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Friday, February 8, 2019

Gentle Savage (1973) review


William Smith (Camper John Allen), Kevin Hagen (Ken Schaffer), Gene Evans (Sheriff McVaney), Barbara Luna (Gayle), Ned Romero (Richard Allen), R.G. Armstrong (Rupert Beeker), C.J. Hincks (Betty Shaffer), Betty Ann Carr (Vicky)

Directed by Sean MacGregor

The Short Version: Low budget clone of BILLY JACK (1971) has William Smith as a muscle-heavy, motorcycle ridin' red man who tangles with a passel of Injun hatin' bigots. There's a teepee full of potential here only MacGregor fails to give his tender Tonto a satisfying retribution and his mediocre movie an actual ending. He does manage to give Smith room to flex his acting muscle, though. The same story was told in slimier fashion in 1975s far more rewarding JOHNNY FIRECLOUD. A fantastic cast and occasional scenes of over-anxious violence means a minor league, light-weight piece of exploitation for Drive-in fanatics. Unfortunately, GENTLE SAVAGE is too benevolent for what it's capable of.

Camper John is an Indian living on a piss poor reservation with his wife, child and brother just outside a town populated by the most egregious bunch of miscreants imaginable. Framed for beating and raping the daughter of the town's biggest businessman, Camper John is arrested while everyone in town wants him dead. After his brother is brutally murdered, the Gentle Savage has to decide whether or not to spill blood for revenge.

With all the potential at his disposal for a sterling piece of Drive-in trash, Sean MacGregor (DEVIL TIMES FIVE) inexplicably fouls up his own tale of Indian revenge. Actually, calling it an Indian revenge movie is a bit of a misnomer. It takes an hour building the rage within Camper John; but just when you think William Smith is going to turn into a not-so Gentle Savage after being told to "spill blood, innocent and guilty", nothing happens. 

After the villains of the film shotgun and castrate Camper's brother, the revenge boils down to blowing up a truck, a barn, and holding some of the killer townsfolk hostage till the press comes to expose the town's crimes! The movie ends just when you think the sheriff is going to pursue Camper for a showdown. 

Imagine if in I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)--after nearly an hour of rape and humiliation--Camille Keaton simply captured her attackers and held them hostage till police arrived to arrest them. That's essentially what happens in GENTLE SAVAGE when no vindication is forthcoming for the script's despicable human debris.

Said script goes to great lengths to showcase the town's population as utter savages while indulging in outrageous displays of raping, the pillaging of a shanty village, bullying, and eventual murder. One over-the-top sequence has a mad posse terrorizing a white couple whom they've mistaken for Indians!

Almost everyone in the film comes off like they've had way too much caffeine; either screaming their lines or acting irrationally. Sean MacGregor's directing style is equally irrational. Director MacGregor seems unsure which direction he wants his film to go. It would appear Tom Laughlin's pretentious BILLY JACK (1971) was an inspiration; although Laughlin's overrated hit had sense enough to satisfactorily wrap things up. For the film that GENTLE SAVAGE could have been, see William Castleman's far trashier JOHNNY FIRECLOUD (1975).

Shot in late 1972, CAMPER JOHN, alias GENTLE SAVAGE, wasn't the only time MacGregor worked with Smith; he worked with the actor on another production in 1974 that went unfinished. Titled 'Tiger Cage', it was to star Smith in one of the sub-genre of crazed Vietnam vet pictures that were popping up throughout the 1970s. Apparently, the film did get made in 1988 as A MISSION TO KILL with Smith starring but no longer the lead character.

Co-produced with his LAREDO (1965-1967) co-star Peter Brown, Smith's film is in the same camp as another movie both men starred in that same year, PIRANHA (1972). It, too, suffers from a full-proof Drive-in scenario only to fall well short of its potential. As for the film in question, the filmmakers manage to pack it full of familiar faces; many of which did GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) episodes.

As for his GENTLE SAVAGE, William Smith displays a variety of emotions, and the film is clearly his showcase; only the flimsy script by MacGregor and Jacar Lane Dancer gives us an incredible build-up with no payoff. An opportunity to allow Smith to go totally off the deep end is discarded in favor of a more civil response to appalling actions that demand an equivalent justice this film denies both Smith's character and the audience watching it. 

