The Savage Seven
Director: Richard Rush
Cast: Adam Roarke, Robert Walker Jr., Billy Green Bush
Special guest review!
The biker genre
dates back to Stanley Kramer’s production of
The Wild One in 1953. Marlon Brando and
Lee Marvin would influence thousands of teenagers (including Bob Dylan
and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson) with their disregard for
authority, their style of dress, and their basic overall devil-may-care
attitude – riding around and caring only for the moment.
The next big
success in the genre, despite minor cult classics such as Russ Meyer’s Motor
Psycho in 1965, was Roger Corman's (or should I say, Peter
Bogdanovich's?) The Wild Angels in 1966, starring the
son of Tom Joad in leather, Peter Fonda. Fonda exudes a certain sadness
in his performance as the lead of a motorcycle gang. It could have
something to do with the fact that Fonda’s gloomy personal life was too
much for him at the time. Three years later, his melancholy would turn
into a longing for the real America and it would create a major film – Easy
But a year earlier,
there is a forgotten motorcycle movie that used great rock music as Easy
Rider did, pioneered the use of a major camera technique, and
featured a lead performance full of conniving wit and
double-crosses. That movie is The Savage Seven.
Bandstand's Dick Clark produced the film which is about a white
men-corrupted Indian Reservation where a motorcycle gang up to no good
shows up to stir up trouble for everybody. The film opens up with a
dashing pan over vast desert territory. Suddenly, an Indian appears out
of nowhere. He starts screeching a battle cry. Another Native American
jumps on top of the other, they fight to the ground. What is going on?
Is this a Western?
around,” yells Robert Walker Jr. as the two men get up and hop back
into the back of a pick-up truck. It’s just a group of hardworking
modern Native Americans going home for the day. What director Richard
Rush does in this opening is wonderful. He downplays and modernizes the
way Indians were previously portrayed in past cinematic outings. Sure,
most of the Natives in the film were white or black pretending, but
many of the lesser roles and extras were filled up with real Indians.
Robert Walker Jr.
is good-hearted Johnny Blue Eyes. His comrades are played by John ‘Bud’
Cardos, Larry Bishop and the Mack himself, Max Julien. Johnny has a
younger brother and sister (Joanna Frank, who is actually Steven
Bochco’s sister). This makes up the essential group of Native Americans
that are one element to the movie. Billy Green Bush (Jack Nicholson’s
hick friend in Five Easy Pieces), Richard Rush regular
Chuck Bail, and big Mel Berger as Fillmore make up the white men who
corrupt and misuse the Indians.
Adam Roarke as
Kisum, the leader of the gang, is the only worthy member to mention.
The rest of the gang are clichés piled up on clichés. It’s the
combination of Roarke, the beautiful cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs,
and the rock music that make this one to watch. But more on all of that
a bit later. The movie is an epic of three different levels of society
vying for their own sense of freedom. The white men want the Indians
gone or just less visible to them, the Indians want to be left alone
and to be treated more fairly, and the gang want the freedom to do
whatever the hell they want to do. There is plenty of manipulation by
everyone in the movie, as they all try to trick one another with
varying degrees of success.
performance is nuanced with the right amount of stylized coolness,
stoic wit, and conniving tendency. He’s as cool as Peter Fonda here (in
fact, he plays second fiddle to Fonda in Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry
in 1974). You never really know if Kisum genuinely likes the Indians or
is just pretending to be nice to get Joanna Frank in the sack. He uses
the town for his own personal garbage can, conning everyone – even some
of his own gang.
Roarke played a
similar leader in Rush’s inferior Hell's Angels On Wheels
where he out-acted Jack Nicholson. He did two other motorcycle pictures
(Hell's Belles and The Losers) before
retiring to mediocre roles in the 1970s. He shined in a brief role in
Rush’s excellent The Stunt Man, but sadly went largely
unnoticed until the day he died (April 27, 1996). He’s got some of the
qualities that Ryan O’Neal had to get famous, but he mixes that with
Marlon Brando sensibilities that make him very compelling to watch.
