"I take orders from the Octoboss."

Joe Kidd

JOE KIDD (1972) is Clint Eastwood’s only movie directed by John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) and also his only one written by Elmore Leonard. Leonard was no stranger to Hollywood – his western novels The Law at Randado, Last Stand at Saber River and Hombre (plus the short stories 3:10 to Yuma, The Tall T and Only Good Ones and the crime novel The Big Bounce) had already been made into movies, and he’d adapted his own The Moonshine War. But this was his first original screenplay, which he’d written as THE SINOLA COURTHOUSE RAID or SINOLA.

Eastwood plays the titular fuckup, formerly a bounty hunter, now pursuing other interests, primarily getting drunk and arrested. He has a pretty good Leonard-ian introduction: passed out in a cell, his jailers bring breakfast and coffee to wake him up for a court appearance, but his cellmate Naco (Pepe Callahan, THE LONG GOODBYE) keeps it out of his reach and taunts him about it. Joe thinks he remembers that deputy Bob Mitchell (Gregory Walcott, PRIME CUT) hit him, but has to ask for confirmation. They say he was illegally hunting a mule deer on the Indian reservation, then threatened to piss on the court house, and it took three cops to bring him in.

When it’s time to walk him across the street to the courthouse (for a hearing, not to piss), Naco finally offers him some stew. Joe tosses it in his face and hits him in the head with the pan, then examines the dent it made. That’s ol’ Joe Kidd for ya.

It turns out to be a wrong-place-wrong-time scenario. Right after Joe’s hearing a group of armed Mexican revolutionaries led by Luis Chama (John Saxon, THE GLOVE – yeah, casting was different in those days) storm the court and try to take the judge (John Carter, MY SCIENCE PROJECT) hostage to protest the theft of their ancestral land. Chama explains how white people were allowed to build on the land, but eventually stopped asking permission, and claimed the documents that proved ownership were lost in a courthouse fire. So Chama’s people find the current deeds that say the white people own the land and lose those in a fire too. Nice touch.

Joe is no John McClane, he kind of hangs out and watches, like he’s curious but knows it’s none of his business. I like the moment when he realizes it’s not gonna be quick and sits down. But ultimately he doesn’t stay out of it – he spirits the judge to safety and stops at the saloon, where of course he knows the bartender, Harry (Ed Deemer). He takes Harry’s shotgun from behind the counter, fills up a beer and enjoys it while drawing on Naco (who has been freed by Chama) in self defense.

Then he posts up at the door to watch what’s going on with the whole revolutionaries vs. deputies situation, and even raises a glass to the fleeing Chama.

This is my favorite type of stuff in these movies, and it gets even better. He gives Harry the gun back (Harry just says, “Geez”) and starts making himself a sandwich on the bar. Then he stands leaning against a pole on the porch, eating the sandwich, drinking a beer, watching the deputies argue about how to catch Chama. I always love casual snacking during high pressure situations, and Clint is one of the legends in this department, maybe the greatest ever (see: shooting at bank robbers while finishing his hot dog, DIRTY HARRY). This is especially cool because as he says, he’s currently serving ten days. He gets to have an outside day, I guess.

Nevertheless they respect his skills enough to offer him a chance to join the posse. He declines: “I don’t got nothing against Luis Chama.” Next, rich landowner prickface Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall, THE OUTFIT) tries to recruit him for a private posse. He pays to have Joe released from jail and demands to see him. Joe doesn’t know who the fuck the guy is, but goes over as a courtesy. When he’s told “be with you in a minute” he doesn’t feel like waiting and is about to leave. He only sticks around when Harlan’s kept woman Elma (Lynne Marta, BLOOD BEACH) talks to him, amused by his nonchalance, and he thinks he can make it with her.

He doesn’t look like a tough cowboy – his suit seems too big, his tie and collar are loose, and he wears a bowler hat. He walks blurry-eyed into the courtroom, doesn’t think to take his hat off but Mitchell grabs it and removes it for him. When Elma sees him she laughs, “Boy you sure don’t look like you’re supposed to.”

