The Tale of The Frisco Kid
The Frisco Kid is sold as a comedy western featuring Gene Wilder as a Polish Rabbi named Avram Belinski. It took place in 1979, which means it was a few years after Wilder had capture the world through his performances in Blazing Salads, Willy Wonka, and Young Frankenstein. Harrison Ford was his co-star for this movie, who had just come into Star Wars fame and found himself being challenged to try out a rapscallion bad boy outlaw named San Holo. Wait no, that isn’t right, I’m just going to refer to him as Ford for the rest of the essay.
Anyways, I knew nothing about this movie before watching it a few months ago, but I had seen all those famous works from both of these actors. I likely wasn’t in that different of place than many people who saw it in theaters or on television later or who bought the VHS from a thrift store for 3 dollars. But given the leads and their work, I was walking into this movie expecting a satirical action comedy buddy cop situation. And that is not what I got. That was not even close to what I got. This movie was so insanely mismarketed, because they created something that you can’t really market. They created an incredibly complex and powerful character study with an outstanding performance by Wilder that can’t really be labeled by conventional means. And when task to try to sell something like this, I don’t envy the studios. I do however, laugh at what they tried.
When marketing and selling this movie they had no fucking idea what they were doing. And audiences also had no idea what they were expecting. I think most people wanted a Blazing Saddles of some kind. I think most people wanted to get Wilder’s weird honest intensity. I think people maybe wanted another reason to horn ball after Ford. But regardless, if your impression is that this movie is going to be like any of Wilder’s other famous work, you’re not going to understand this movie. Let’s look at the Tomato score:
A year or two ago, I revisited the movie “Sideways”. I watched it because I was absolutely mystified that it was so well received and I tried to understand why. When I watched as a kid, I thought it was just a whatever fluff comedy and moved on with my life assuming everyone else had the same reaction. When I found out it was this Indie darling with near universal praise I was at a complete loss to explain reality. It wasn’t that I thought the movie couldn’t be interesting or compelling to some people or that it was just garbage, frankly I couldn’t understand how it appealed to everyone. That arthouse pretentious critics and duff beer fanatics could enthusiastically shake hands and huge.
And looking into it, the reasons I came away with were associated with the kind of privileges and experiences movie critics typically have. Critics are not objective in their review, no matter how much they attempt to separate their bias. In my essay on the objectively hardest screen in Celeste, I talk about how objectivity can no longer be achieved once any level of comparison can happen. In this context, if you’ve seen a Western or a Wilder movie, you won’t be able to dissociate the genre conventions and actor from those comparisons, like we see above in criticism: “The movie had the wrong talent for the wrong material”.
I think when you look at those reviews in general that is extremely palpable. The reviews I have up there and the ones you get digging into the movie all feel let down by some unseen expectation. It wasn’t funny enough for a comedy. It wasn’t serious enough for a drama. It didn’t come together like a Wilder or Western film should. It didn’t utilize the talent or have the right talent for the story, etc.
A lot of enjoyment for chronic movie goers can be seeing how a particular film lives up to or defies genre expectations. The culture built into movies over time can be its own experience and story as you can recognize the subtle references or inspirations within a given work. What is the movie “The Joker” without understanding the influences from “The Taxi Driver”? (Hot garbage, that’s what, I fucking hate that movie. Oh hey, it wasn’t that popular with critics, finally something I have in common with professionals. It was very popular with audiences though who could live through their power fantasy of entitled victimhood and violent revenge. What a world.)
Anyways, a problem happens when these expectations will start to confine what art, expression, or movies can even be. The Frisco Kid fails to be what these critics wanted the movie to be or what they wanted from the director and I think they didn’t look at what the movie was. And I think that has everything to do with how it was marketed or even allowed to be marketed or more specifically how it had to be marketed. I think they’re right in that these two personalities they have as lead stars come with a kind of baggage and expectation to their performance.
And I’m saying you need to enjoy this movie or that those critics are wrong for not getting the experience they wanted. I just don’t think the perception of this movie and the reviews it got were accurate to what the movie actually was. So, let me talk about what that movie is. What I saw when I watched it and how it moved me as this incredible work of art and how I consider it a master piece.
Schlemiel: The Orthodox Jewish Hero’s Journey
As I write this next section, I want to be clear that I don’t know anything about religion in general. I don’t know anything about what it means to be Jewish or an Orthodox Jew. While I try to take care within writing this, I’m sure I’ll make some mistakes and for that I apologize. I’m also a white bitch living in the 2000s and I don’t know what frontier life was like beyond the Westerns I’ve seen growing up. I don’t know what’s historically accurate here. And this movie’s depiction of the many ethnic minorities and casting an Italian man to play an indigenous chief is probably not great. I, however, never got the impression the representation was done in bad faith nor were these groups ever the butt of the comedy within the film. I don’t think some of these parts aged well, but I’m also not here to say this movie itself is a flawless masterpiece of representation. The strength of this movie and the impact it will have is entirely on Wilder’s character Avram and its representation of a man of Jewish faith. They very intended goal of this movie is to flush this character out with nuance and complexity and allow them to breathe as a living being. The movie puts an extremely close lens to this character, while every other character only really exists as a contrast to help define them.
