘the end of the ’60s.’ The film also embodies history, as seen in Queer Cowboys and Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature, a study by Chris Packard, that explores same-sex relationships on the American frontier. For all of the film’s problems, it’s an innovative attempt to combine two wildly disparate genres: the Western, which at that time seemed moribund (despite an atypical recent masterpiece like Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch), and the then-new rock musical (on Broadway, Hair was all the rage, and the album Jesus Christ Superstar – mixing rock music and the Passion of the Christ – an enormous hit). Most importantly, there is real power in the central relationship of Zachariah and Matthew, who are not only the screen’s first two cowboys to declare their love for each other – about two decades after Red River and Johnny Guitar slyly hinted at such things and three decades before the openness of Brokeback Mountain – but who did so without shame or self-consciousness. Beyond their place in gay cinema history, Zachariah and Matthew’s respective journeys towards self-understanding and honesty, however underdeveloped the script, are universal, and brought vividly to life by the two leads.
Before examining the film, I want to highlight the extraordinary and diverse talents involved in its making, both behind and in front of the camera. Zachariah is a rarely-seen picture – whose reputation, as a “far-out gay rock Western Siddhartha,” is much better known than the film itself. Let me note that I have no privy information about the sexual orientation of anyone involved; the film speaks – and sometimes sings – for itself. Following are brief background sketches of the principal crew, cast and musicians (the MGM DVD contains no background information of any kind) — you can also jump to an analysis of the film.
Background on Filmmakers, Cast & Musicians
Producer/director George Englund (1926–2017) has an exceptionally diverse résumé: you can see some of Zachariah’s heterogeneity in his career. Englund went from military school to UCLA, where he was a star basketball player who turned to theater; he became an actor, producer and director on the stage in New York, Los Angeles, and in regional theatre; directed an acclaimed revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon at New York’s prestigious City Center; produced and directed The Ugly American (1963) starring Marlon Brando; also produced The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and several other theatrical and television movies; later he was the literary agent for both Marlon Brando and Panamanian General Manuel Noriega (!); was Paul Newman’s business partner… and is still going strong. The five children he had when married to Cloris Leachman are all involved in show business. (Trivia buffs will want to know that he’s also Sharon Stone’s former father-in-law.)
Zachariah was written by the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre, consisting of Phil Austin, Peter Bergman (who has an uncredited cameo as the Bank Teller), David Ossman, and Philip Proctor, together with Joe Massot (best known for directing the 1976 Led Zeppelin concert film, The Song Remains the Same). The Firesign Theatre began as live radio performers in Los Angeles in the late ’60s, and later produced a long series of best-selling, and sometimes hilarious, albums such as 1970’s Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers (the parodic title is vintage Firesign). If you like Monty Python, check out Firesign. (Trivia fans take note: the group’s name is taken from both astrology – members’ signs are Aries (Austin), Leo (Proctor), and Sagittarius (Bergman and Ossman) – and a pun on the popular ’30s radio show, Fireside Theatre.)
Cinematographer Jorge Stahl, based in Mexico (where this flm was shot), was director of photography on 75 films between 1906 and 1975, as well as director, producer, and/or editor on several more. I regret that I do not have a sufficient background in Mexican cinema to appreciate the breadth of Stahl’s career, although I did enjoy two films on which he was director of photography: the 1962 horror film, Witch’s Mirror (El Espejo de la bruja), and the campy 1967 masked wrestler/superhero flick, Santo Versus the Martian Invasion (Santo el enmascardo de plata vs la invasión de los marcianos) – a guilty pleasure if ever there was one!
Production Designer Assheton Gorton was the Art Director on Antonioni’s Blowup (1966), and the designer of such diverse films as Mike Hodges’s stunning Get Carter (1971 – arguably the greatest British crime film), Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981), Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), and Disney’s live-action 101 Dalmatians (1996). Art Director Jeremy Kay also did Kenneth Anger’s gay avant-garde short, Scorpio Rising (1964), and Dennis Hopper’s era-defining Easy Rider (1969) – the influence of both films can be seen here. Costume Designer Vittorio Nino Novarese also clothed such big-budget spectacles as Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy and George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told (both 1965).
