Acid Westerns: Zachariah (1971)

"Zachariah," an Acid Western by way of Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock, produced an unexpected review. Then-NY Times critic Roger Greenspun wrote that the point of the film is to "parody the Western with the apparent intention of propagandizing homosexual love."

Now, I don't know what Greenspun meant by this; elsewhere he has written about gay characters with a degree of knowing sensitivity. And Greenspun was eventually fired from the Times because readers complained they didn't understand the point he was trying to make in his reviews in general. It is possible he was being somehow satiric in this statement, deliberately and archly foregrounding gay subtext in a Celluloid Closet sort of way. This is pure speculation, but it is possible that Greenspun intended to subtly signal that the film might be enjoyable to gay audiences by pretending to disapprove of the fact that it might be enjoyable to gay audiences.

Who knows? I don't want this piece to be about Greenspun's review anyway, or I would just call him and ask him what he meant. I will say that "Zachariah," with its two attractive young leads (John Rubinstein and an occasionally shirtless Don Johnson), its theatrical staging (some of it is acting out on sets that look like Victor Moscoso had been hired to design backdrops for "The best Little Whorehouse in Texas"), its undeniable camp sensibility, and its theme of brotherly love, might indeed have appealed to New Yorks gay community in the early 70s.

I don't know that the filmmakers were entirely unaware of this, either, as the film's first gunfight in prompted by a homophobic slur. But the film's point is not to propagandize homosexual love. It is, instead, a trippy pacifist film, directly inspired by Herman Hesse's "Siddhartha," in which two boyish gunfighters part ways and pursue two different destinies, eventually facing each other in a duel.

The film is intended to be metaphoric, in the way "El Topo" was, but it's both shallower and sillier than "El Topo." The silliness has an inspired source, as the script was co-written by the legendary Firesign Theatre comedy troupe. Their influence is instantly recognizable in the film's frequent asides and nods to popular culture — one gunfighter lists all his past victims, and media theorist Marshall McLuhan is among them.

The film is deliberately, delightfully anachronistic. It bills itself as the "first electric western," and, in part, they mean that the film is a bit of a head trip (in the same was the the word electric was used in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), but they also mean that it is literally electrified. Not only is the score by acid rock bands of the era, but they show up in the film, playing along with the action while women in frontier garb do the frug and the boogaloo. For a stretch Country Joe and the Fish show up as incompetent bank robbers. They lug their instruments around and have no problem plugging in and playing at a moment's notice. After a gunfight the singer even turns to the camera and says "Any requests?"

The film is better when being camp than being serious, although it takes friendship seriously, and takes equally seriously the idea that profound fraternal love can cause us to reject violence. Both of these are lovely ideas, and I appreciate that hippies were unafraid to express them even to the point of being a little embarrassing about it.

But the film finds its feet best in two satiric set pieces. In the first, one of the young gunmen heads to a bordertown bordello, where he gets duded up like Buffalo Bill and goes to seduce the madame, played by an ever-shimmying Pat Quinn. As they prepare to make love, a live band (the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble) plays alongside, feet away from them, also disrobing.

But the film's real standout scene takes place in a saloon filled with leather-clad cowboys and cowgirls dancing along to The James Gang. The bar is festooned with animal skulls, pistols, and rifles, and, as soon as our heroes arrive, they witness a cowboy call out a legendary gunfighter, Job Cain.

Cain rises, and he proves to be a large African-American man, shirtless but for a silver vest. He draws on the cowboy and kills him, at which point a member of the James Gang essentially moonwalks into the scene and starts playing. Job Cain crosses to the drummer and begins pounding on the drums, and so the drummer makes way and Job Cain sits down and takes an extended drum solo. And he kills it. And of course he does: He's played by legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones.

This scene is the only one in the film that feel legitimately hallucinogenic, but it's enough. And unlike the more fully realized hallucinogenic narrative of "El Topo," it's fun, rather than upsetting. I don't know that I particularly want to watch the entirety of "Zachariah" again, but that scene?

That scene I could watch on a loop. Forever.


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