Given I’m not an expert in this, I do really invite you to read this wonderful essay from someone who is Orthodox about it:
In this film moment, I felt seen because, as a Jew, I know I’m being watched. When a Jewish school goes on a field trip, the administrators warn the students that they are representing all Jews everywhere. To misbehave is to desecrate the holy name of Hashem, we are told. A Jew can feel the glares of people noticing the clothing that makes them stand out. We’ve had people say “mazel tov” or “Shabbat shalom” to us with no contextual reason, other than to tell us that they’ve noticed we’re Jewish. Thanks. (Link — B.C. Wallin)
When we look historically within the West and America as a whole, there wasn’t actually an ordained Rabbi until the 1940s or ten years before this movie took place. When digging deeper into this representation, there is another article that adds important perspective on the kind of story this was, who Wilder is, and how it was even marketed.
The film has been called a “comedic Western” but really it’s the wishful tale of a schlemiel staying true to his principles and beliefs and identity when no one around him shares them and being rewarded in the end. The rabbi is a true schlemiel, the schlemiel being an archetype in Jewish lore and literature since before the days of Chelm (the home of the most well-known literary schlemiels). Literary critic and Harvard professor Ruth Wisse writes in “The Schlemiel as Modern Hero” about the origin and rise of the literary schlemiel. She saw the schlemiel, the wise fool, as a potentially heroic figure, a vehicle Jewish writers and storytellers have used to challenge the status quo, a symbol of the Jewish people as a whole, their staying hopeful and optimistic in the face of tremendous suffering.(link — Laura Hodes)
Within her article, she speaks about how they tried to get John Wayne to play the co-star, but they weren’t able to get him. She talks about how happy Wilder was at the prospect, because people would see the film as a Western and not as a Jewish film. And I think this context is extremely important for understanding both the marketing and intention of this film.
It wasn’t a Western. It wasn’t about typical western tropes around indigenous tribes, frontiersmen, cowboys, war, or love as the main driving point, but just subplots to the real themes. It was about an Orthodox Jew navigating through this culture, being challenged by it, and attempting to remain true to his identity. It was putting that identity as the central lens from which we should understand the film and motivation for the characters within in. We see him praying and how he prays. We see his humor and how he connects to others within the framework of his faith. We see how others connect or don’t with him. We see how this is challenged and embraced or fought against.
The closest comparison I think you could find for this movie would be the original Wicker Man. While that movie uses a pagan style murder mystery to challenge a pious man’s faith, The Frisco Kid uses the Western template to fundamentally do the same. So, let’s explore that.
The very start of this movie features a number of Rabbi’s having a discussion in what is presumably Yiddish. The camera cuts to Wilder’s character Avram dancing around on a frozen pond, before stumbling and being called into the meeting. So, we’re already starting out with physical comedy gags.
The chief Rabbi speaks to him and says, “l want to talk to you in private. Speak only English. And no matter what l say. . .don’t smile. Out of 88 students graduating from this yeshiva. . .you came in a close 87.” So, we’re given the impression from the beginning that Avram isn’t particularly great. None of the other Rabbis involved want to support him, but we also get the impression he speaks English, so let’s send him off. There may be something to be said about them only giving up their worst Rabbi to the West, but if there is advanced commentary on that it is lost on me.
And right off the bat, we get this feeling that we’re in the store for a traditional Wilder comedy set in the West. It kind of traps you into thinking that being Jewish is just a comedic premise of what we’re doing and not really that important for the story. And I think this is here to lure the audience into the story out of fear that maybe people would reject it outright due to ignorance and/or anti-antisemitism. Watching it without knowing a thing about this movie, that was what I gathered from the introduction.
The next scene is a picture of a boat on the ocean where we hear Avram speaking for the first time. If you know what Wilder sounds like in other films, it sounds like he’s doing a goofy voice. Then you see Avram getting off into a busy port town, before heading to a dock master, and finding out the ship he was suppose to get on for the rest of his journey has already left. A gentleman pulls him aside and tells him a tale of his dying mom and how he just needs to get to Frisco as soon as possible. He has a horse and carriage he sold to buy the boat ticket — So just maybe he could get that back and they could go by land? Avram takes pity on the person and goes with him to help him out.
The next scene involves them negotiating to get the horse and carriage back, before it’s revealed the seller needs fifty dollars or he won’t budge. All the men look away from Avram after the cost of fifty dollars is brought up and the scene carries for a few seconds in silence.