To be blunt, John Rubinstein and Don Johnson are this film; their performances make it emotionally involving and memorable, in spite of its myriad script and directorial problems (to be discussed below). Happily, the film is also enriched by an extraordinarily eclectic cast drawn from theatre, film, and all forms of music, from rock to folk to jazz, even classical.
John Rubinstein (Zachariah) was first known as the son of piano virtuoso Artur Rubinstein, but his starring role here launched a remarkable ongoing career as a singer; stage actor (he created the title role in Bob Fosse’s 1972 Broadway show Pippin, songwriter Stephen Schwartz’s rock musical about Charlemagne’s son, which has many similarities to this film; Rubinstein’s starring performance in Children of a Lesser God (1980) swept best actor awards in both New York and Los Angeles, although William Hurt landed the movie; he co-starred in the original 1989 production of the popular two-character play Love Letters); screen actor (over 135 productions, primarily television, ranging from the series Family to various Star Trek incarnations to CSI); composer (including the scores for Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972) and Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972)); and a director for stage, film, and television (where he had a reunion with his co-star here, directing Don Johnson in a 1996 episode of his hit series, Nash Bridges).
Don Johnson (Matthew) has had a varied and interesting career both before and after his star-making turn as Sonny Crockett, the cop-cum-fashion-maven in the quintessential ’80s TV series, Miami Vice (1984–1989). After training at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, he landed the lead role in the 1969 Los Angeles stage production of the gay prison melodrama, Fortune and Men’s Eyes (directed by Sal Mineo). This brought him his first film role, playing the androgynous title character in The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), which Andy Warhol called “most truthful studio-made film about the ’60s counterculture” – and which would make an intriguing double feature with Zachariah. Johnson’s best film is also arguably the best post-apocalyptic film, A Boy and His Dog (1975), from a story by Harlan Ellison about the adventures of a feral young man (Johnson) and his telepathic dog with a genius IQ who discover a subterranean world of social conservatives with very special needs (I highly recommend this picture). Johnson has remained a steadily-working actor, but is equally well known for his romantic exploits off-camera, including his marriage/divorce/re-marriage/re-divorce with Melanie Griffith. His most recent hit was the detective series Nash Bridges (1996–2001), which he created with his neighbor Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), produced, and starred in.
Among the supporting players, Pat Quinn (Belle Starr) is best known for the title role in Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969). (This Pat Quinn is not the actress of the same name who played “Magenta (a Domestic)” in another genre-bending rock musical, 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show.) Dick Van Patten (the Dude), part of show business’s Van Patten dynasty, appeared in over 125 movies and TV series, including his starring role on Eight Is Enough (1977–1981). William Challee (the Old Man) appeared in 100 films and TV shows between 1939 and 1976 – often as a gangster, military man or reporter – including Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid (1972). There is also an unnamed cameo by veteran actor Hank Worden, who worked in over 200 films, mostly Westerns, including such masterpieces as John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956), and Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948).
By far the most memorable supporting actor/musician is Elvin Jones (Job Cain), who dominates every scene in which he appears. Not only does he perform an electrifying drum solo (he was part of the revered John Coltrane Quartet in the ’60s, and also played with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Charlie Mingus), he gives a riveting performance as the Old West’s coolest, cruelest, and most charismatic outlaw: snide comments about his silver lamé vest are not advised. It is a great loss that Jones, who died in 2004, had no other opportunity to act besides this film.
Many other musicians – from rock, folk, and even classical – appear in the film, but unlike Elvin Jones they function primarily as musical performers rather than actors.
Country Joe and the Fish (who play the outlaw gang The Crackers) was a rock/folk band, fronted by lead singer “Country” Joe McDonald and guitarist Barry “The Fish” Melton. Their album Electric Music for the Mind and Body (1967) is considered an influential early work of the psychedelic sound. They played at the Monterey Pop Festival (1967) and Woodstock (1969), and were active in the antiwar movement.
The James Gang (Job Cain’s Band) was a rock group formed in Cleveland, Ohio in 1966 with drummer Jim Fox, bassist Tom Kriss, guitarist Ronnie Silverman, keyboardist Phil Giallombardo, and guitarist Glen Schwartz. With various personnel changes, it has performed continuously for forty years. In 1968 they got a new lead guitarist in Joe Walsh, who appears with them in this film. In 1976 Walsh joined The Eagles, and later began a successful career as a versatile soloist on acoustic, electric, and slide guitars.
