The Other Andy: Savages (1974)
When one thinks about Andy Griffith, there are qualities that naturally spring to mind, kindness, humor, and confidence to name a few. Last week, I talked about The Girl in the Empty Grave and the beginning of Andy’s middle period in which the ttelevision legend sought ways to shake off the mantle of Andy Taylor, Sheriff of Mayberry. Where Empty Grave saw him taking a more no nonsense approach to mystery solving (which would come in handy someday to Matlock), perhaps the most interesting roles he’s ever taken were the ones which went directly against type. The first such role that I ever caught was in Pray for the Wildcats where, opposite William Shatner playing a wimp, Griffith is a power mad drunkard with rape and even murder on the mind. I really thought the wild eyed Griffith of Pray would have topped my list of Evil Andys, but then I saw today’s film, Savages. Sporting a bristly moustache, a pair of giant size, wire rimmed old guy glasses, and a full on safari outfit, Griffith barely looks like himself, and as the merciless lawyer and hunter Horton Madac, he surely was looking to leave Aunt Bee and Opie a distant memory.
Sam Bottoms stars as Ben Campbell, an eccentric naturalist who lives in a small southwestern town. One day, while out observing vultures for his latest article, Ben is approached by Sheriff Hamilton (James Best) and offered a job being a desert guide for hunter Horton Madac. Ben agrees, but when Madac thinks he has finally spotted his prey, he fires and accidentally shoots a prospector. In an effort to cover up the killing, Madac shoots the prospector again with Ben’s gun and offers the animal lover five grand to forget it happened. When Ben declines, Madac forces Ben to strip down to only his shorts and tells him he must find his own way back to town. Ben knows the desert, but the lawyer turned human hunter tracks him, foiling every plan Ben has for water or supplies. With only a slingshot to defend himself, Ben must use every survival trick he’s ever learned if he wants to make it back home alive.
The evil of Horton Madac is not only in the act of killing the prospector and trying to conceal the crime, but also the way he cruelly herds Ben through the arid climates. While Ben’s skin bubbles up with sunburn (neatly done for a Made-for-TV flick), his feet bleed, and he is literally dying of thirst, Madac calmly keeps track of his Ben’s progress, never relenting, ever patient. Much like the vultures that Ben was studying, Madoc circles constantly awaiting his guide’s death. Madoc also represents a perversion of “The Law” as he cites his education in it for being able to keep a step ahead of other men. If we look at the characters symbolically, Madoc destroys, lies, connives and murders in the name of the law of man while Ben remains industrious, truthful, and unrelenting as a representative of natural law. Where the lawyer possesses all the guns, Ben carries only a crude slingshot, perhaps not coincidentally the weapon the Bible says David used to bring down the giant Goliath. Now all this could be merely reading the tea leaves, and it is impossible to say what either novelist Robb White, who also penned the screenplays for William Castle’s The Tingler and 13 Ghosts, and scenarist William wood intended, but there seems to be more going on in Savages than merely a spin on The Most Dangerous Game. The title of the film alone implies that one of the leads is uncivilized, and it’s hard to see anyone thinking it is intended to mean the suffering Ben Campbell.
Griffith, dressed as he is like the great white hunter, practically disappears in the costume to the point that the sheriff of Mayberry is easily forgotten. Where Pray for the Wildcats played with the image of the famous stars of Star Trek, The Brady Bunch, and The Andy Griffith Show who appeared in it, Griffith’s work in Savages is kept low key, and the television star perfectly unleashes a performance which is the polar opposite of his perceived image. The kind, gentle father of Opie is left in the desert dust as Griffith’s Madac scowls, shoots, and stomps his way across the screen. His smile, once known for its folksy charm, only points to barely restrained malice, and Griffith proves once and for all that he could play the baddest of the bad as well as the goodest of the good. Sam Bottoms, who would go on to appear in Apocalypse Now and The Outlaw Josey Wales, is filled with earnest righteousness, but his efforts are completely overshadowed by Griffith’s dominate baddy. While his performance is brief, another highlight of Savages is an appearance by James Best, a.k.a Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane of Hazard County, as the local copper. To get a chance to see Best and Griffith, two iconic television lawmen sharing the screen, is treat enough to make Savages a sort of classic.
Starting out his directing career with the Chuck Connors Western series Branded, Lee H. Katzin had a firm foundation in television direction. While he could go on to direct feature films Heaven and a Gun, The Phynx, and Le Mans starring Steve McQueen, Katzin would spend the bulk of his career helming TV shows and Made for Television Films. Sitting in the big chair for twenty such Made for TV flicks in the seventies alone, Katzin was surely a notch above many of his peers, and it shows. While essentially Savages was a two man show, Katzin does a good job keeping the feeling and pace moving and involving the audience in the action. On all levels, from the multidimensional story to the directing and acting, Savages stands out not merely because of the curiosity of Griffith’s ruthless performance but also because it hits a higher mark than most television fare. While Savages didn’t sway the public’s opinion of Griffith, fans will enjoy the strikingly different look at the actor. Andy Taylor and Horton Madac are two sides of a coin, both steeped in the law, but only one of them would strip you down to your jean shorts and leave you to die….well, probably, depends on what you said about Helen Crump.