Old scoundrel mentors young boys - badly
By the early 70s Lee Marvin, pictured left, that great Western actor, was doing grizzled old-timer roles. The Spikes Gang was his penultimate Western – two years later he would do the rather unfortunate The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday. He started with the tiniest of parts, as the cheery train-driver stabbed in the back in Wyoming Mail in 1950, managing, though, to make an impression even with his 20-second uncredited and non-speaking appearance. By the time of The Duel at Silver Creek (1952), Don Siegel’s first Western, Lee was ninth-billed as saloon lowlife Tinhorn (his poker game with Audie Murphy is great) and he got bigger parts in The Raid (1954), Seven Men from Now (1956), and, most famously, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), in which he was Liberty Valance. He got to share the lead in Cat Ballou and The Professionals (1966), and finally topped the bill in both Paint Your Wagon (1969) and Monte Walsh (1970). I’ll do a Marvinorama at some point, for he sure deserves it, but for now just to say he was one of the most convincing Western actors around.
I like The Spikes Gang. Marvin is splendid as the old rogue Harry Spikes and the three lads he takes under his wing are, I think, endearingly naïve. It opens with a Great Expectations-ish scene as the three teenager friends Will, Les and Tod find the old man close to death after a bank robbery gone wrong, all shot up, and secretly nurse him back to health – secretly because their parents would not approve.
Marvin as Magwitch
The three friends, farm boys tired of being “treated like the farm mule”, decide to run away from home, and they set off for a life of adventure. But this is a realistic Western, not a glamorous one, and everything goes wrong. They are soon famished, and can either find no work or are really incompetent at the jobs they do get. They decide as a last resort to follow in the admired Mr. Spikes’s footsteps and rob a bank. Of course it goes really badly, they lose the money, a man is killed, and he turns out to have been a state senator. Oops.
It doesn't go well
The boys languish in jail for another, more minor misdemeanor, and Harry Spikes, now in fine fettle again, happens across them and gets them out. A prude might think that he then corrupts them, leading them into the ways of wickedness. And he does, in a way. The story is pretty well a wages-of-sin one. Before long the boys are committing armed robbery with their mentor.
He gets them out
But Harry has his code, even if it is a rough one. When Tod is fatally wounded in another bungled robbery, Spikes wants to leave him behind to die. The boys rail at this callousness but Spikes knows it is essential for survival. "I’m not a follower of the meek and lowly Jesus,” he declares, “and I never claimed to be.”
The boys are Gary Grimes as Will, Ron Howard as Les and Charles Martin Smith as Tod. All three had form as Western juveniles. Grimes had been very good as the lead as another youth who comes of age on the trail in The Culpepper Cattle Company two years before, when he was 17, and was then excellent as one of John Wayne’s sons in Cahill, US Marshal in ’73. Howard, before he became a big producer, 19 at the time of Spikes, was in his first big Western role but he would shine as the bolshie teenager Gillom, the would-be gunslinger, in The Shootist in 1976. And Smith, 20, apart from being Terry in American Graffiti with Ron Howard’s Steve, as a Western actor was also in Culpepper, and would be memorable as Billy the Kid sidekick Charlie Bowdre in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973. I think they all act really well in Spikes, moving from ultra-green country boys to bewildered adults, and in the end, bitterly disillusioned, all shot to death in squalid towns (sorry about the spoiler but there we are).
They think they'e men now
Arthur Hunnicutt and Noah Beery Jr have nice little cameos.
It was a Mirisch production, shot in Spain on a modest budget in the summer of ’73. You can always tell. I believe it to be the coloration. You can get away with Spanish towns if the story is set (as this one is) on the Tex-Mex border because the architecture has some verisimilitude. But the Almerian landscape couldn’t look like Texas if it tried. There were some decent American Westerns shot Andalusia, such as the excellent Valdez is Coming (1971) but they certainly needed capable directors of photography – Gábor Pogány on Valdez and Brian West on Spikes. West did Billy Two Hats the same year but they were his only Westerns.
The director was Richard Fleischer, better known for sci-fi and historical dramas, I guess, but he also helmed Bandido! and These Thousand Hills. He manages to keep the pace up in Spikes, and draws good performances from the lead actors.
Producer, director and writers
It was written by husband-and-wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr, from the 1970 novel The Bank Robber by Giles Tippette. Ravetch and Frank had worked on Hud and The Cowboys, so knew what they were doing, especially with adolescents in the West.
In this coming-of-age story, though in fact the boys don’t survive long enough to do that, they are on the one hand young men enjoying their new-found liberty, like coralled colts now galloping free, but on the other they are still kids, having nightmares and being homesick for their ranches, even though they were mistreated there. It’s rather touching.
The inevitable bath scene...
The ending is bloody, sad and, in the last resort, pathetic, in the proper sense of the word.
...and the equally inevitable shooting lesson
Not everyone liked it. Vincent Canby in The New York Times said, "It's a movie without a center, with no coherent tone. Mr. Fleischer is incapable of sustaining even minimal audience interest in the material."
Brian Garfield was also pretty down on it. He wrote, “Unfortunately, neither the dialogue nor the directing conveys any spirit of reality, passion or even interest; even the action scenes are boring. Paper-thin mod Western was filmed in Spain and does no justice to Tippette’s engaging novel.”
Myself, I think these criticisms too harsh. I consider it to be an intelligent and thoughtful Western with many qualities.
They plan the robbery
You can’t actually hate any of the characters. Even the reprobate Spikes has saving graces, and there are no real bad guys. It’s a tale of disenchantment and the death of hope – not the cheeriest, I grant you, but well done, I think, and definitely worth a look. It’s not as if the 1970s were chock-a-block with brilliant Westerns, and this one is better than many.