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Friday, March 11, 2016

The Last Rebel (1971) review


Joe Namath (Burnside Hollis), Jack Elam (Matt Graves), Woody Strode (Duncan), Ty Hardin (Sheriff), Victoria George (Pearl), Renato Romano (Virgil), Marina Coffa (Camelia), Annamaria Chio (Mademoiselle Dupres), Michael Forrest (Cowboy), Bruce Eweka (Black Boy), Jessica Dublin (Ruby)

Directed by Denys McCoy

The Short Version: Plotless and pointless, Denys McCoy's only major motion picture credit is in the running for worst western of all time. Starring an emotionally vapid Joe Namath, the film is so badly written, neither Elam nor Strode can wrangle the untamed script that is all over the place, lacking even a modicum of cohesion. Instead of focusing on a complicated three-way of two white Confederates and a black Union soldier the filmmakers surrender their credibility as quickly as General Lee does at the outset. Sadly, a potentially brilliant concept is thrown away in favor of lousy editing, interminable riding scenes and some of the most boring pool playing and gun fights to ever grace the screen. Making a Fidani oater almost bearable, the biggest difference between the two filmmakers is that Fidani, bewilderingly, had a longer career making crap. A Wild West Disaster Movie in the most literal sense.

On the Missouri battlefield in 1865 news comes that General Lee has surrendered in Virginia. Preferring freedom to a Federal prison, Burnside Hollis and his Reb friend Matt Graves make a run for it, steal some horses and head out to prospects unknown. Happening upon a Southern lynch mob about to stretch the neck of a black Union soldier named Duncan, Hollis and Matt save his skin. With no money, Graves decides they should rob a stagecoach; only the first one they cross paths with has two dead occupants and a single live one, a young lady. Heading into a nearby town, the men immediately rile the crooked sheriff. Meantime, the trio plan to hustle a pool shark to make an easy haul. Hollis wins big and gives $4,000 to Duncan for safe keeping and gives the rest to a pretty saloon whore desiring to pay off her debts. Incensed that Hollis didn't give him a cut of the take, Graves swears to get even. Hollis gets into a gunfight and skedaddles; Duncan becomes a father figure to an orphaned boy and Graves joins forces first with the Klan then the corrupt sheriff to get revenge. Finally trapping Hollis and Duncan inside Pearl's whorehouse, the two make a last stand against their former partner.

It's not entirely clear just what THE LAST REBEL is supposed to be about, or what it wants to say. The inebriated script (by Warren Kiefer, an American writer/director who sometimes used Italian pseudonyms on his films) never makes sense, never knows what it's doing, nor where it's going; the story meanders and stumbles from one scene to the next, occasionally puking up half-baked action scenes about as exciting as watching paint dry. The performers fare little better--either falling prey to bad editing or bad acting. 

Namath's lazy-eyed Hollis possesses this "oh, well" attitude towards everything. Never once convincing as a southern soldier, you'd think Broadway Joe wandered onto the set fresh off a football game. Other than presenting himself as a serial womanizer (that's a stretch!), there's no characterization, no insight into his persona.... nothing.

Ditto for the two accomplished actors, Jack Elam and Woody Strode; both of whom are wasted in a film that goes lame within minutes of hitting the trail. At least Elam is able to evoke cheap slivers of villainy from his casual use of the word 'nigger' and eventual, open antagonism towards Strode's Duncan.

Strode, sadly, doesn't come off much better. Much like Elam as a bad guy, he manages some slight audience sympathy as a good guy for taking an orphan under his wing. However, we never learn why he does it, or how the boy became abandoned in the first place. The film never bothers to explain anything; and speaking of abandonment, the film's biggest shame is its desertion of exploring racial matters at a time when the subject was topical. Further, it's unfortunate the results are so below average since the storyline holds a sincere amount of potential in its unlikely team-up of two white Rebs and a black Union soldier. 

In the 1969 western GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN there's some fascinating interplay between two of the Seven: a one-armed rebel gunslinger (played by Joe Don Baker) and a black gun fighter (played by Bernie Casey). Granted GOTM7 isn't exposition-heavy material, but it spends enough time on these two men--who initially have heat between them--becoming friends. In THE LAST REBEL, the main focus of the movie is built around such a relationship but the writers/producer/director ignore and squander the very prospects they are promoting.

Had they showcased Hollis growing to see past Duncan's skin color, whereby driving a wedge between his friendship with the highly prejudiced, grizzled Graves, we would of had a far more plausible, immersive, and coherent movie. Instead there's no evolution; Hollis may as well of not even been fighting for the south. He has zero defining characteristics and keeps the same drunken grin on his face from start to finish. Meanwhile, Graves is irrepressibly crude and Duncan's nearly indecipherable line readings give the impression scenes were removed. A missed opportunity by filmmakers who seem to think they'll find treasure by gold panning in a gravel pit. 

