The Savage Seven

Director: Richard Rush          
Adam Roarke, Robert Walker Jr., Billy Green Bush

Special guest review!

By Aaron Graham

Wonder WHY they SHOUT the LAST name OF some OF the ACTORS?

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 Rider.

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.

American 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?

“Quit fooling 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.

Adam Roarke’s 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.

The Savage 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.

The bikers 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.

The soundtrack, 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 work.

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 forgotten about.

Instead, Richard 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, Angel, Run