Doug Kershaw (the Fiddler), Louisiana’s own “Ragin’ Cajun,” remains one of the most popular folk performers both in the US and abroad. He also had a memorable small role, again as a fiddler, in Terrence Malick’s haunting Days of Heaven (1978).
White Lightnin’ (the Old Man’s Band) was a 1960s psychedelic rock band.
The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble (Belle Starr’s Band) contained two members who became well-known composers for film and television. The Ensemble was founded in the late ’60s by recent classically-trained graduates of the renowned Juilliard School: Michael Kamen (keyboards, oboe, English horn, synthesizer, vocals), Mark Snow (then known by his birth name, Martin Fulterman – drums, oboe), Brian Corrigan (rhythm guitar, vocals), Clifton Nivison (lead guitar, vocals), and Dorian Rudnytsky (bass guitar, cello, piano, trumpet, French horn). Michael Kamen, who died in 2003, composed the music for 90 pictures, including Brazil, the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard series, X-Men, and his personal favorite, Mr. Holland’s Opus. Mark Snow has written over 200 scores, and is best known for his eerie compositions on the television series The X-Files and Millennium. Kamen and Snow collaborated on the song “Grave Digger” for Zachariah.
Analysis of Zachariah
I’m going to look at this 1971 film from three perspectives: how it’s simultaneously behind its time (you can almost hear the last exhalations of the burned-out ’60s), of its time (in style and theme), and even ahead of its time.
Behind Its Time
Nothing like 35 years of hindsight to show that Zachariah is a good candidate for ‘the last ’60s movie.’ The opening sequence, with a rock band incongruously wailing in a desert, soon turns to one of the stalest conventions of psychedelic ’60s moviemaking: rapid in-and-out zoom shoots. Already a cliché by 1971, it’s the first example of the film’s greatest failing: its relentless attempt to be with it, far out, and groovy, which actually undermines the liberationist spirit of the ’60s. It never is, yet one of this film’s most extraordinary achievements is that it can be so moving in spite of its desperate pursuit of a recently-vanished zeitgeist… or should we say marketing niche?
Dialogue is another persistent problem, since it’s invariably flat, overly expository, cheaply symbolic – or all three at once. For instance, the first thing Zachariah asks Matthew, working at his blacksmith’s forge, is for a light. Matthew offers a red-hot horseshoe, and Zachariah lights up. Creaky, but credible. However, we never clearly see what Zachariah is smoking, or toking, but we know from the tagline on the movie’s original posters that it was sold as “Zachariah – A Head of His Time” – as in ‘pot head.’ And there are countless would-be in jokes on this theme, several in the songs. Typical is this major production number with the outlaw gang, The Crackers (played by Country Joe and the Fish), who spend a lot more time singing than robbing people. Under a montage of the gang, along with our two heroes, at rest, we hear: “All I need to have a good time / Is a reefer, a woman, and a bottle of wine… / All I want is to never grow old / I want to wash in a bathtub of gold / I want 97 kilos already rolled…” Etc., etc. etc.
In contrast to this audience pandering, from the first scene between the two young men, you can sense a genuine and strong connection between them, as they almost dance around each other. A moment earlier, Matthew had asked Zachariah, “What are you looking for?” He responds, simply, “A friend.” That dialogue is both clumsy, in its obvious statement of the film’s theme (we realize later), yet it’s genuinely moving because of the actors’ sincerity. The next bit might have brought a smile to Dr. Freud’s lips, as Zachariah enthusiastically shows off to Matthew the new six-shooter he just (through mail order, coming in a plain brown paper wrapper). What is it about boys and guns?
Right from this opening sequence, we get a clear indication of the contradictory pull which runs throughout the entire picture, between obviousness, cliché, pandering to the audience, and a transparent attempt to package genre-fusing grooviness, yet despite these chronic problems, the film works because both Rubinstein and Johnson can portray innocence so convincingly. Later, when they each in turn ‘go bad,’ it’s like they’re playacting at being villains. But rather than undermining the film, those transformations highlight the goodness (still) inside them. I can’t imagine any other actors pulling off such a precarious balancing act.
