Clint Eastwood in Joe Kidd (1972)


(director: John Sturges; screenwriters: Elmore Leonard/from the book by Louis L’Amour; cinematographer: Bruce Surtees; editor: Ferris Webster; music: Lalo Schifrin; cast: Clint Eastwood (Joe Kidd), Robert Duvall (Frank Harlan), John Saxon (Luis Chama), Don Stroud (Lamarr), Stella Garcia (Helen Sanchez), James Wainwright (Mingo), Gregory Walcott (Sheriff Bob Mitchell), Pepe Callahan (Naco), Pepe Hern (Priest), John Carter (Judge), Ron Soble (Ramon), Paul Koslo (Roy), Gil Baretto (Emilio); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Sidney Beckerman; Universal; 1972)

“Entertaining but senseless.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

John Sturges (“Bad Day at Black Rock”) directs in the tradition of a Sergio Leone Man-With-No-Name Western that is entertaining but senseless. It’s as confusing in its moral compass as the concluding scene where Clint Eastwood drives a train into a saloon. Sturges never decides, until it’s too late to save the film, if he wants the film to be a social justice or a plain action tale about a range war between the poor Mexican-Americans and the wealthy gringo ranchers who are stealing their land.

The muddled screenplay is by Elmore Leonard and it’s based on a book by Louis L’Amour. Bruce Surtees’s location photography is outstanding, as is the acting by Clint Eastwood and Robert Duval.

In the New Mexico town of Sinola a band of the dispossessed revolutionaries and their leader Luis Chama (John Saxon) burn the deeds of the gringos in response to the court’s claim that their original deeds went up in smoke in what was a questionable courthouse fire. Disreputable ex-bounty hunter Joe Kidd (Clint Eastwood) has been arrested by Sheriff Bob Mitchell for poaching, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, for which he’s serving a 10 day jail sentence. Somehow Kidd gets into the middle of the squabble between the law and the revolutionaries, and in self-defense kills one of Chama’s thugs, Naco, who got it into him that he must tangle with Kidd. But Kidd refuses the sheriff’s request to join the posse chasing Chama, saying it’s none of his business.

Ruthless land baron Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) comes into town the next day with a gang of heavily armed thugs prepared to hunt down Chama. Harlan pays Kidd’s fine to spring him from jail and then hires Kidd as a tracker to find Chama in the wilderness, but Kidd agrees only after Chama’s men steal the horses on his ranch and leave his worker tied up with barbed wire.

Harlan betrays Kidd at a church, near where Chama is hiding in the hills, and holds him as a prisoner, as he threatens to kill the poor Mexican parishioners five at a time unless Chama surrenders. With the help of the priest and one of the hostages, Helen Sanchez, a member of Chama’s revolutionary group and the leader’s lover, Kidd frees the hostages and escapes with Helen to Chama’s hideout. Kidd before he escapes disposes of Harlan’s vindictive oafish thug Lamarr (Don Stroud), and does it in a pleasingly comical fashion.

When Kidd meets Chama at his hideout he challenges him to be a true leader and care about his people, and forces him at gunpoint to surrender to him and go into town to let the courts decide who is right. By the time they reach town, Kidd has miraculously gotten the rabid revolutionary to believe he will get a fair trial and he willingly goes along with Kidd (which is really hard to swallow, especially since Kidd is so tight-lipped he hardly says anything). In town, Harlan and his thugs attack just as Chama surrenders to the sheriff and it becomes clear at this point that all this film was about was building to a lively shootout for the closing scene, which is done in a typically cool Eastwood style.