Avram says that he could cover that cost, if it mean he could have a seat on the carriage. And they all turn to face him like they’re posing for a rock band cover.
The filmography of the scene and the music that accompany it indicate to the audience these folks are going to rob him. The musical cut, the body language, and the tone of the folks all fit this unmistakable anatomy of a scam. And when you know the scene is heading there, you can see how the entire behavior of the robber from the very start is geared into this. It’s very possible people could’ve picked up from the very beginning that this was a trap, but by this point, by the point they all look at him, we know. He doesn’t. He’s honest, he wants to help, he trusts these people on the principal of one should.
After they get outside of town and take a him off the main path, they strip him of his clothes, rob him of his valuable possessions, and throw everything out of the moving carriage he is on before tossing him off too. He has to walk on the sharp gravel road to pick his clothes back up, his trunk, and eventually his Torah that he holds dear and kisses.
Then, the title card drops.
This is telling you the actual movie is now starting. It is telling you this isn’t just a comedy western featuring a Jewish character as a joke for your entertainment. This is showing a Jewish immigrant getting beaten and robbed, stripped of his clothes, and tossed onto a road. It is showing his reverence for the Torah. And it is telling you this is the actual movie. The journey of an Orthodox Jew through the west.
What’s really important about this is when we look at marginalized voices and representation, it is so often within the tokenized framework of that identity. When was the last time you saw real trans people in media where they were just talking about local school board politics or an experience with a car dealership? When was the last interview you saw featuring a Muslim talking about their favorite Netflix shows? We often only get to see people within the realm of their difference from dominant ideology or more specifically in the very way we specifically other them. Most content about gay people is about their sexuality and not their life. Most content about religions outside of Christianity in America deal with the specific religious functions that exist in these ‘other’ religions without walking us through a day in the life of someone who follows Buddhism. We focus on the differences, while not fundamentally understanding how much people are just people. How everyone, from every background is living in this country, often working, raising families, making jokes, and just trying to be happy. And I think Wilder’s character showcases exactly that complexity that humanizes an identity people are not familiar with.
Shortly after he is robbed, he stumbles onto a group of Amish framers that he mistakes for Jewish from the distance due to the similar fashion. He speaks Yiddish to them, they speak German back, until he noticed a bible with a cross and realizes his mistake before passing out to fever dreams due to the long exhausting walk to get there. After he recovers, we see a scene of him practicing his prayer as the children comment about thinking he’s crazy.
He is then given ten dollars for a train ticket to get closer to his destination and he give thanks to Amish farmers for a kindness he won’t forget. The prayer sequence isn’t important for it being a western nor is it comedic. It is simply the reality of his character. And we see there isn’t this in-group/out-group mentality here. These are people of different faiths, helping each other out. Or more accurately this is what looks like struggling framers giving a complete stranger a big token of kindness and support. And this juxtaposes the robbing that happened just before. He is seeing great brutality and great kindness, as that is also human. When people say this movie didn’t hit their mark, I wonder if they’re thinking about a scene like this and are uncomfortable that it isn’t a Western scene or a funny scene, it is simply a Jewish scene.
The next sequence we have him riding on a train, where a woman practically shoves her breasts into his face as he clearly has difficulty grappling with the encounter. Nearly all of it is wordless and were are left to wonder if the tension due strictly to just the open display of sexuality he may not be used to or because of a desire he can’t act on due to an arrange marriage or because of some values he has within his religion. And he struggles with being polite, he struggles to say something or know how to react, but he can’t and doesn’t. And it’s very similar, if much more subtle, than a scene in The Wicker Man.
Part of the reason I think I have value in even writing an essay about this movie is because I’m the intended audience. Someone who doesn’t know much about the Jewish faith or people or practice it. And I can communicate what I felt or what I feel like the scenes were trying to tell and teach me about it. And obviously this movie isn’t going to hold weight to going to an actual Rabbi and having a real conversation, but this movie also isn’t suppose to be that. It’s suppose to just be a friendly conversation about all of it.
Avram ends up going to the bathroom to escape the awkwardness with the lady and this creates the introduction to our Cowboy Bank Robber Harrison Ford.
A fun bit of dramatic irony is this entire robbery happens while Avram is in the bathroom. Ford jumps from the train before Avram leaves the bathroom and takes his seat again. And with seeing everyone having their hands on their head and not really understanding the culture of train robberies or even what happened, he assumes they’re all playing along with a child’s game of Simon Says. He then commands them to all laugh, because Simon Says and asks if they get the joke. Which is this cute moment of him kind of learning to embrace these new cultural norms, while also not understanding the ways they are being violated by the robbery that just happened. Avram has this curiosity about him where he wants to learn about America and the people that live there. He isn’t there to convert people, he isn’t necessarily there to even talk about his religion or his god unless asked. He is who he is among other people who are who they are.
