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Savages
(1974)

Director: Lee H. Katzin
Cast:
Andy Griffith, Sam Bottoms, Noah Beery Jr.


I don't read as often as I did when I was a youngster, mainly because I have more access and opportunities to watch movies than I did all those years ago, but I do try now and then to crack open a book and read it. I not only know that reading stimulates the brain, I know that the way I critique movies comes from the lessons I learned while reading books as a child. One of the things I learned from my hours of childhood reading was about different kinds of stories. For example, I learned as a child that some story endings are not cut and dried, a lesson I first learned with the book Stuart Little. If you remember that book, it ended with Stuart resuming his quest to locate Margalo the bird, confident that he was on the right path to finding her. I remember when I reached the end of that book, I thought, "Whaaa? Huh? This story is not finished!" I was so frustrated, I seriously thought of writing a letter to author E. B. White (who was still alive at the time) and demanding that he finish his "unfinished" story. Another lesson about stories I learned from reading various things as a youngster was that some stories are just not written very well. One such lesson was when I read the Ray Bradbury story All Summer In A Day. In that story, if you recall, children on Venus faced non-stop rainstorms, never seeing the sun. One character in the story is a child from Earth who knows what the sun is like, and tries to explain it to the children born and raised on the rain soaked planet, but the children don't believe her. I seem to remember (it's been a long time, so my memory has faded here) when I was reading that story, I thought to myself, "The children of Venus have never seen tons of pictures or movies from Earth that show what the sun is like?"

One of the biggest lessons I learned as  a child about written stories - which I subsequently learned also apply to stories found in movies - was that writers love formulas. I first learned that with the Encyclopedia Brown books written by Donald J. Sobol. It seemed that in every book of the series, there would be a case where the boy detective would prove bully Bugs Meany was guilty of something, and subsequently Bugs would try to get revenge on our hero by framing him for something. As I moved on to my teens, I read more as well as started to watch more movies, and because of those two interests I not only discovered the origin of one particular movie formula, I found how popular it was. It was "the most dangerous game" formula. The formula originated in the 1924 Richard Connell short story titled - you guessed it - The Most Dangerous Game. If you somehow don't know what the formula involves, it involves an innocent person being hunted down in the wilderness by someone better armed and more cunning, though the hunted party usually gets the upper hand eventually. Well, this formula has proved to be extraordinarily popular with filmmakers, and audiences have shown that they have not become tired of this formula despite it currently getting close to being almost one hundred years old. Why is that so? Well, I can think of a number of reasons. I think one big reason is that with this kind of movie, the audience often finds it easy to identify with the hero. The heroes of these movies are usually ordinary people just like us, which is appealing by itself. And as the hunt progresses, the heroes, under great stress, somehow manage to get the smarts and the courage to fight back. This is kind of assuring to ordinary Joe viewers, suggesting to them that they might be able to fight back a big menace should they get into a bad situation.

I think another reason why this particular formula is popular is that the bad guys - the ones doing the hunting - are usually crazy. That can not only lead to some entertaining performances, these crazy bad guys can creep out the audience and have them wishing very hard that the heroes Savageswill be able to defeat these unbalanced individuals. A third reason I think this formula is popular is that it's clearly a good excuse for action. Once the hunt starts, it's usually non-stop action and tension until the bad guy is put out of action. There are probably other reasons the "dangerous game" formula is popular, but I won't go into it further. All I know is that I have to admit I find the formula very appealing, so much so that I have in the past reviewed on this web site several other examples of the formula. Needless to say, Savages is another example, though it's a kind of a different take from what I've reviewed in the past because it was made for television. With a smaller budget as well as being bound by network censors of its time (the 1970s), I was curious to see if the filmmakers could pull off the formula under those circumstances. At the start of the movie, a young college student by the name of Ben (Bottoms, Hunter's Blood) is working at a Mojave Desert gas station. One day, Horton Madec (Griffith, Rustlers' Rhapsody), a Los Angeles lawyer, drives in. Madec is seeking a guide to help him locate big game to hunt, and in short order Madec hires Ben to be that guide. At first, the hunting trip goes smoothly, but everything comes crashing down when Madec shoots at what he thinks was an animal, but it turns out to be an old man who was prospecting. The killing was an accident, but Ben knows that they should all the same immediately report the incident to the authorities. Madec tries to convince Ben to look the other way, but when Ben stubbornly refuses, Madec points his gun at Ben. Forcing Ben to strip down to his shorts, Madec lets him loose in the broiling desert with no vehicle, no water, and no food. Ben knows he has to somehow escape, but it's not going to be easy - especially with Madec keeping a close eye on him to make sure he dies one way or another.