“Just how am I supposed to look?”

Harlan says his “associates” played by Don Stroud (DEATH WEEKEND), James Wainright (KILLDOZER) and Paul Koslo (THE OMEGA MAN, ROOSTER COGBURN) are “A-1, first-class hunters” who need Joe to be their guide. Joe gets him to admit that what he’s hunting is Chama, to stop him from “stirrin’ up the Mexican population with talk about land reform.”

Joe turns him down, and on the way out peeks into Elma’s room and says, “Uh, he’s goin’ on a huntin’ trip. I’ll be back.” But when he goes home to his ranch he finds out Chama stole some of his horses, shot the rest and tied up his ranch hand (Gil Barreto, SCARFACE) to avenge the death of Naco. So he decides to help catch the fucker after all. And you know he means business when he shows up dressed like Clint, not some town dude.

Their wealthy benefactor provides them with new high range rifles, and there’s a great scene where Joe carefully, patiently aims at a guy up on some rocks far away, takes him out, and can’t quite hide his smile of pride. Duvall maybe doesn’t get as much to do as you’d expect for a villain, but he just exudes evil motherfucker in that unique Robert Duvall way, long before he makes the priest (Pepe Hern) gather the Mexican villagers so he can give a “sermon” that begins, “Now, then, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, I just wanna say that we’re gonna shoot five of you if Luis Chama don’t come down off his mountain by sunup tomorrow morning,” and gets worse from there.

Oh yeah, and when he rolls into town at the beginning he bullies the hotel manager (Dick Van Patten!) into kicking people out of their rooms so he can have a whole floor to himself. Seems to think that’s okay. Probly doesn’t tip either. Fuck this guy.

By the time Harlan’s crew are forcibly staying at the home of Chama’s special lady friend Helen (Stella Garcia, CHANGE OF HABIT), Joe realizes he shouldn’t be in with these dicks. Helen talks up Chama as a guy willing to die for what he believes in, a theme that continues when the priest tells Joe they’re celebrating The Feast of St. James the Apostle. “Saint James was beheaded rather than deny his faith.”

Unfortunately, when Joe and Helen find Chama up in the mountains he says “We only win if I stay alive” and is happy to let the innocent villager hostages become martyrs instead of him. When Helen tries to convince him it’s wrong, he says, “I do not care what you think. I take you along for cold nights and days when there is nothing to do, not to hear you talk.” Joining Joe and Harlan in a pretty competitive sexism contest.

Joe’s solution to the standoff will save the villagers, but seems very naive. He convinces Chama to “Come with me back to Sinola, give yourself up, take your chances in court.” In a clever move, he sends Chama’s guy Ramon (Ron Soble, TRUE GRIT) into town ahead of them, ‘cause he knows they’ll shoot the first guy in, and that’s the guy who barb-wired his buddy. But Joe’s best idea is taking over a steam engine, driving it to the end of the line, through a stopper, through the drugstore, and right into the saloon (sorry, Harry), shooting out the window at some of Harlan’s men, who just walked in. Harry and Chama pass the shotgun back and forth shooting at more guys across the street. Harlan gets his when he’s hiding in the court room (where most of this began). The judge’s chair spins around and there’s Joe and he shoots him, spewing thick ’70s fake blood out his back. I doubt that was what Joe was thinking when he told Chama to “take your chances in court,” but it works out. In his capacity as judge, I guess, he lets Chama go, and Helen leaves with Joe.

It’s a movie that brings up some interesting political themes, but barely explores them. You’ve got your screwed over indigenous population fighting for what’s theirs, and your piece of shit white landowner who gets his comeuppance, but that’s all there really is to say about that. The revolutionary turns out to kind of suck and also Saxon (who I love regardless) miscalculates how much his handlebar mustache will compensate for his take on a Mexican accent. But I’m not sure Joe learned much of anything from any of it. He may have gotten a new girlfriend. Maybe he’ll learn from her.