In a moment, we’ll look at some of the intriguing ways the film uses anachronism, its central device, but here it’s worth noting how anachronistic this film itself would become even in its own day. As a musical, it opened during perhaps the greatest period in the form’s history, with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and director/producer Harold Prince creating a new genre-expanding masterpiece for the stage almost every year: Company (1970), Follies (1971), and A Little Night Music (1973). As a film, it premiered on the cusp of one of the richest periods in American cinema (while completely missing the proverbial boat), when the visual exuberance of the ’60s, which too often veered into chaos or self-indulgence (as we see in Zachariah), would be refined just enough to become a brilliantly flexible and expressive new film language, as seen in the first masterpieces by a new generation of US filmmakers: Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), and in 1973, Lucas’s American Graffiti, Scorsese’s Mean Streets, and Malick’s Badlands. With Zachariah you can almost hear the gas (or Gas-s-s-s – to borrow the title of Roger Corman’s 1970 film, which shares many of this one’s deficient excesses, not to mention music by Country Joe) leaking out of the ’60s. Perhaps the definitive ‘end of the ’60s’ film is the Maysles Brothers’ stunning documentary about the Rolling Stones, Gimme Shelter (1970), which shows the era, not just the decade, ending with a bang. In Zachariah, it ends cinematically with a whimper, although emotionally on a much more dynamic note. Despite this ‘passing of an era’ feeling, the picture reveals several aspects of its historical moment.
Of Its Time
With Fassbinder’s acerbic Whity and this film, 1971 is clearly the high water mark of surreal Westerns, although Zachariah wears its bizarreness much more brashly on its glittering sleeve than its ‘sauerkraut Western’ counterpart.
Its alternate, and more law-abiding, tagline – “The First Electric Western” (it also proved to be the last… and only) – indicates its split nature, but also its place in the then-current history of the rock musical and rock opera. The form had begun only three or four years earlier, with director Tom O’Horgan’s staging of Hair, subtitled “The American Tribal Love/Rock Musical” (1967 Off-Broadway; 1968 Broadway), and was rapidly evolving with The Who’s Tommy (album 1969), Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (album 1970 – a year later O’Horgan directed the first stage production, on Broadway), and composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell (1971) and Pippin (1972). Although Zachariah has a full score, written by a dozen different hands, it uses songs in the manner of Bob Fosse’s film Cabaret (1972), with a chorus (one of the four rock bands) commenting on the action and themes – which harkens back to classical Greek theatre 2,500 years ago. In Zachariah, the principal characters themselves never burst into song, as in a traditional musical (such as Hal Prince’s original 1966 stage production of Cabaret, which is very different from Fosse’s brilliant film). Both this picture and Cabaret were done under the auspices of ABC Pictures Corporation, but I’m not sure if Fosse’s concept (his film was in pre-production) was shared with the filmmakers here. That’s the historical context. Unfortunately, I did not find any of the songs particularly memorable (despite the obvious talent of all of the bands in their own albums), but they did work well as sheer energy, propelling the picture forward at a clip – but only Elvin Jones’s drum solo was jaw-droppingly great.
The rock songs also have a thematic function, as examples of anachronism, with the clash between the “old” Western genre and the “happening” psychedelia. As a device, anachronism goes back centuries: the most notorious early example comes in Shakespeare’s historical play Julius Caesar, in which he has a clock striking the time… several centuries before it was invented. In 1971, anachronism was beginning to come to full flower in the fascinating pictures of Ken Russell: that year saw his first experiment with it in his biographical film about the tormented gay composer, Tchaikovsky. In general, anachronism can be used as a joke, as with the Stone Age baseball game in Buster Keaton’s The Three Ages (1923) or most of the gags in Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974), or to make a work more “relevant” to an audience, as heard-then-seen in Jesus Christ Superstar in its various incarnations. But the device can also suggest a feeling of wrongness, of things not fitting, of time and space being mixed up, as in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985). Although I’m not sure if Zachariah’s filmmakers consciously intended it, their use of anachronism, beyond its obvious stab at trendily “relating” to a youth audience, has a palpable feeling of social dislocation. It seems to aim for “relevance” but ends up making us feel out of time, both in the sense that something (such as its era) is ending but also in a mood of desperation, which is literally underscored by the churning rock music. There’s almost a feeling that this world is not holding together, and that’s only reinforced by the wobbly cardboard sets, especially in Belle Starr’s Vegas-like town (decades before Las Vegas became its glitzy self). My instincts tell me that this was not philosophically intentional, but nonetheless it makes the film more evocative.
