The First Electric Western Goes Blu
DIRECTED BY GEORGE ENGLUND/1971
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: FEBRUARY 5, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
1971- the year that gave us Nasdaq, Greenpeace, Winona Ryder, Kevlar, and the Pentagon Papers. Audiences made hits of things that in the decades immediately prior to and following would never in a million years achieve mass appeal, like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The following year would deliver even stranger pop culture anomalies to the zeitgeist: Steely Dan, Deep Throat, Pink Flamingos. Paving the way for all of it and riding the tide of weird progress is Zachariah– “The first electric western”.
Playing squarely (in more ways than one) to the freaked-out drug culture of just a couple years earlier, Zachariah takes a hearty drag and saddles up with rock acts Country Joe and The Fish and The James Gang, as well as Cajun fiddling legend Doug Kershaw, and jazz drummer extraordinaire Elvin Jones as rival gunman/musician Job Cain. Don’t think too much about where all these musicians are plugging in their equipment. Or about anything else, for that matter.
Zachariah is every bit the misfiring counter cultural lark it’s cooler-than-thou cover art and tag lines promise.
’71 also saw the U.S. voting age lowered to eighteen, resulting in a cascade of capable, outside-the-box youth candidates being swept into office. Just like how Zachariah opened the flood gates of scores of other “electric Westerns.” Which is to say, Not really. Which is to say, Not at all.
Amid these rock acts as co-stars in the film (an impressive marquee, even if their brand of hippie jam was quickly falling out of favor in that particular moment), center stage somehow goes to the very young, ridiculously fresh-faced John Rubinstein in the title role of Zachariah, and Don Johnson as his best friend, Matthew. Charismatic doesn’t begin to define them in this cult film gone amok. In fact, it’s about the furthest thing from accurate.
With its lack of stars, aesthetic appeal or exterior buildings that consist of nothing more than a front side, one would be wrong to expect much from Zachariah. The production does manage to wring mileage from what resources it does have. This reviewer counted the same distinct wooden building facade being used three separate times on the title character’s psychedelic but also real journey. One can imagine the far-out justifications behind the scenes in rationalizing this bit of cost cutting: “How many architectural styles would they’ve had back then anyway, man??” Or, “Like, maybe Zachariah’s not really going anywhere, man!” Even now, though, we can tip our hats to the set carpenters who had to carry that false front around in their truck, assembling it and re-assembling it as part of their Sisyphus-ian production schedule. Eventually, the uniquely ornate center-point of the building is used as a gravestone.
Don’t ask/don’t tell what the sub-textual underpinning of Zachariah really are. As the two extremely fresh-faced leads traverse the frontier deserts of SoCal finding trouble and challenges to their bond, it‘s clear that they just can’t quit each other. Once they part ways, Zachariah wanders into the lusty arms of famed prostitute Belle Starr (Patricia Quinn, not to be confused with the 1941 Gene Tierney film or the 1980 Elizabeth Montgomery version or the actual Belle Starr). The satisfaction she yields is as much of a facade as the fake front of her bright pink fun house of illicit desires. The place is the gaudy pinnacle of the meager phony-baloney school carnival set-up that’s supposed to pass on film for something real. Shock and dismay, Ms. Starr doesn’t do it for him. Nor does proving himself as a gunfighter, nor anachronistically loud music, nor general hedonism nor new duds. Not to give anything away, but all the answers lie in a life of non-violence and natural organic farming (was there any other kind back then?)
Just a thought, maybe there should’ve been a law in the Old West stating that participants must have the biological need to shave in order to be in a shootout…? Or maybe not, seeing how this is a 1971 PG rating, meaning a GP rating. And also meaning permissible topless go-go dancing and all kinds of drugs, Drugs, DRUGS, man!! Zowie. Family movie night material, it is not. (A lesson our house nearly learned the hard way).
Rubinstein, in his new video interview, reflects on the film with a fondness for the shoot and a touch of lament for how it came out. The film, apparently based upon respectable source material (the novel Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse) and helmed by director George Englund (who was “of the previous generation”, but is repeatedly said to have been a swell guy), was badly compromised in post-production by unnamed producers and higher-ups. (In other words, the usual gang of idiots). It’s a story far more conventional than the one Zachariah itself tells, but at least Rubinstein shows up to tell it.
Also there’s an optional audio commentary track by those ubiquitous KL commentators, Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson. The transfer, a new HD scan from a 4K transfer of that thar original camera negative, is everything a fan of Zachariah could ask for. It has to look and sound so much better here than it did when it first lit up drive-ins back in the day.
Zachariah is every bit the misfiring counter cultural lark it’s cooler-than-thou cover art and tag lines promise. It’s a humdinger of a buddy Western, ramping up to a drummed up dramatic confrontation wherein Zachariah and Matthew are reunited in the intent to break each other’s hearts… literally, with bullets. (Even when Zachariah’s given up gunfighting, he still has the special silver bullet that Matthew once gave him, “in case of vampires!”). (Let’s hope vampires aren’t real in this world, as these guys don’t know the difference between them and werewolves).
With little in the way of story, characters, performances, or visual richness, Zachariah hangs entirely on its gimmick of mind-blowing rock music in the time of fiddles. There’s no there there, but so there! In a 1971 full of oddities and disappointments, an offering like this resurfacing is the least of anyone’s concern. But with the right company and a decent drink or two, Kino’s Blu-ray of Zachariah is just downright groovy.