On the other hand it does pretty much follow the standard Eastwood character arc that I love, and feel is sometimes misunderstood. Joe wants to stay out of it, but he doesn’t. He thinks he’s above it all, and not taking sides, but he finds out it’s more complicated than that. (He does still solve this one by shooting a guy, but not the guy he initially wanted to shoot.) Eastwood characters always talk a big macho game that seems very appealing because he’s so charismatic, but the lesson of the movie is never “Yep, he was 100% right about all that.”

Leonard later said “I don’t think the picture worked at all” and that “Sturges had done THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and he was trying to work ideas that didn’t make it into that movie into JOE KIDD. Only little funny things, but I wasn’t very happy with it.” I gotta believe Elmore was right, but reportedly one of the things Sturges added was the train crash gag, so he probly deserves some credit in my opinion.

Eastwood liked Leonard enough that after shooting but before release he asked him to write him something “like DIRTY HARRY but different.” He quickly came up with and pitched MR. MAJESTYK, and Clint liked it, so he wrote it, but by then Clint was doing HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and didn’t buy it. Oh well. Somebody called Charles Bronson, I guess. That movie shares JOE KIDD’s issue of trying to say something righteous about Latinos while unconvincingly using white people to play many of them, but it’s an overall more successful use of Leonard’s storytelling in a vehicle for one of our greatest screen badasses.

JOE KIDD was Sturges’ fourth to last film (followed by CHINO, McQ and THE EAGLE HAS LANDED) but his biggest hit besides THE GREAT ESCAPE. By all accounts the director wasn’t very invested in the movie, and/or lost control to Eastwood, who had recently started directing. In the 50 years since, Eastwood has starred in 35 movies, and directed all but 11 of those.

This is definitely lesser Eastwood, but I enjoyed it. You get a nice score by Lalo Schifrin, with some mellow electric piano or organ in there – a hint of DIRTY HARRY – under more traditionally western sounding music. You get some nice scenery, beautifully shot by Eastwood regular Bruce Surtrees. Mostly you get the classic Clint persona, where he’s somehow both a sloppy fuckup and the coolest and most competent guy who ever lived. That’s always fun to watch. Happy 2023, everybody.

This review brought to you by my self-invented superstition that my first review of the year has to be a Clint Eastwood movie. Previous entries:

2019 – THE MULE

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 3rd, 2023 at 7:19 am and is filed under Reviews, Western. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

26 Responses to “Joe Kidd”

  1. Part of Clint’s ‘done-in by cornball comedic shit’ period (see also: Kelly’s Hero’s)

  2. During his 30 years in the business Sturges directed some of the most difficult actors ever. Yul Brynner, Lee Marvin, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster and Charles Bronson. The last two several times. So the friction between him and Clint must have been more one sided than the gossip tells us. But, as Michael Caine said after THE EAGLE HAS LANDED, during the 70s Sturges was only interested his fishing trips, not the work. He had developed a drinking problem too, which probably didn’t help. JOE KIDD started out as an effort to get Eastwood and John Wayne to star in a movie together.

  3. Of all the Westerns Eastwood made, JOE KIDD neatly slots into the “perfectly watchable but nothing special box”, and Clint being the absolute Legend he is, gave us the far more unsettling and menacing HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER barely a year later, and the magnificent THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES 3 years after that, wiping this one from my consciousness for awhile.

  4. I know we’ve had this debate before, but of the 10 westerns Clint made is JOE KIDD #9 or #10? Personally I think it’s a little bit more entertaining than PALE RIDER.

  5. Happy New Year y’all. I’ve been looking forward to this, whatever Vern chose to review, and JOE KIDD is a great choice and has inspired some debate in the past.

    I agree it’s a low-tier Eastwood western, but it still has an awful lot to recommend it. Usually I’d argue it’s a bad sign if you actually notice the photography, but Bruce Surtees really does make the west look beautiful in this. And we get another fine Lalo Schifrin score. I think HANG ‘EM HIGH is the bottom of this particular barrel, but what a great barrel to be picking from.