That dislocation also connects with the deeper themes, or at least implications, of the film as a work created and released during the height of the Viet Nam War. Although the war is never alluded to directly, it seeps in in various ways, including the theme. The basic structure is that of a spiritual quest, or rather two such quests. Zachariah’s journey we see in all of its principal moments, but Matthew’s story, after parting from Zachariah halfway through the film, is only briefly sketched. Their names clue is in to the biblical dimension of their quest: Zachariah coming from the Old Testament and Matthew from the New. However, the “symbolic” connections are, at best, shaky. Zachariah (which literally means “remembered by the Lord”) was the ruler of the ancient Kingdom of Israel around 750 BCE, but who was on the throne for only six months before a usurper murdered him (poor Zachariah only merits a few verses: 2 Kings 15:8-12). Since this film is ultimately a pacifist work, there could be a connection along the lines of ‘living by the sword, dying by the sword.’ But then, the name may have been chosen because it ‘sounds like an Old West type name,’ ending in “-iah” and all. By contrast, the Bible’s Matthew went from being a publican or, worse, tax collector, to one of Jesus’s apostles, and the author of reputedly the most popular gospel (must add, brilliantly filmed by Pasolini). Although Matthew certainly begins as a kind of follower to Zachariah (he certainly has the more passive role then), this may well be more of a leftover from his principal literary inspiration, Govinda in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha.
Now we’re getting to the structural, if not copyright infringed, heart of this film: Hesse’s 1922 novel, which is without doubt the film’s primary inspiration. Although Siddhartha had been published a half-century before this film, it had long fallen into obscurity, even after Hesse won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. But when in the 1960s it was reprinted in paperback, in English translation, it became one of – if not the – defining works of the American counterculture, going to a record-breaking two-dozen printings through the mid-’70s. Its appeal might be attributed to its mysterious and mystical Indian locale, its engrossing dramatization not only of Buddhism but of the Buddha himself (at a time when traditional Christianity, along with all forms of “infallible” authority – like the US government which maintained the Viet Nam War – was being questioned by young people), and primarily its exhortation to ‘find yourself;’ some might also attribute part of its success to its brevity and clear prose style. The parallels between this film and Hesse’s novel are many, including all of the principal characters: Zachariah / Siddhartha; Matthew / Govinda; Job Cain / Kamaswami the merchant; Belle Starr / Kamala the courtesan; the Old Man (both Vasuveda the ferryman and Goatama the Buddha, whose first name is also Siddhartha). There are also clear parallels with the narrative structure, with the major exception of Zachariah’s final sequence. The showdown between the title character and Matthew pumps in some six-shootin’ melodrama, but it is antithetical to Hesse’s pacifist theme which culminates in his closing pages.
Another major, and historically revealing, inspiration for Zachariah is Fellini Satyricon (1969), the first time a world-class filmmaker had openly, not to mention exuberantly and surreally, portrayed a gay couple on screen. In broad mythic strokes, the journey of the two young men/lovers in that film, based on Petronius’s picaresque Satyricon of two thousand years earlier (arguably the first novel ever written), is paralleled in Zachariah. Although the title character instantly announces that he is “looking for a friend,” and although we never see the two men erotically connected, there seems little chance that alert audiences, whether gay or straight, would miss the depth of their feelings for each other. But typically of this film, it wanted to have its proverbial cake (making a landmark gay-themed film) while eating it too (never explicitly defining the cowboys as lovers, so that audiences who needed this to not be gay could see it is a buddy movie à la Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Still, the picture’s homoerotic openness, not to mention its even more extraordinary unselfconsciousness – the two cowboys just are who they are – is remarkable. How was this possible in 1971, only two years after the pivotal Stonewall Rebellion which ushered in the Gay Rights Movement; at a time when not a single gay-rights law had been passed, and when same-sex relationships were still criminalized as “sodomy” by most US states? In business terms, perhaps the producers were trying to tap the emerging gay market. The film was released by ABC Pictures, who at the time was on a mini-GLBT streak: they also either allowed or requested that Fosse make the male lead in Cabaret bisexual (he had been heterosexualized in the stage musical, but in real life was gay author Christopher Isherwood). For a few years this openness was possible, until the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision mobilized, and increasingly politicized, the right wing, which was further energized by their pathological hatred of gay people. But for a brief time, in the early ’70s, two cowboys in love could star in a rock musical, albeit one made on a miniscule budget.
