It’s 2020, and two of the big topics of conversation right now are world-ending plagues and the sport of hunting humans. This week’s look at TV terrors from the 70s is going to take a break on the former and instead focus on the latter because people hunting people is rarely less than engaging. Savages doesn’t quite follow the plot from The Most Dangerous Game or The Hunt, but it does feature a hunter (no relation) hunting down human prey. And that hunter? He’s played by one of the nicest guys to ever grace your television screen.
When: September, 1974
Like most of us, Ben Campbell (Sam Bottoms) is a big fan of vultures. He likes to watch them fly and eat, and sometimes he even lies out naked on the hot desert rocks just to see how they react. Again, like most of us. Ben divides his time in this small desert town between studying for college, working at the only gas station, and planning more vulture shenanigans, but he adds something new to his resume when a wealthy visitor arrives in need of a hunting guide. Horton Madec (Andy Griffith) is a big shot lawyer with a bum leg and a hankering for a big horn sheep, and soon the the pair are off into the desert in the hopes of nabbing him that trophy.
They spot a small group of sheep up near some rocks, and while Ben advises him to be careful, Horton gets a bit excited and shoots at a flash of something moving in the distance. Closer inspection reveals that Horton has just killed an old prospector who lived just outside of town, but when Ben makes plans to report the accident Horton moves immediately towards a plan B — he makes it look like Ben shot the old man, he makes Ben strip down to his shorts, and he gives the young man a head start across the blazing desert. Horton’s on the hunt for a different trophy now.
Savages is a tight little tale of survival pitting two men of different backgrounds and mindsets against each other, and it offers up a challenge for each of them. Ben might know the area far better and have full use of both legs, but he’s also shirtless, barefoot, and unarmed. Horton has the comfort of food, water, a Jeep, and two working rifles. It’s not just a physical competition, though, as Horton makes it very clear that his handicap taught him at an early age how important it was to beat others with his mind. Studying the law made him capable of out-thinking his enemies, and he immediately starts wearing Ben down with mind games and the confidence of someone who believes — who knows — that if they reach civilization it’ll be Horton who people think is telling the truth. “That’s my business,” he says, “making people say yes.”
If Savages sounds slightly familiar it might be because you’re one of the forty or so people who saw 2014’s Beyond the Reach starring Michael Douglas and Jeremy Irvine as Horton and Ben, respectively. Both are based on Robb White‘s novel Deathwatch, and while I have your attention regarding White let me share something else about him — he’s actually best known as the screenwriter behind several William Castle films including House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960). Writer William Wood adapted the novel, one of eighteen TV movies to his name, while Lee H. Katzin dwarfs that total with 31 TV movies of his own.
Katzin takes good advantage of the desert locale — they actually shot the film East of Bakersfield, CA near Red Rock Canyon State Park — and convinces with both the isolation and the heat. We get some Jeep action and gun play to keep things suspenseful, but the uncertainty remains after Ben gets the upper hand and brings Horton back to town. Despite knowing Ben, or maybe because they know Ben, the local police find it easier to believe the smooth-talking Horton. It’s a bit silly that no one wonders why a supposedly guilty Ben would bring Horton back alive, but the old coot presents a fairly calm and compelling defense against the younger man’s ravings.
Savages‘ finale never reaches the point of a full-blown courtroom scene, but Ben’s argument cuts to the film’s only real message — well, second message after the obvious one about not trusting rich, old, white dudes — and he sums it up pretty succinctly. “Just because someone’s a little different, that doesn’t mean he’s guilty,” says Ben, and as with the vulture love he’s once again speaking for us all.