Sunday, July 26, 2009

JOSHUA (1976)

Along with Richard Harris, Fred Williamson is one of the unlikely western stars of the 1970s. Yet he made more westerns in that decade than Clint Eastwood did, and while he didn't pioneer in aiming westerns at black audiences, he probably did more to sustain the black-oriented western as a subgenre. Joshua, also known as The Black Rider, is the last of his westerns. He wrote the story and screenplay, while Larry G. Spengler, Williamson's collaborator on the "Nigger Charley" movies, directed. It looks like a big comedown in budgetary terms from his previous westerns. He's the only name in the cast that most people will recognize, though Seventies specialists may recognize Mexican actress Isela Vega from such stuff as The Deadly Trackers (with Harris) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Curiously, Joshua's stripped-down, almost minimalist quality may point to some serious artistic intentions on Williamson's part. This isn't one of his typical swaggering performances. Instead, he's a taciturn Civil War veteran bent on revenge for the murder of his mother. She was a servant for a white man whose pioneer circumstances don't seem like the kind that would require a maid, but he has not only Joshua's Mom but a brand-new mail-order bride (Brenda Venus). But a band of desperadoes show up for dinner, take the wife and kill Martha as she goes for a rifle. Learning of this, Joshua mourns for a moment, reclaims the rifle (it belonged to his father and was Martha's only possession) and rides out into the brutal landscape beyond where the posse gave up. From this point on, everyone he encounters takes him to be a bounty hunter, and the question of his identity seems to matter to screenwriter Williamson. He's always quick to deny that he's out for money. Asked by Vega, for instance, he responds, "No, ma'am; I'm a killer." Hunting down the kidnappers is an easy segue from his wartime vocation. Warned by the posse that he'd be one against five, Joshua scoffs: "I just came back from a war where I killed nearly twice that many." And this is what I mean about Fred's unusual modesty in this production. Do you think he'd normally claim less than ten kills in a war?

Joshua's mission is further complicated by the fact that the mail-order bride seems to succumb to a sagebrush version of Stockholm Syndrome after being raped several times by the gang. The apparently heavily-edited version of Joshua that I saw off a Mill Creek Entertainment DVD doesn't illustrate any transition from shrieking hysteria to apparent camaraderie, but I wonder whether there was a parallel intended between the bride and the slaves whose freedom Joshua has just fought for. She was sold to one man, raped by another, but may be exercising some freedom, for what it's worth, by sticking with Jed, the gang leader.

"Don't do this anymore!" Brenda Venus protests during a rape scene. Is she addressing the rapists or the leering cameraman?

By the final showdown, when Jed's willing to give her up to get Joshua off his back, she doesn't want to leave him, and she ends up sharing his fate. So there's really no one to rescue, and no bounty that Joshua wants to collect. It's understandable, then, that Jed howls the question "WHO ARE YOU?" repeatedly during the final confrontation. And it's typical of this film that Joshua has no more answer to offer than "I'm my mother's son."

I think Fred was trying hard to make a serious western that transcended the blaxploitation sub-genre. Race hardly comes into the story apart from a few times when Joshua is called "boy," but he doesn't even really take note of the slur. When Jed promises to take the gang into a town where Joshua would be crazy to follow, it's not because the town has a Klan chapter, but because a gang of renegades runs the place and doesn't like bounty hunters, lawmen, etc. Arguably, the hero and his dead mother don't even need to be black for the story to work. But the Hammer's good intentions are often sabotaged by his own failures of invention or some dubious dialogue. Williamson concocts a silly scene in which his stalking of one of the gang is interrupted by a snake attack. This obliges him to indulge in some snake wrestling before taking out two foes at once by dropping the snake on the outlaw's head.

Later, we see him sharpening some sort of arrow at night. In the morning, we see that he'd snuck into the outlaws' camp and killed another of the gang by planting the arrow in his neck. You can't help but think that he could have killed all the outlaws in their sleep and taken the bride away -- if only he had made more arrows. Instead, he resumes his customary stalk. Later still, he's wounded in a gunfight in the renegade town. He rides off into the wintry mountains until he falls off his horse and passes out. Overnight, he is buried by the snow. In the morning, three renegades ride in, having offered to finish Joshua if Jed will pay them. Their arrival is only a wakeup call for our hero, who pops out of something like a foot of snow cover to kill the renegades. To his credit, Williamson promptly has himself collapse again so he can be taken to Isela Vega's house for surgery and that sure-fire cure for fever and delirium, a night in a naked woman's arms. But again, this isn't typical Fred; he's too busy selling the shakes to really enjoy the experience. Still, you get the idea: some of the action in this film is pretty dumb.

Williamson's writing is hit-or-miss, and success seems to depend a lot on the actors speaking his lines. Here I have to single out one Ralph Willingham, who here makes what IMDB claims to be his only appearance ever as an actor. After watching him play Weasel, the old coot member of the kidnap gang, I can sort of understand why he never worked again, at least under that name. Weasel is kind of a comedy relief character, if your idea of comedy is hearing him say, "I ain't had so much fun since the time I raped my nine year old sister!" Fred has to take the blame for that line, but I strongly suspect that Willingham muffed one when, after being teased provocatively by his cronies, who want to open his pants to see what he's got before allowing him to rape the mail-order bride, he screams, "Put your tail between...your tail and run off like a goddamn coyote!" I think Willingham's instincts were partly right. He saw that he was in a low-budget show that was low on charismatic action, so like many legendary performers in the wild world of cinema, he took it upon himself to make the movie more entertaining. He ended up making it look and sound more stupid than it really is.

Ralph Willingham is memorably bad in Joshua, but not in a way that'd ever make you want to see him act again.

On top of his codgery looks he has a high-pitched whiny voice that gets into Chris Rock if not Christ Tucker territory as he babbles, whines and shrieks about "that black devil" who's out to get him. In his final scene, in which Joshua works up a nice deathtrap by wrapping wet rawhide around the trigger of a gun tied to a tree, so that by drying in the sun it will tighten and fire the gun at a trussed-up Weasel, Willingham's wailing is pretty much incomprehensible. The point of giving a great bad performance is to leave behind memorable lines and line readings, but Willingham too often is just obnoxious, and his badness handicaps the whole film.

In the end Joshua isn't a very good movie, but Mill Creek's presentation of it in their Mean Guns: the Time to Die Collection box set makes matters much worse. It's a fullscreen copy that doesn't even rise to the level of pan-and-scan, missing so many of the opening credits that you might think that someone named Ed Iamson was starring. I strongly suspect that the Mill Creek copy is an edited version that got the film re-rated to PG after an initial R release. Mill Creek claims that their version is rated R, but apart from a few bursts of blood I saw nothing in the film to warrant that rating, though I could see that something more R-worthy may once have been there. Supposedly there are better versions in circulation, but if you find one I can really recommend this movie only to Fred Williamson fans, and then only on the understanding that it's an interesting experiment on the Hammer's part that doesn't quite come off as he hoped.

SpoonMHD has graciously uploaded the first ten minutes of the picture to YouTube, so take that as a trailer. This is about what the Mill Creek version looks like.


Rev. Phantom said...

I find it curious that Williamson wears the same outfit from BOSS NIGGER in this film, do you know if he's playing the same character...or is it more of the way Eastwood played the same character in Leone's films?

Samuel Wilson said...

Rev., I haven't seen Boss Nigger but I'm guessing there's no relation, since Joshua establishes that the title chracter is just returning home from the Civil War. There may have been a thought of establishing a uniform for the generic Fred Williamson westerner, but that's most likely a matter of saving money.