Ahead of Its Time
The naturalness with which this film treats Zachariah and Matthew’s relationship is still remarkable. In some ways, it seems like it’s decades beyond – if only in that one regard – even a masterpiece like Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, which revolves around the two cowboys’ failure to even try to make a good life for themselves. One wonders what Ennis and Jack would have thought if they’d gone to see Zachariah, while on one of their “fishing trips.”
Above we looked at the emotional pull in Zachariah and Matthew’s first scene, but virtually all of their scenes resonate, even in such small moments as when they join The Crackers gang, and the two affirm – simply and poignantly – that “We’ve got to stay together.”
A scene which would have been enormously evocative then, and remains so today, is in the saloon when a slovenly jerk sneers at them, telling Zachariah, “I’m gonna kill you, you little fag.” Unlike the (stereo)typical masculine response, of outrage and violence at impugned manhood, the two take it in stride. But the bigot wants a shootout. Zachariah calmly and sincerely tries to avoid violence, but the heckler keeps escalating the situation until he draws: guess who wins the shootout. With antigay violence at epidemic levels, such still-rare scenes may prove as empowering to early twenty-first century audiences as to early ’70s ones.
What makes this film special, perhaps in spite of its screenplay, is what immediately follows the shooting, in which Matthew consoles Zachariah. That scene not only deepens their bond but shows an all-but-unprecedented reaction in a typical Western, namely, Zachariah’s halting working through of his grief at having killed another human being. Not only is such a scene inconceivable in most generic shoot-em-ups, it goes far beyond any stereotypical portrayal of gay male “sensitivity” to a raw moment of someone confronting the moral implications of his own irreversible actions.
The film’s next most poignant moment occurs at the structural mid-point when Zachariah, now becoming drunk with power, tells Matthew that he needs to prove himself by killing the ultimate outlaw, Job Cain (talk about symbolic names). As if that’s not enough to drive a wedge between him and the gentle Matthew, Zachariah then says that once Cain is gone, he and Matthew would be the two best gunfighters and then they would be forced to shoot it out. (What is it about boys and their logic?) When Matthew demurs, all Zachariah can say is the truth: “I love you, Matthew.” Matthew, confused on many levels, responds, “You and me are not on the same trip.” The word “trip” smacks of ’60s-ism, but the warring emotions inside him come through, as the two young men now go their separate ways. (If this had been a stage work, the Act One curtain would now descend with a pregnant thud.)
Three-quarters of a century of Westerns has taught us that the two are now on a collision course for a climactic final show-down and shoot-out; of course the film first has to go through other obligatory plot developments, including Zachariah’s meeting with that staple of myth, the Wise Old Man (here are some parallels between classical myth and Hollywood screenwriting, as applicable to Siddhartha as to Zachariah or Star Wars), and his temporary seduction by the historical character Belle Starr (their scene with a fold-down bed and serenading/commenting musicians – The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble – surrounding them, may have inspired Fosse for a similar scene in his 1972 stage musical Pippin, which also starred John Rubinstein), not to mention Matthew’s turning Bad (capital B) and (gasp!) dressing entirely in black. I’ll leave you to explore the second half of the film on your own, since thematically and stylistically it is of a piece with the first half, already examined.
PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD! If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know how it ends, read no further, since I’ll now discuss the final sequence.