The next sequence involves him leaving the train and explaining he doesn’t ride on the Sabbath. We then find him in a line with a diverse range of folks gearing up to work on the rails. The great melting pot of exploitation with different races and religions paving the train onward. And it’s wild to look at this movie set in 1850 and see how much of the country we call the US of A was immigration, indigenous tribes, and workers. And how sad it is today that the identity is largely presented as just white, Christian money overloads, god born to this land, chosen by (also) god in a real case of manifesting some destiny. Avram ends up working the rails until he has enough for a horse and we get this incredible sequence.
What I love about the filmography of the movie is it gives you exactly enough information for each scene to understand what is important and nothing more. The sequence above goes as such — he asks where to buy a horse, his friends tell him that’s stupid, he finds himself on a horse he can’t really ride, he starts riding through the field, he makes camp but raccoons steal all of his food, he is seen trying to chase and eat birds before they fly away, then we find him river fishing with a slightly sharpen stick, then Ford’s character shoots the fish from 20 yards away so they can eat.
Each sequence capture the essence of what was needed and it honestly felt more like the sequences and story telling of a comic book. Where the actions and follow-through on actions are inferred more than expressed, but the through-line of what happens remains consistent. And I think that may also be why there was criticism from people who didn’t feel like the movie tied things together well, because they weren’t naturally accustomed to this style of story telling. For me, I loved it. I loved that it could express so many vibrant and complex situations with just a few frames or words. That it didn’t waste any time on pointless exposition within the sequences when the a few frames of picture was all the words you needed. So, often just the look and body language of the characters expressed volumes for the viewer to pick up on. And it really made it feel like a journey experienced, rather than simply told about.
There is a part where we get a few frames of walking during the day, than night, than day, than night. And while I could understand that feeling a little jarring out of context, I think it absolutely works within the greater whole of this money to convey a grand journey.
After this sequence, we see Wilder and Ford’s character sharing the dinner of what they caught in the previous scene and Ford remarking on never having had Jewish cooking. Ford’s character obviously taking pity on Avram and recognizing how little the guy knew about even basic survival.
During this sequence Avram has this conversation with Ford.
Avram: Would you like to fight for that last fish?
Ford: You think you got a chance?
Avram: I think I can say, with complete confidence, None whatsoever…But I’m still hungry.
Ford: Help yourself.
After this sequence they go to sleep and wake the next day with Ford giving him instructions on how to get to Frisco. He originally goes the wrong way before Ford points out that he’s going the wrong way and Avram responds, “ That way? Well, of course I know it’s that way, But first I have to go around that big log. Before I can go that way. You mustn’t turn a horse so quick! That’s how accidents happen. You’ve got to start nice and slow. That way you get off on the right foot.”
And this is such an interesting juxtaposition and showcase of complexity of character. In the night Avram was humble in asking for the fish, knowing Ford was a younger, tougher man than he was. He wouldn’t win that fight, he had no problem being human and honest in that interaction. In the morning, he is embarrassed to be going the wrong way and puffs his chest about how he knew all long. Avram isn’t a humble or arrogant character, he is both, because his character has that room to breathe. His character can be complex and have more than one note and respond to things with a genuine range like we do as humans.
Ford takes pity on Avram and decides that he needs to help this man out or he will straight up die in the wilderness. So, he tells Avram to just follow his tuchus and he’ll take him there. And there is a level of complexity to Ford’s character too; he is a bank robber, but he isn’t a killer. I don’t think Ford’s character is overly complex and I think the character primarily serves as a foil and contrast to Avram. I think Ford is there to represent a lot of these ideals we have within Westerns and help exist as that character stand in for a non-Jewish audience to place themselves.
There is a moment where Avram comments on how often Ford’s character says “shit” and asks what that word means. Ford explains it and asks what a word like that would be in Yiddish and is told “oy gevalt”. A little bit later they end up falling off a cliff and they each scream each other’s word as they fall.
Harrison Ford’s character says that Avram is crazy for jumping off the cliff and Avram tells him, “Remember! I’m the kind of person, When he says he’s going to do something, He does it!” Which is fun because he actually didn’t mean to and his horse was spooked off the cliff by a rattlesnake. Where he is too proud to admit he lost control of his horse and they have to wade out of the water.
Not too long after, they find themselves in a town while a light snow falls. And Ford ties his horse up and goes inside a saloon to find a place to sleep. Avram sees the motions and tries it several times himself, before getting it and showing a big surprised look of joy.
And the thing is in many cases, it would be faster to watch this movie than to read my essay here. That is because of just how loaded these scenes and interactions are. It is a thousand tiny little details that keep forming towards creating an even bigger and nuanced picture. We’re dealing not only with westerns as a whole, but perception of Jewish individuals, and the character study of Avram as an individual. These are all independent, yet simultaneously combined to create this rich narrative. This scene fades away into a scene where they’re sleeping in a barn and it seems like they may have to settle in for a few months until the weather is warmer.