  6. I’ve never seen this; might oughta check it out. HANG ‘EM HIGH was the first Eastwood Western I ever saw; one of the local TV channels seemed to run it about five Saturday afternoons in a row one year when I was young. I remember watching it and thinking, what is the big deal with this guy? This movie’s boring as hell!

  7. Is PAINT YOUR WAGON (which I haven’t seen) excluded from the ranking, then? In that case, yeah, JOE KIDD and HANG ‘EM HIGH would come in for me as nos. 9 and 10, and I still enjoy both. It’s true that PALE RIDER is transparently SHANE retold as a ghost story, but it’s got Michael Moriarty, and hey, SHANE has a plot worth stealing.

    Speaking of HANG ‘EM HIGH, I was listening to the theme recently (via the great Booker T. & the M.G.’s cover), and realised that it’s pretty much the same tune as “Gilligan’s Island.”


    Fans of Lerner/Loewe musicals may still find something of note here…but it makes me (and I suspect, most Clint fans) just wanna puke.

    The single Eastwood Movie I have not re-watched. Like Stallone’s RHINESTONE. Which leads me to conclude my Demi Gods of Ass Kickery need to stay the hell away from microphones, unless they plan on shoving it down someone’s throat.

    HANG ‘EM HIGH is severely underrated. While JOSEY WALES and UNFORGIVEN remain Clint’s crowning achievements with regards to a Western examining concepts of morality, killing and war, it’s easy to forget HANG ‘EM HIGH did it first. The whole 3rd act is Clint trying to get a man off a hanging sentence. The same man who tried to kill him!

  9. PAINT YOUR WAGON isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s pretty watchable, even for me, who doesn’t like many Western and hates musicals. But I liked it, although I was disappointed that it’s not nearly as much fun as its SIMPSONS parody. Seriously, don’t know what’s up with the hate for it.

  10. CJ is correct, PAINT YOUR WAGON rules, all others drool.


  11. The biggest point against HANG ‘EM HIGH is that it’s trying to ape a spaghetti western, but it’s still very beholden to Hollywood style, and Hollywood television at that. It’s too clean.

  12. Well, knock yourselves out boys! For me, if a mood to revisit lesser known (or at least, lesser discussed) Eastwood Oaters strikes, I’d go for something like THE BEGUILED. Clint as a wounded Confederate soldier stuck in a Girl’s Boarding school trumps Clint and Lee Marvin both crooning and calling dibs on Jean Seberg any day. Or if I wanted something lighter, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARAH.

    “The biggest point against HANG ‘EM HIGH is that it’s trying to ape a spaghetti western, but it’s still very beholden to Hollywood style, and Hollywood television at that. It’s too clean.”

    Yup. Agreed.

  13. Matthew B.: Pale Rider as Shane? I don’t discuss westerns much but I thought the big discussion re: Pale Rider back when it came out was that it was a redo of High Plains Drifter except the vengeful ghost that comes back is from a more…elevated…place than the previous film.

  14. Clean or dirty, when you rewatch HANG ‘EM HIGH it’s always better than you seemed to remember.

    I guess both PAINT YOUR WAGON and THE BEGUILED could be classified as western-y. But I was thinking more of the 10 horse/sixshooter/spurs movies Clint made between the mid 60s and the early 90s.

    CJ, I didn’t even know there was a hate towards PAINT YOUR WAGON. But I can see why some Eastwood fans would look down on it. It’s the only time in the 60s when Clint played a sidekick and didn’t manage to dominate the screen.

    Snowden, every western made after 1952 is a redo of SHANE.

  15. I guess both PAINT YOUR WAGON and THE BEGUILED could be classified as western-y

    Uh, The Beguiled doesn’t even take place in the west.

    Hang ’em is very, very okay. It’s episodic nature makes it seem like the pilot, then first and second episodes of a Clint television series played consecutively.

