The western genre is seemingly perfect for cross-pollination. Throughout the years we’ve had comedy westerns (Support Your Local Sheriff), musical westerns (Calamity Jane), film noir westerns (Terror in a Texas Town), even horror westerns (Billy the Kid vs. Dracula) and now we discover the rock western in the form of Zachariah.
Admittedly, I knew little of the film before my first viewing, other than that it starred a young Don Johnson and featured the music of Country Joe and the Fish. Not bad credentials when you realise that outside of his more mainstream television work, Don Johnson has appeared in such underrated gems as A Boy and His Dog and Tin Cup, and that Country Joe provided the soundtracks to cult gems Quiet Days in Clichy and Roger Corman’s Gas-s-s-s... or, It May Become Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It, as well as being the standout performance in Michael Wadleigh’s documentary of the Woodstock festival with their rendition of ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-to-Die’.
Thankfully, for the unprepared the storyline of Zachariah is remarkably simple: after purchasing a pistol our eponymous hero (John Rubinstein) and his blacksmith buddy Matthew (Johnson) decide to join a bunch of outlaws named the Crackers (who also happen to perform a bit of psychedelic rock on the side). Finding himself unhappy despite his newfound infamy, Zach decides to abandon first the Crackers, then Matthew in order to “discover himself” like his contemporary Easy Riders. This being a western, the narrative gradually moves towards a climax which we see the two friends face each other in a showdown.
It is because of this simplicity that the attachment of a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack feels less gimmicky; the episodic structure invites a new tune at every new encounter in the way that John Landis’ two Blues Brothers movies did. I admit to having initial misgivings during the title sequence which cross-cuts Rubinstein unwrapping his pistol and various musical instruments lying in the barren landscape, but the playful tone gradually eases these away. Unfortunately, the film didn’t deliver its initial prospect of having Bob Dylan play the lead (Brigitte Bardot was also intended), which may have led to a greater, more well-known soundtrack. As it is, Country Joe et al are fine though hardly in the league of some of their many peers (Jefferson Airplane, The Byrds, The Grateful Dead).
The main pleasures derive from the two leads: Rubinstein has a goofy charm which recalls (along with his curly locks) Pasolini favourite Ninetto Davoli, and Johnson makes it hard to believe that he would one day enter public consciousness as Miami Vice’s Crockett. Both throw themselves fully into their roles, and their obvious joy is infectious.
An oddity then, certainly, but an enjoyable one. Moreover the film becomes far more admirable when you consider that this was made partially as a musicians’ vehicle; nowadays we get various rappers in humdrum urban thrillers and such debacles as Madonna’s Swept Away or Mariah Carey’s Glitter.
Bearing in mind that this film was released in 1971 and the disc distributed by a budget label, the picture quality doesn’t suffer too much. Presented in non-anamorphic 1.78:1 we’re given pretty much the original ratio. Scratches do appear intermittently though generally only during the beginnings of certain scenes (I presume this is where the reel changes would have occurred). The rest of picture is generally fine, though not quite enough to justify the digitally re-mastered claim on the case.
This being a musical, you would hope for a soundtrack with a little “thump”. Presented in Dolby Surround, the songs come off remarkably well; the trick of keeping the dialogue to the front speakers and then adding the rears when one of the bands starts playing creates an additional impact. The lack of any sound dropouts also helps - although the dialogue can sound a little quiet at times.
Extra features are restricted to a photo gallery containing production stills and the original theatrical poster (which also features on the case) and brief production notes. The gallery proves a refreshing change from the usual habit companies have of just taking screen-grabs from the picture, though admittedly none really stand out; unless you want to ponder just how young Don Johnson looks. As for the notes, there’s little of interest besides a couple of quotes from director/producer George Englund and lead John Rubinstein. With a film of this type (i.e. obscure, little-known) the opportunity is wasted to shed more light on the production and its personnel. I did a tiny amount of research and discovered that the film was written by an underground radio troupe called The Firesign Theatre well-known for their comedy albums. Apparently, they were also unhappy with the film (despite two of the four members making cameo appearances), yet this information is nowhere to be found. Given the cultish nature of the film, however, plus the low price the scant extras are understandable. (I’ve always felt that most companies favour quantity over quality in this department anyhow, with very few discs providing something of genuine interest.)
An interesting purchase, obviously helped by the Prism Leisure budget price. Not a strong recommendation, but for someone seeking something a little different in their cinematic diet, this wouldn't make a bad choice.
Anthony Nield has reviewed the Region 2 release of Zachariah, precursor to Alex Cox's Straight to Hell and proof that El Topo wasn't the only undefinable western of the early seventies.