Avram insists that he will leave into the snowstorm by himself, while Ford’s character berates him and tells him it’s impossible. Ford tells him good luck, but he’s going alone if he wants to venture into the mountains during snowfall. Avram then says this gem of a line to him:
Good night, and thanks for everything you did for me…Up until the time I NEEDED YOU THE MOST! — Avram
Then in a classic Gilligan Cut that this movie does often, we see them both trying to survive a snowstorm.
And while this is a fake story set in 1850, it just feels kind of disappointing to know that 170 years later we still have a problem with people being homophobic and anti-Semitic and that isn’t good. Probably a few men that are like, “Cuddling with a dude? I’d rather fucking die. I’m a gold star homophobe, I don’t even wipe my butt, that’s too gay”.
After these sequence the two stumble into a town where Avram remarks on the great expanse and how it’s incredible to see so many building as towns are popping up everywhere. Which is more or less the narrative set-up to make comedy from Ford’s character robbing a bank seconds later. There is a funny moment where the bank owner talks about having to go after them and a worker just says, ‘I aint got no money in your bank, fuck it’.
The next bit of the movie is Avram dealing with the moral consequences of the bank robbery. Knowing that he isn’t in a position to be able to give the money back or explain the situation without being killed, yet still wanting to redeem himself of the action. They escape the men chasing them for the first few days, but then it’s the Sabbath and Avram refuses to ride to Ford’s exasperation.
This movie so far has featured Avram expressing a range of emotions. We get that he is headstrong and this has led him into harm a number of times. But at this point we’re confronted with just how important his beliefs are to him. Even with a posse of men ready to kill him for a crime he had no intention to engage with, he walks. Ford’s character yells at him with disgust and calls him a damn fool, and leaves him to die — he still walks. And I don’t think the scenes are meant to suggest it is easy for him to do so. Yet, what does faith really matter if you only follow it when its easy? How strongly do you really believe something if you’re simply going to chuck out that belief when faced with challenge. If you are to abandon a principled belief in these times, then there is no point to believe it at any time. We find Ford sitting on a rock, unable to abandoned Avram and presumably making peace with who Avram is.
The next sequence shows the two adventures being chased by indigenous warriors with war paint. During the chase Avram loses his Torah and upon that realization, starts to go back. Ford again tells him, that to do so is certain death. Avram asks why these indigenous men hate them so much and is told:
They’ve been shit on by white men so long, they don’t ask questions no more. — Ford
And I thought that was an interesting line and reframe of the conflict as being blow back. It wasn’t that there where equal differences, but rather just that white settlers were historically brutal and awful. It fits with the People’s History of the United States.
I honestly don’t know much about how Westerns handle indigenous individuals as I’m not a person who has seen almost any Western. I just assumed it was really bad. Doing just some cursory searches, it seems like the evolution of representation got better over time and that the movie Stagecoach, had Ojibwe critic Jesse Wente saying it was “the most damaging movie for native people in history”.
And I think it is very important to understand how the media we consume shapes our perception of our culture, mores, and values. If our media was more respectful to indigenous culture and didn’t frame so many of the stories as oppositional, we may have less racism today. And this is ultimately what The Frisco Kid is hoping to do too. It is hoping to show an honest, authentic representation of Orthodox Judaism. But that aside, the two go back and forth about the dangers of trying to go back out and face the native tribe to get his holy book back. Harrison Ford’s character says several times that he will not go, until we Gilligan’s Cut our way to him being tied up by the tribe.
The tribal leader, Chief Gray Cloud is played by an Italian (as I mentioned earlier) Val Bisoglio. So, that’s fun. We see our Rabbi is tied to sticks and a fire is raging behind him. The Chief goes to ask him questions about the Torah and how important the book is to the Rabbi.
Would you trade you horse for it? Yes
Would you trade your horse and boots for it? Yes
Would you trade your clothes for it? Yes
Would you trade your knife for it? I don’t have a knife
If I gave it back would you let your soul be purified by fire? Yes
If I let you go, would you let me have it? No
And then he is put to the flame and we watch as he is horrifying burned alive.
Just kidding! He’s fine! But those questions are not random. They each ask something very meaningful. A horse is very much your life in prairie. Horse snatching as a crime isn’t just treated as stolen property, because horses are basically the cars of the past. It feels really stupid to say that, but imagine your car breaks down in the middle of a blizzard and how difficult it can be to survive without it. If your horse goes down and you’re two hundred miles away from anything, your chances of surviving the journey are that much less. To give up your horse, is not a simple thing. In the graphic novel Preacher, horse theft is actually the event that eventually leads to the death of both Satan and God. So, you know it’s pretty serious.