  16. If a “western” has to take place in the west to be called a western, we’re excluding most of the movies that made the genre great.

  17. THE BEGUILED is Southern gothic, a completely separate genre. But PAINT YOUR WAGON, unless I’ve been very misled about the story and setting, sure sounds like a western to me — so including it, but excluding Clint’s “modern westerns,” bit parts, and that Italian Frankenstein creation made by stitching together episodes of RAWHIDE, that’s 11 proper Eastwood westerns.

    Snowden: There are lots of details in PALE RIDER borrowed from SHANE; most obviously, the Preacher’s relationship with the mother and the child in the central family, right down to the farewell scene. But there’s certainly some HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER in there too. By the by, I never got the sense that Eastwood’s character in DRIFTER was demonic — he’s God-sent, but it’s the God of DOGVILLE, and the most wrathful parts of the Old Testament.

  18. “Uh, The Beguiled doesn’t even take place in the west.”

    Ok, it takes place in the SOUTH. So?

    That’s some mighty fine hairs you’re splitting, pardner

  19. “It’s the only time in the 60s when Clint played a sidekick and didn’t manage to dominate the screen.”

    In WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968), Clint technically played second banana to Richard Burton.

    I liked that one just fine.

  20. “THE BEGUILED is Southern gothic, a completely separate genre”

    Ah ok…am most likely displaying my ignorance here, but from the perspective of a non American and an Asian, if it’s set during the 19th century and contains Cowboys, Native Americans, Six Shooters, Stetsons, Saloon Brawls, fringe jackets, prairie skirts, dusty 1 street towns, bordellos, ranches, horses, buffalo, the Plains, the Civil War, then it’s a Western. Or as we called it when I was younger…”Cowboy Pictures”

    Within those broad backdrops, there are of course many many ways to tell a story. So THE BEGUILED I agree is definitely Southern Goth in mood, but it has the trappings of a Western.

    In fact, while it’s not time appropriate, Eastwood’s charming and underrated BRONCO BILLY is very Western in tone.

  21. Ok, it takes place in the SOUTH. So?

    That’s some mighty fine hairs you’re splitting, pardner

    Uh, not really. What I meant is that it doesn’t even fit the location requirement of that title, let alone everything else that comes after.

    If you’re going to call Beguiled a western you might as well call Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte a western.

  22. I love this discussion whenever it comes up, and it’s great to see how consistent we all are. One thing that never comes up, however, is Clint’s pre-Dollars westerns. I don’t think he ever managed better than third billing, but AMBUSH AT CIMARRON PASS is very definitely a western, in ways that THE BEGUILED or BRONCO BILLY aren’t. It ain’t gonna be me, but just once it’d be nice if someone said “Hey, I really rate THE FIRST TRAVELING SALESLADY!”

  23. “What I meant is that it doesn’t even fit the location requirement of that title, let alone everything else that comes after.”

    Hence my “SO?”

    SO….if HIGH NOON or SHANE took place on the East Coast, that would rule it out as a Western?

    As for the rest, I have broader definitions of what a Western is and I’ve listed out what they are in my comments above. It’s not hard for me to believe had Eastwood’s soldier not been royally fucked over by them Southern Lasses in the Boarding House, dude could have seen out the Civil War, gone back to his ranch and been a regular cowboy. Or a Gun For Hire. So…yeah it’s got the backdrop of a Western as far as I’m concerned. But it definitely plays out like a Southern Goth Suspense/Horror Thriller.

  24. SO….if HIGH NOON or SHANE took place on the East Coast, that would rule it out as a Western?

    I don’t know, since both take place in the American west (hence why they’re considered westerns)

  25. What I meant was that Clint played a sidekick in WHERE EAGLES DARE, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA and PAINT YOUR WAGON in the 60s. And completely stole the show in the first two. In the last one he was bound to lose because, well, it was Lee Marvin in the lead.

  26. To me this is one of those Eastwood programmers he made at that time where it’s good enough but I can’t remember them at all. I do remember the train crash now, that was cool.

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