The first Spangler Pictures production, THE LAST REBEL was originally planned as a co-pro with Italy and Spain, but Spangler reportedly refused to replace some of his cast members in favor of European stars as per foreign quota requirements. Partnering instead with Glendinning Films, it's strictly an American affair, but with shooting taking place in the two aforementioned European countries.

Chaotic and sloppily put together, sources specify Spangler tried to salvage the film as best he could after a screening of a rough cut left a studio head feeling he'd just seen the worst "piece of shit" of his life.

Spangler, a friend of Namath and producer of THE JOE NAMATH SHOW (1969), produced and or directed a handful of Wild West adventures throughout the 1970s including the weird horror western KNIFE FOR THE LADIES (1974) and a few Fred Williamson adventures like the LEGEND and the SOUL of two NIGGER CHARLEY movies and JOSHUA (1976). 

Amazingly, for all its faults it would seem most everybody had a fantastic time making the picture. The late artist and filmmaker Rea Redifer worked on the script, and referred to the finished product in interviews as terrible, but had great fun working on it. Redifer had previously collaborated with director Denys McCoy (a nephew of famous painter Andrew Wyeth) on Western/Civil War documentaries so the subject was something he could relate to.

One person who worked on THE LAST REBEL who, despite his constant smiling, didn't find it a fun experience was its main star, Joe Namath.

In the late 60s, New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath was everywhere--in books, commercials, television programs--so it was a no-brainer some entrepreneurial producer would attempt to translate his massive popularity to Silver Screen leading man status. His first star turn in C.C. AND COMPANY (1970) was a spirited biker flick kept alive by Ann-Margret, William Smith and a gaggle of familiar Drive-in faces like Sid Haig, Jennifer Billingsley, Bruce Glover and Teda Bracci. Unfortunately, Namath's more experienced co-stars in THE LAST REBEL can't keep his performance on life support from the lack of character development and meaningless dialog.

Namath loved movies but didn't enjoy making them; feeling uncomfortable watching himself play a character and disliking the sound of his voice. This might explain why his acting style is expressively static with the breadth of emotional range limited to the intermittent grinning and line delivery that makes Richard Harrison look Oscar-worthy in comparison.

The wholly inappropriate rock score (reportedly the first film to feature one) by musician Tony Ashton and Deep Purple's Jon Lord is arguably the most interesting thing about the picture even if it makes about as much sense as anything else in the film. There are some good songs ('I'm Dying For You' and 'You, Me, and A Friend of Mine' being two examples) that, as ill-fitting as they are, make the picture bearable.

Shockingly, there are some good things in THE LAST REBEL (1971). One of them being the well built frame of blonde lovely Victoria George. Playing Hollis's saloon whore girlfriend, her standout moment is a sequence where she's seen wearing a diaphanous gown thinly disguising she's topless underneath.

There are a few nicely framed shots in the movie--the most striking being the last shot in the picture. The big, blandly filmed, blood-squib enhanced gun battle has left about a dozen men dead and Pearl's whorehouse in flames; Namath photographed in front of the burning building as Ashton/Lord's funk/jazz blares in the background makes for a fantastic image to close out a unanimously awful movie on.

One other bright spot is seeing Michael Forrest as the unnamed pool shark who gets hustled by Namath in the most boring game of pool ever captured on film. Forrest is familiar from old Roger Corman movies (ATLAS, VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT) and countless television programs; one of the more famous being his role as Apollo on the original STAR TREK. Forrest is also well known for his voice acting skills on dozens of Italian genre pictures--notably for being the chief dubber for famed Italian Tough Guy superstar, the late Maurizio Merli.

Released to scathing reviews, THE LAST REBEL was Namath's last major lead role. Probably for the best, a knee injury kept Namath from attending the film's Alabama premiere in 1971. Rarely discussed, it's understandably remained in obscurity for decades. A veritable train wreck from the first frame to the last, one of the genres worst has yet to surface on DVD anywhere in the world (this satellite airing is in widescreen). Devotees of Namath's football career will surely want to see it out of curiosity. Genre fans, on the other hand, are unlikely to derive any pleasure from viewing 90 minutes of tumbleweed tedium.


Hal said...

Nice job. I sat down to review this for my Why the Hell isn't this on DVD yet? series about two years ago. The review still isn't finished, because I couldn't come up with one plausible reason. :)

Hal said...

One plausible one in the film's favor, that is.

venoms5 said...

Thanks, Hal. I recorded it off Encore Westerns a year or so ago and thought it would fit nicely in the obscure/lesser known western marathon I am currently doing. I did the caps last night and it was PAINFUL sitting through it again.

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