But okay, sure, your horse is gone, but what about your boots? That’s basically a death sentence already. What about your clothes? How about your knife? Each item is related to base level survival. When the tribe learns that he doesn’t even have a knife, the meaning is clear that he survives on his faith. So, the questions change. Would you die for this book? Not just have your survival in question, but would you right this moment die for the Torah? And the final question becomes if he would give it up, if it meant he could keep everything else. His horse, his boots, his lack of knife, and his life itself. Each question defines the willingness Avram has to continue following his faith even to the point he would be burned alive for it. And I wonder of all the people who wield their faith to try to hurt LGBTQ+ individuals, how many would burn alive for their convictions. How strong is their actual faith is compared to how much they’re simply bastardizing it for hate.
Regardless, the conviction Avram has is presumably what makes the chief give them both pardon, though it’s unclear if it was all a show or not. After it’s over, they’re invited to spend the night and mingle.
The chief and Avram talk about gods and Avram explains his god is great and can do anything, but doesn’t feel like it. The chief himself is concerned with rain and asks what good a god can be if it doesn’t create rain. Avram tells the chief that they share the same god and the chief rebukes him by saying he doesn’t need any more gods, they’re too much trouble as is. One general mistake within cinema and…the world is the idea all indigenous folks are kind of the same demographic with the same general beliefs. And that isn’t even close, there were hundreds of different native languages, vastly different cultures and practices between different tribes and regions, and I don’t know enough to comment on any of that.
So, I think this scene isn’t likely suppose to be indicative of any specific tribe or belief, I think it is suppose to be just a look at a Jewish person interacting with an indigenous population in the United States. And to a point a greater look at how we as humans of pretty much every culture dance and sing. We can connect. While we have different belief systems and structures, they’re not fundamentally so foreign or alien that we can’t interact or bridge those difference in respect, appreciation, and humility. Also, listen to your cowboy friend if he tells you to lay off the potent drugs.
It isn’t clear what he’s eating to me, maybe it’s obvious to someone else, but it’s enough to knock him out for a few days. He wakes up in a catholic monastery.
He see the cross with Jesus and thinks that maybe he died and went to the wrong place. Generally, it’s just a quick scene to show them breaking bread before moving on. With again, just that undertone that they’re not refusing him because of his religion, even if it differs. Not long after this our heroes find themselves in a Saloon.
Harrison Ford’s character is after booze and big breasts and hell yeah, dude, who isn’t. Avram walks into the bar and noticed the three men who robbed him earlier in the movie. He grabs what I think is called a Yad? Presumably a metal case that helps protect the Torah scroll, that the thief had been using as a necklace. He snaps it off the thief’s neck and gives it to a piano player for safe keeping. The three men sneer at him, but it feels like they don’t care that much and want to keep doing what they were before. Avram walks up to them and demands his money back. They say no and as he continues to insist they give him his money back, he is violently beat, until they're about to smash a barrel over his head. (Like Dash O Pepper from Freakazoid!)
Harrison Ford’s character intercepts at this point and shoots a hole in the barrel, holds them up by gun point, and takes their money. They run out and the two heroes just celebrate in the bar. The next scene is two of them on horses looking at the ocean after having made the trip across the United States. Ford says it’s now time for them to part ways and Wilder’s character expresses confusion.
Wilder: But I don’t want you to go.
Ford: Well, I got to go.
Ford: Well, I’ve got people to see, banks to rob, you know? I’ve got to make a living.
Wilder: Who’s going to be the best man at my wedding?
Ford: What do you mean? That’s for one of your Jewish friends. You’ve got to pick your best friend for that.
Wilder: You — You are my best friend.
And this again just reiterates this in-group/out-group dynamic. Even after all of that Ford’s character assumed Avram would want to be with his own people. He thought Avram had his own Jewish friends who were more real and more important than Ford’s character. So, this scene breaks down that to be Jewish wasn’t to limit yourself to only Jewish people nor should we expect Jewish people to be their own isolated tribe. And while typing this out should kind of feel like a ‘well duh’, this kind of thinking is what leads to racism and discrimination and is still very real today. Racism or nationalism is often built on principals that every group needs to be separate and shouldn’t intermingle. This friendship that formed throughout the movie through exploring the wild and depending on each other was love letter to the notion we can embrace and welcome each other. We can depend on each other and we will need to.
Shortly after this scene, we see these gay lovers frolicking on the breach before being held up by gunpoint.
The three robbers from before having caught up with them and are likely ready to kill them. During the conflict the Torah gets knocked into the fire, Ford kills and wounds one of them who ends up running off, and Avram rushes to save his holy book from destruction. After this Ford is shot and has no ammo and the standing robber slowly makes his way to a pick up a dropped gun to kill them both. Avram is able to grab a gun himself and points it at the robber with fear and apprehension in his eyes. Ford tells him, over and over, to shoot the man. Says that if the doesn’t, they’ll both die. The scene carries for what feels like an eternity as the robber Xenos Paradoxes his way to the gun. By the time he leans over to pick it up, Avram shoots him dead.