The other acting is mediocre, except for the always
underused Billy Green Bush. I’ve never liked Robert Walker Jr. much and
Larry Bishop acts like his rat pack dad – which is a living tree stump.
Joanna Frank, as Johnny Blue Eyes’ quiet and cute waitress sister, does
ok but never really has much to do except act silently to Roarke’s
machismo advances. Mel Berger is a worthy, fat greedy bastard so
affluent in these kind of exploitation movies. Richard Rush regulars
Max Julien and Chuck Bail deliver their sparse dialogue cleverly.
Twangy guitarist Duane Eddy even pops up in a short role, and
there’s an appearance by Penny Marshall as she gets puked-on by one of
the motorcycle gang. But it’s Adam Roarke who steals the show.
Richard Rush was 38
at the time of directing the movie, but was no stranger to motorcycle
movies, having directed Hell's Angels On Wheels. His
greatest triumph was The Stunt Man in 1980. After that,
he became disillusioned with Hollywood and dropped off the map only to
return to directing the Bruce Willis erotic thriller Color Of
Night in the mid 1990s. Rush, with cinematographer Laszlo
Kovacs, invented the rack focus camera technique (the focusing in on
different areas in a single composition) in this film. He even owns the
patent on some sort of lens for the trick. Rush directs with more
grandeur here than he did with Hell's Angels On Wheels.
It’s filmed in beautiful color and the camera captures many fine set
pieces that moralize some of the characters. Example: Billy Green
Bush’s hand caught in the cookie jar signifying how greedy he is, not
letting go of the cookie to get his hand out.
Seven doesn’t have many action
sequences and can’t really be considered an action movie. At the end,
there’s a fight sequence in the town between everyone but the movie is
fleshed out of characterizations. The production value is cheap but
made to look grandiose.
streaming down the road while “the theme of Iron Butterfly” plays looks
as good as Lawrence Of Arabia. They make the best of
their Southern Californian locations but the look becomes tiresome if
you watch enough of these films.
The movie plays
like a con man movie with Roarke as the leading con. The plot twists
are sharp and if you’re not paying attention you may miss it. Kisum
makes a deal with the white townsfolk to get rid of the Indians. Yet,
Kisum manages to raid the local grocery store and feed many of the same
people he’s hired to kill. If the movie shares anything with the often
compared Seven Samurai other than the similar title,
it’s this twisted plot. Instead of the samurai (motorcycle gang) being
hired to kill the bad guy, they’re hired to kill the good guys by the
bad. It’s a convoluted take on Kurosawa’s classic.
like Hell's Angels On Wheels, is full up on rock and
roll. The main theme is by Cream. “Anyone for Tennis?” is a melodic
little number that lingers on for a few scenes as Roarke and company
gaze at the town as they try to get their kicks. It’s got more of a
twangy rock meets hard rock soundtrack but it’s the Cream track that
makes it appealing. The Cream and Iron Butterfly are taken out of the
VHS versions due to a rights issue. These VHS versions also cut out 10
minutes of the more somber scenes, which have some of Roarke’s best
The movie is in
dire need of a re-release and, for one night a couple years ago, it
sort of did: showing at Quentin Tarantino’s first Austin, Texas film
festival in 1997. Other than showing up on television uncut a few
years ago, I’d of never have seen the unquestionable greatness of this
film. It’s an unbridled attempt at making something better than what
should have been which is a silly exploitation movie to only play at
drive-ins during the time it was made and to whither away, totally
Rush played up to the genre and made a great addition to movies that
are usually only reserved for motorcycle enthusiasts. It also contains,
for my money, one of the most interesting acting roles in exploitation
movie history in the form of Adam Roarke as Kisum.
For fans of Roarke,
also check out Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (in a weird twist
of fate, Roarke would wind up playing Hawks in Hughes And
Harlow: Angels In Hell in 1977). Also see
Rush’s Hell's Angels On Wheels and Psych-Out;
all three make a great triple bill.
Check for availability on Amazon (VHS)
See also: Lone Hero, The Peace Killers, Run,