As it should be, the final sequence is the film’s most moving, if not most unexpected. While the biblical allusions were as scant as those to Hesse were rife, here we see a connection – perhaps unintentional but certainly valid – to the oldest surviving work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, from almost 5,000 years ago, that is also a profound same-sex love story,. Like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Zachariah and Matthew have to fight, to connect through touch and competition, before they can find balance and join together. In its final moments, Zachariah has at last caught up with the pacifistic final scene of Siddhartha, throwing in a climactic almost-to-the-death fight for good, or at least crowd-pleasing, measure. Peace, brother!
The final shot of Zachariah and Matthew riding off in tandem, literally into the sunset, is at once prepackaged (although perhaps the filmmakers would argue that it’s intentionally tongue-in-cheek?) yet moving, not least for gay audiences. In how many films, ever, do the same-sex partners end up happily together, as happens to the vast majority of Hollywood-movie opposite-sex couples? As we have seen throughout, it is almost exclusively the honesty and naturalness of Rubinstein and Johnson’s performances that make the ending, like the entire picture, memorable. I’m sure that more than a few eyes misted up back in 1971, and still do today. Just compare that that to the ending of our era’s “gay cowboy romance,” Brokeback Mountain, which is so different from the one in Zachariah.
The resolution here exists on several, sometimes contradictory, levels – again, like so much else in this film. As a result, its emotional complexity nullifies the stock ‘riding into the sunset’ imagery. It is at once naïve, perhaps a bit disturbing (Zachariah has to physically dominate Matthew in a fight – touch at its most macho – before the two can reconnect), and exuberantly hopeful, not to mention universal in its reach.
Zachariah and Matthew have found out who they are and what they want, and now the world, or at least the range, is open before them…. and that ain’t hay.
- Directed by George Englund
- Written by Joe Massot and The Firesign Theatre (Philip Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman, and Phil Proctor)
- Produced by George Englund and Lawrence Kubik
- Cinematography by Jorge Stahl
- Edited by Gary Griffin
- Production Design by Assheton Gorton
- Art Direction by Jeremy Kay
- Costume Design by Vittorio Nino Novarese
- Music Coordinator: Bill Szymczyk
- John Rubinstein as Zachariah
- Don Johnson as Matthew
- Patricia Quinn as Belle Starr
- Elvin Jones as Job Cain
- William Challee as the Old Man
- Barry Melton as a member of The Crackers
- Country Joe McDonald as a member of The Crackers
- Doug Kershaw as The Fiddler
- Dick Van Patten as The Dude
- Robert Ball as the Stage Manager
- Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as Pancho the Doorman
- Lawrence Kubik as Man in Bar
- Hank Worden
- Peter Bergman as Bank Teller (uncredited)
- Joe Walsh as a Member of The James Gang
- Country Joe and the Fish as The Crackers
- The James Gang as Job Cain’s Band
- The New York Rock & Roll Ensemble as Belle Starr’s Band
- White Lightnin’ as the Old Man’s Band
- “We’re the Crackers”
Music and Lyrics by Country Joe McDonald
Performed by Country Joe and the Fish
- “All I Need”
Music and Lyrics by Barry Melton
Performed by Country Joe and the Fish
- “Poor But Honest Crackers”
Music and Lyrics by Barry Melton
Performed by Country Joe and the Fish
- “Country Fever”
Written by Joe Walsh, Jim Fox, and Dale Peters
Performed by The James Gang
- “Laguna Salada”
Written by Joe Walsh, Jim Fox, and Dale Peters
Performed by The James Gang
- “Drum Solo”
Performed by Elvin Jones
- “Ballad of Job Cain”
Written by Doug Kershaw
Performed by Doug Kershaw
- “Grave Digger”
Written by Michael Kamen and Martin Fulterman (now called Mark Snow)
Performed by The New York Rock and Roll Ensemble
- “Shy Ann”
Written by Byard Ray
Performed by White Lightnin’
- “Down in the Willow Garden”
Written by Byard Ray, Obray Ramsey, and Arthur Gorson
Performed by White Lightnin’
- “Camino Waltz” (Excerpt)
Written by John Rubinstein
MGM has released a DVD with very good image and sound, although there are no special features of any kind.
- Widescreen, enhanced for 16:9, in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- Optional English, French and Spanish subtitles
- $14.95 suggested retail
Reviewed May 1, 2006 / Revised October 27, 2020