The next scene is Avram giving the Torah to the family he was suppose to meet since the start of the movie. He curiously pretends to not be the Rabbi and instead just a friend of the Rabbi. He shifts between an American accented Texas style slang and his polish Jewish slang throughout the take. After he leaves there the scene transitions to them both in a nice diner, where Avram renounces being a Rabbi to Ford’s extreme disappointment and disgust.
Before I go on, I will repeat that I don’t really know much about any faith. And it isn’t really worth it for me to look it up and ramble through it like theologian. I’m not saying doing that isn’t valuable, but what possible thing of value could I add to this? The value I have here is the movie was made for people like me. It was made for people who didn’t understand much about being an Orthodox Jew. So, I can tell you what this scene made me feel.
Ford is upset that after everything he did for Wilder’s character, it feels so shitty to give up right when they got here. He reiterates that there was no choice at all, no sin in the action of killing that man, and that Avram had to defend himself or die. Not just Avram, but also Ford. And Avram agrees with this and Ford doesn’t understand and he says, “Why is it a problem then?” Avram says the problem is he went to save his holy text over helping his friend. Ford looks relieved to hear that and says that he forgives him, that he understands, that it’s okay. It gets how important god is to Avram, but Avram responds:
I wasn’t thinking about God. I didn’t do it because of God. I don’t know one thing about God. I was thinking about a book. I cared more for a book than I did for my best friend. I don’t know if you can understand that. I don’t want to
insult you, but do you understand what I mean? I chose a piece of paper instead of you. — Avram
Throughout this movie we’ve seen Avram being challenged to keep the tenants of his faith. Immediately after being robbed he finds his Torah and kisses it. When Saturday hits he leaves the train and walks because you cannot ride on Sabbath. When he is being chased by a bank posse and threatened with being hang, he still choose not to ride. When he loses his holy book to an indigenous tribe, knowing the danger in trying to get it back, he goes. When being threaten to be burned alive for his holy book, he choose death. And when this book is lit on fire, during a gun fight that endangers his best friend, his faith finally wavers and for the moment breaks. He feels shame about his faith for the first time, because the actions he took directly lead not to something holy or divine or important, but to harm for someone he loved.
And in this moment he had a crisis, because what do those papers really mean? Is it more important to protect holy script than it is to practice it? What point does holding up a religion or faith have if it only harms people or is chosen over the safety of others? Not a theologian, but I feel like these are very big questions and worth tackling and we get some of the weight of what they can mean when we’re really confronted with them. And in this moment, as he tries to give up, it is Ford’s character that tells him:
You are a rabbi! You can fall in the mud, you can slip on your ass, you can travel in the wrong direction, but even on your ass, even in the mud, even if you go the wrong direction for a little while, you’re still a rabbi! — Ford’s
And it is such a interesting line that blends so perfectly the mundane and the divine. That we cannot be perfect, that we make mistakes, that we do the wrong thing, but we don’t stop being ourselves because of it. And it is this message that sinks in with Avram to the point of a single tear.
The family he was originally going to meet comes into the restaurant at this point, looking for the Rabbi. They mistakenly think it’s Ford’s character and they start to speak Yiddish to him. He asks Avram what they said and Avram responds by telling him they are asking if he is a Rabbi. Which is funny because contextually maybe the guy at the table who understand Yiddish is the Rabbi in disguise? But the movie is too cool to even slow down for a second on that joke. Instead, Avram does identify himself as the Rabbi and they originally don’t believe him because he doesn’t fit the part. He looks like a western style cowboy at the moment.
So, we also see the Jewish community making their own stereotypes, where Avram berates them for making such judgment. Why can’t a Rabbi or a Jewish person do this or that? Again, this is the context of the film, I can’t speak on any of that. But the scene just screams the notion of why cant a person be Jewish. Even if they are a cowboy or a baker or a friend or a partner or anything. And this little one minute scene just conveys all of this beautifully.
What we get next is Avram speaking to his future bride, with the camera shifting between extreme close-ups of each actor.
I once give support testimony for an anti-discrimination hearing at my state capital. The person who went before me asked each legislator who was part of a committee to stop doing what they were doing and to look at him. To see him as a person. He told me later that the reason he did that was because he saw none of them looking up from their papers while people gave passionate testimony about basic human rights. He said he wanted to feel seen. He wanted them to humanize him. And I feel like this scene is exactly like that. After everything Avram experienced, the movie now wants you to look directly at him. This Jewish man you just spent the last hour and a half with. Avram takes up the entire camera and there is no looking away from him in these scenes. You have to look at him and you have to recognize him.