As I indicated earlier in this review, a successful take on The Most Dangerous Game formula really relies on its chief characters, both the protagonist and the antagonist. So how does Savages do on these two points? First, I'll begin with looking at the acting of the two leads, starting with Griffith mainly because in these films the antagonist is usually very colorful and a lot more fun to talk about. While Griffith was usually associated with kindly characters in his career, he could certainly pull off a darker performance when given the chance, such as with the 1957 classic film A Face In The Crowd. And with Savages, Griffith proved it once again. There is something instantly creepy about his character in this movie. In his first appearances he keeps smiling and is very confident, friendly, and enthusiastic. He also comes across as very smart - too smart. Combining all of those attributes, you early on sense that this guy is putting on a front to hide a sinister side. And when that sinister side is eventually exposed, Griffith keeps giving his character confidence and enthusiasm - but it's now a twisted kind, showing how dangerous and ruthless this person is. It's a very colorful performance, and when compared to the other lead performance in the movie, it seems to overshadow what actor Bottoms manages to muster up. But if you can observe Bottoms without comparing him to Griffith, you'll see that he manages to do pretty well for the most part. Instead of making the decision to be a typical action hero - which probably wouldn't have worked - Bottoms gives his character more of an everyman air around him. He doesn't really have any special abilities, but all the same you get the sense that he does have some (believable) smarts to him that will get him out of this situation - maybe. More importantly, Bottoms gives his character a lot of likeability. When he immediately wants to report the accident when it happens, or when he subsequently struggles in the desert, he always manages to grab the sympathy of the audience.

It's not just the performances that make the characters in Savages come alive, but also with their writing. The teleplay (by William Wood, who later wrote Death Car On The Freeway) gives both Griffith's and Bottoms' characters some interesting quirks. For example, it is revealed that Griffith's character has a wooden leg, but in a short yet interesting monologue reveals that he doesn't consider it any kind of handicap. More so, he considers himself a very smart person, at one point almost downright bragging when he tells Bottoms, "That's my business - making people say yes." Bottoms' character isn't totally naive, even by comparison. Even though Griffith ultimately gets the upper hand shortly after the shooting accident, Bottoms beforehand does put up a decent argument for why they should report the shooting. And when he's subsequently hunted in the desert, his actions, from basic survival to trying to get the upper hand, do come across as quite plausible and reasonably intelligent. But the teleplay also has some strengths elsewhere. For one thing, the movie is leanly written. The running time is only seventy-two minutes in length, so that there aren't any moments that could be considered blatant padding; for example, the two lead characters first meet and start their hunting trip in the first five minutes of the movie. Another interesting aspect of the teleplay is that it doesn't end the way that you may expect. You probably know how most variations of The Most Dangerous Game end, so I won't get into that. What's interesting about this version is that where you think it would end isn't the ending - more than twenty minutes is still left in the running time. I won't spoil things by telling you what happens in those last twenty minutes, except that it places a new and troubling challenge on the protagonist.

That new challenge manages to be quite plausible with its writing, but I think credit has to go to director Lee H. Katzin (The Phynx) for really making it work. During the entire sequence, Katzin manages to really build the feeling that the screws are slowly tightening for the protagonist, so much so that I simply had no idea whether or not he would be able to get out of this dire situation, even though he had just moments before got out of the "dangerous game" situation. And the whole "dangerous game" part of the movie does indeed have a number of equally tense moments, most of them when Griffith suddenly pops up of nowhere to make Bottoms' situation more bleak. However, some of the impact of a couple of appearances by Griffith is removed by the realization that Bottoms should have heard Griffith (who's in a jeep) long before he appeared. Also, it takes a long time for Bottoms (who as I said earlier is only clad in a pair of shorts) to really start suffering in the broiling desert - I would think that he'd be severely burned and dehydrated in just a few hours. (Possibly the network restrictions of the day prevented Katzin from a more gruesome yet realistic portrayal.) But Katzin does compensate for flaws like these in part by building a real sense of isolation in this hellish environment - you really feel these characters are on their own. And Katzin's directorial style also takes the snappily written script and translates it well to unfolding in live action in a way that audiences more than forty years later will find acceptably fast paced while being at the same time easy to follow. Savages is one of the better cinematic takes on The Most Dangerous Game, one that B movie producers would be wise to take a look at if they are thinking of making their own version. (Though that apparently didn't happen with the 2014 Michael Douglas-starring remake of this movie, Beyond The Reach.)

(Posted May 15, 2018)

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See also: Overkill, Raw Courage, Seraphim Falls

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