The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Spikes Gang

Growing up is tough, and yes, here we are with another coming of age movie. No, it's not a teenager in the 1980s, a little boy growing up in Germany during the Holocaust, but a sub-genre from one of my favorite genres, growing up in the wild west. Movies from The Culpepper Cattle Co. to True Grit and others, it's an always interesting sub-genre. We can definitely add 1974's The Spikes Gang to the list.

Living with his parents on an isolated farm in Texas, teenager Wilson Young (Gary Grimes) has had about enough of his father's strict, one might say cruel, treatment. Walking around out in the isolated brush country with his two friends, Les (Ron Howard) and Tod (Charles Martin Smith), Will finds the body of a seemingly dead man. He isn't though, the three teenagers nursing the severely wounded man back to health. They find out the man is Harry Spikes (Lee Marvin), a notorious bank robber who thanks the boys for their help and rides out. Not soon after, Will, Les and Tod all leave home, vowing to live life and explore the world and all it has to offer. Life on the road isn't everything it's made out to be though, the trio ending up in a Mexican prison with no hope...until now. Spikes lucks upon them, bribing the guard to let them out. His solution? He likes the boys and teaches them how to become bank robbers, forming the oddest gang of bank robbers around.

I was worried as I watched the credits for this Richard Fleischer-directed western. The soundtrack was a soft, folksy-sounding guitar playing, and I'm thinking I stumbled into a lyrical, whimsical 1970s western where everyone's nice and cute and the world is just dreamy. Well, I'm glad I stuck with it. There certainly are moments like that, the three boys hitting the road and ready to experience the world. That sentiment is quickly thrown out the window, and the movie gets better immediately. With no money and starving, Will decides to rob a bank out of nowhere. They get away with some money but Tod accidentally shoots a passerby trying to stop them. From there, the story's previously happy, go-lucky story degenerates, getting darker with each passing scene. Is that a good thing? Um, yes, my name is Tim. Have you read any of my reviews?

This is a gem of a western, one that deserves a much bigger reputation. Fans of westerns typically love or hate 1970s westerns, movies that ripped away the idea that the wild west was glamorous, romantic or anything like most John Wayne westerns. As an interesting touch, 'Spikes' was filmed in Almeria and Andalucia in Spain, the familiar locations for countless spaghetti westerns. So we've got an unsentimental American western interested in exposing the myths of the old west in locations made famous by spaghetti westerns, a genre similarly interested in blowing open the American west. How can you lose? The 96-minute western covers a lot of ground but never feels rushed, an episodic story a positive here. We see some quick appearances from Arthur Hunnicutt as a past-his-prime gunslinger/saddle tramp, Noah Berry Jr. as an unlikely ally, and it all works in perfect fashion.

Beyond the story, the movie works because of the cast. It starts with Lee Marvin as infamous bank robber Harry Spikes. This is a part equal parts charming/disarming and frightening in its reality. He genuinely likes the three boys, looking after them, feeding them, buying them clothes and guns, teaching them how to become outlaws, but he's also brutally honest about it. If they get hurt, he'll leave them. This is a dangerous profession he's chosen and the boys have chosen. It can end at any time, and all it takes is one bullet. Marvin's performance is a gem, one that deserves to be considered one of his best. It's funny, charming, disturbing at times, and he steals every scene he is in. This isn't a part that requires him to be in every scene, drifting in and out at times as needed. When he's on-screen though, it's impossible to look away.

With a lead performance like Marvin as Harry Spikes, it'd be easy for his teenage counterparts to get lost in the shuffle. These are three talented young actors though, and any such worry is unfounded. The best part is for Gary Grimes as Will, the unofficial leader of the trio. He's sick of his father's constant nagging (and occasional beatings with a belt), opting to hit the road. The transformation he goes through is the most profound, the darkest of the three. He was a specialist in the youngster role in 70s westerns, also starring in Culpepper Cattle Co. and Cahill, U.S. Marshal, ultimately retiring from acting in the late 1970s. It's a very human part with some startling developments late. The same year Happy Days premiered, Howard is also very good as Will's closest friend, a logical thinker who's almost the group's conscious. Martin Smith too is excellent as Tod, the most religious and worrisome of the trio.

I wasn't sure exactly where this 1974 western was heading although there were some hints at the finale. The ending is perfectly executed, a major twist revealing itself in the last 15 minutes. It isn't glossy, polished or romantic. This is the west as it was. Dark, nasty, bloody and all about survival. In other words, it's realistic and far from a happy ending. I loved this western, can't recommend it enough.

The Spikes Gang (1974): *** 1/2 /****

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