But while this scene is happening, the injured robber who got away comes back. He challenges Avram to a fair dual for killing his brother. Avram begs to not do it. That he doesn’t want any more death to happen, but he is forced into the conflict. And we find ourselves in a classic Western Style Stand Off. Most traditional westerns would have the good guys facing off against the bad and ultimately winning, so what does Frisco Kid do?
Well, Avram refuses to fight or hold his gun up. The robber is frustrated at this and just wants a fair fight. I’m not entirely sure the context on way that is important. Maybe just because the robber doesn’t set well with killing a holy man in cold blood or maybe so he isn’t wanted or charged for murder. Or just because. It isn’t extremely clear to me. But after Avram refused, the robber chargers at him with the butt of his pistol and Avram trips him. Avram then points a gun at the robber’s head and repeats a line from earlier in the movie about how that trip was just to get his attention.
He tells the robber they should split America, Avram will take Frisco and the robber can have everything else. And this conflict serves as the conclusion for the Western heroic arc of Avram. A character that wasn’t armed with a gun, but rather conviction, pride, humility, and a Torah. His conflicts aren’t ones resolved with fist fights and violence, but rather with his faith. He brings his Jewishness into every aspect of the Western tale and does not diminish a single part of it.
I didn’t have a great way to segue into the humor of this movie, because it’s so situational, sardonic, and understated while also being in basically every scene. The jokes are better experienced, than explained in most cases. It is worth noting that serious is not the opposite of funny. And it is so weird that we’ve mostly lost that within our modern world. The idea that you can’t be playful if you’re also being serious, when for human it is such an important and interwoven aspect of all interaction.
I also get the distinct impression that a lot of choices this movie made weren’t necessary great decisions within the broader context of movie making cinematography. Extreme close-ups, day to night transition shots looping back and forth, carrying scenes longer than they should, and leaving so much of the story to be inferred. But, I think that’s because these choices were intentionally built on a humanize story about an Orthodox Jewish person. The movie wasn’t made to check off all of things good movie should do within the traditional framework of movie making, it was made to evoke a powerful sense of a person’s character and decisions were top-down from there.
It was deeply artistic and intentional about every scene and choice and how they added together to create this complex and nuanced character all to give the audience a better appreciation of just Jewish culture, religion, and identity. All of which disguised as a comedy western to get people to come out and actually watch it. To effectively trick them into engaging with powerful art from an actor that is invested and absolutely phenomenal.
There is so much about Gene Wilder’s performance I will never in my life be able to capture with written word. You have to see this movie and see the ways he communicate non-verbally. It’s wild to read the script, absent his acting, because it feels so incomplete. And the director does not shy away from this. He doesn’t shy away from giving Wilder ten or twenty seconds of complete silence where only his body language or eyes convey everything we need to know about the scene.
And it’s tragic that something so powerful, artistic, human and well acted wasn’t given the praise or time it deserved. Yes, his other movies were fun and fantastic in their own right, but did we need Young Frankenstein? Did we need Blazing Saddles? If the world didn’t have those movies, would it be that different of a world? And based on the scores it looks like a lot of folks felt like we didn’t need this movie and that sucks.
I think there are credible arguments to make about value and impact for any work. There are valid disagreements too and maybe you feel everything I said was correct for the intention of this movie, but just personally feel it could’ve been better or was disjointed. But the reason I’m writing about this movie and not any of his other work, was because this movie moved and inspired me as a work of art to the same degree I’ve gotten from any work that feels like a masterpiece. And for me, that kind of title on a work of art is extremely few and far between. (I think I’ve called less than ten works in total masterpieces). For me, a masterpiece is a work of art that can confidently express what it means to be human in a genuine and honest way. It doesn’t need to be any specific genre or medium, it doesn’t necessarily need to be the highest quality or best produced or even acted. It just has to say something really honest, genuine, and important about the thing we call being human and does it better than anything else.
Wilder was asked in an interview about how he felt playing his two Jewish characters during his career and corrected the interviewer by saying he’s only ever played one, specifically Avram. It’s said he was extremely selective with the roles that were offered to him and when I looked at his cinematography I was shocked to see so relatively few entries. Given what I read about this movie, it seemed like it was personally important for him to take this project on. It was personally important and deeply meaningful for him to represent being Jewish on the big screen like he did. And the performance, power, and impact of these scenes come from deeply personal experiences and conflicts he has likely had himself.
That’s why representation does actually matter. It’s why an Italian guy, even if he is the best actor in the world, is never going to bring the full scope of experience and weight an actual indigenous person will have to a role. And it’s why unless we see authentic stories, we only ever understand at best a tokenized caricature of other people. This has been Anthony Padilla! See you next, time! (If you don’t get it, that’s a great joke, trust me.)