The Californian Kid
The title sounds like a Western & that’s basically what this film is. Made for American TV in 1974, it’s a classic storyline; a small mid-West community is run by a sadistic sheriff who no-one dare oppose until one day a stranger rolls into town. The sheriff has murdered his brother 5 years earlier & the charismatic newcomer’s seeking retribution, leading to a final showdown on the outskirts of town with only one winner.
The difference being of course, that instead of a horse, the stranger uses horsepower to win the day. The film’s set in 1958 but the soundtrack & heavily atmospheric tone is typically 70s. A young Martin Sheen takes the lead role of Mike McCord, borrowing heavily from the James Dean image but looking a little too boyish to be fully convincing. In his leather jacket, cowboy boots & white jeans, he’s too clean cut to be moody.
Vic Morrow plays his opponent, Sheriff Roy Childress, with a more assured air. He was already a well known character actor when this story was filmed & had featured in several Westerns filmed in the same hills & gorges. Supporting roles go to other familiar faces. Maggie, the waitress, stuck in a dead end town & drawn to the newcomer, is portrayed by Michelle Philips. She was a member of 60s group The Mamas & the Papas & co-wrote “California Dreamin”. Buzz the town mechanic, who helps the stranger when the sheriff kills his kid brother, is played by Nick Nolte, while Martin Sheen’s own brother, Joe Esteves, puts in a cameo appearance as McCord’s brother, killed in the opening sequence.
The film opens with two sailors racing to get back to base after a weekend’s shore leave & falling foul of the sheriff as they pass through Clarksberg. Running for the county line they’re chased by the Lawman around the deadly curves in the hills above the town until he shunts their car over the edge of the 100 foot deep gorge.
5 years on & Mike McCord rumbles into town in his beautiful chopped ’34 Ford coupe, glossy black & flamed. It’s an iconic car, but personally I found the sheriff’s long, low menacing purple & white ’57 Plymouth 2 door cop car, with it’s nudge bars & high tail fins, far cooler. The black Ford actually belonged to Jake Jacobs, one half of the legendary Pete & Jake’s HotRod Parts business. They opened the shop the year the film was made & were catapaulted to fame when the producer, Howie Horowitz, who also made the classic 60s Batman TV series, chose the car as the star of his new project. It ran a 302 cubic inch Ford motor & quick-change gearbox with a 4 barrel Holley, though in one scene it appears to have 8 single carbs.5
Filming took just ten days with the chase scenes taking place in Agua Dulce Canyon, an hour’s drive North of Los Angeles on the roads that lead to the dry lakes of the Mojave desert. The film crew treated their star with little respect though- the Ford was often used as a taxi service to & from locations, the frequent slides & skids peppered it’s fresh paintwork with rocks & at one point Martin Sheen climbs out of the car on the edge of a precipice & walks along the front fender, across the newly applied flame job. The doors & bonnet were slammed so hard & so often that both side windows were shattered. A blow-out on the nearside front tyre also bent the rim, then to top it all off, a film floodlight fell on the chrome radiator shell & badly creased it.
This is a classic petrol head’s film. The acting’s passable, though a little leaden at times with some fairly lame dialogue, & the story’s predictable. Even though the sheriff’s actions are explained by the death of his wife & child in a hit & run accident years earlier, it’s inevitable that he’ll lose the final showdown & the avenging stranger will drive off into the sunset. It’s really not important though. The sight & sound of that ’34 Ford being driven hard around the narrow mountain bends & cruising through town are all that matters.
The Kid’s pretty cool.
YouTube video clip 1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-h6lSVOyn4&feature=related
YouTube video clip 2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D79Ln03ZoaY&NR=1
YouTube video clip 3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QvKS68Zcac&feature=related