Aside from William Smith's convincing portrayal, he gets to play a rare good guy role and ride a motorcycle in a few scenes. If only Smith's heroic roles made the same impression as his antagonistic ones.

Since so many of the cast appeared in the classic western (GENTLE SAVAGE itself plays out like a modern day western), William Smith did two episodes of the best one, GUNSMOKE. Season 18s 'Hostage!' became a fan-favorite for Smith's portrayal of vengeful half-breed Jude Bonner. What fan's remember most about this episode is Smith beating up and shooting Miss Kitty in the back!

Kevin Hagen is equally impressive as the main villain Ken Schaffer. If you're a fan of LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, you'll be shocked to see just how vicious 'Doc Baker' can get. In GENTLE SAVAGE he holds a seething hatred for Indians, letting us know every few minutes with a flurry of derogatory terms. He not only kills Camper's brother but rapes his own daughter, too! Like many of his fellow cast members, Hagen acted in a host of GUNSMOKE episodes; some of which saw him playing villains akin to the one he plays here; like the incredibly dark season nine episode, 'No Hands' from 1964.

C.J. Hincks (Candice Roman) is the troublesome spitfire that sets the violence in motion after Camper John refuses to light her fuse. A good, underrated actress, Ms. Hincks's best remembered movie role was in Jack Hill's THE BIG BIRD CAGE (1972). Sadly, Hincks--an actress of stage and screen--passed away from brain cancer on January 11th, 2017.

Gene Evans plays the Indian-loathing lawman, McVaney. Evans was a familiar face in television and Drive-in fare. He would play another shady sheriff in the Tough Guy classic WALKING TALL (1973). Evans played a variety of villains and burly characters on GUNSMOKE (1955-1975); one of his best portrayals was as a fearless mountain man who inadvertently starts a violent chain of events with Chill Wills in the surprisingly bloody episode, 'A Hat' from season 13.

R.G. Armstrong was in practically everything back in the day. He was a familiar face in a slew of horror movies and westerns, and, like many of his SAVAGE co-stars, did several GUNSMOKE episodes. His roles on that classic western series were more stoic. One of the best was the powerful season six show, 'With A Smile'. In it, he plays a wealthy, honorable rancher whose spoiled, violent son (played by future Roscoe P. Coltrane, James Best) believes his father's money and power will save him from the hangman's noose.

As Beeker, Armstrong's bar-owner is Schaffer's lackey and pretty much does what he's told to do. Always a welcome presence, he isn't given a great deal to do.

Barbara Luna, an actress and singer likely best known for playing Marlena in the classic STAR TREK (1966-1969) episode 'Mirror, Mirror', is Camper John's moral center in GENTLE SAVAGE. With an already crowded cast, Luna stands out in her quieter role compared to all the shouting and raucous behavior of most everyone else. One of Luna's best dramatic roles was as Chavela, the Mexican lady who helps Chester (Dennis Weaver) escape from the clutches of Comancheros led by Claude Akins in the season 7 episode of GUNSMOKE, 'He Learned About Women'.

In addition to opening with one of those "based on a series of true events" title cards, GENTLE SAVAGE--like many 70s films--comes equipped with a plot-driven main melody. Titled 'Once Upon A Tribe', this somber theme song is sung by half-Cherokee, half-French Indian actress, singer, and teacher Betty Ann Carr. She also plays a part in the movie. Ms. Carr can also be seen in the 1972 Bob Hope comedy, CANCEL MY RESERVATION.

Rated 'R', the violence in GENTLE SAVAGE doesn't justify such a rating. Incidentally,  press materials list an 85 minute running time, but available versions for viewing (no legit release as of yet) taken from old videocassettes are only 76 minutes including credits.

GENTLE SAVAGE had a list of alternate titles during its release history. You can read more about its various advertising campaigns HERE at the Temple of Schlock.

If you're a diehard William Smith fan, GENTLE SAVAGE might momentarily pique your interest for his presence alone. It's grossly disappointing that, for whatever reason, more wasn't done with the concept. It neither satisfies as a message movie, nor as an exploitation one. Arguably, one of the biggest missed opportunities in the revenge movie sweepstakes.

running time: 01:17:56

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