Sunday 6 June 2010

Rebel Rousers (1970)

Director: Martin B Cohen
Star: Cameron Mitchell

Officially a Cameron Mitchell movie, somehow I doubt he was the reason anyone watched even back in 1970 when this was released by Paragon International. For a start it's a biker movie that also featured Jack Nicholson, who was certainly not the name then that he is now but he was still coming off Easy Rider, the biker movie of the era and possibly the most important counterculture film of them all. Then again this was shot in 1967 and merely not released until after Easy Rider had proved that there was a market for this sort of thing. By 'this sort of thing' I really mean a film that tries to work a different sort of philosophy, because biker movies had been around for a long while. This is the sort of movie where bikers party it up in a small town cantina while the old folks just ignore them and play checkers. It's the sort of movie where Bruce Dern explains to the cops why they're there with the line, 'It happens to be where things are at. Man.'

Dern is J J Weston, the leader of the Rebel Rousers of the title, a biker gang who roll into some small town on one side of the California/Mexico border, though I couldn't tell you which one. They have precisely the sort of impact you might expect, though in a far more boring way than you're likely to imagine given that Dern has some pretty astounding backup. Nicholson wears a prophetic beanie and a pair of striped prison trousers as a character bizarrely called Bunny. Harry Dean Stanton dons dark glasses and a host of campaign badges as Randolph Halverson. Unfortunately none of them really do much of anything but even if they did we struggle to hear them because the sound is terrible and we can't hear the dialogue behind the music or background noise. They just ride around, have fun in the cantina, ride up and down the beach and shout at each other. J J is just wandering around trying to find something to believe in.
Thankfully there's another subplot but unfortunately it's just as boring. Mitchell is Paul Collier, an architect from LA with about as much personality as my big toe, surprising for someone I know as an action hero. Collier has spent five months looking for his girfriend Karen and finally finds her here in town. She ran away from him and her family because she found she was going to have a baby and he dared to suggest an abortion because they weren't married. 'I was afraid you'd follow me,' she tells him, before explaining that she just wanted to have her baby without feeling like it was the crime of the 20th century. Yes this is a tiresome story of morals that feels utterly dated today and can't have felt much better in 1970. Paul and Karen just sit on the couch emoting at each other while we struggle to hear them behind the music. 'Society can go straight to Hell,' she tells him, 'because I'm going to have my baby.' We want to go straight to bed.

We find the link between the two subplots the moment the film starts. J J notices Paul as he and his gang head into town and recognises him as someone he used to play football with back in high school. Later they reconnect, as some of the bikers attack Paul's car as he attempts to do something that will bring Karen and his future child back into his life. All he achieves is to get invited down to the beach so a biker called Cowboy can usurp J J's authority and beat the crap out of Paul. Karen, who nobody seems to notice is pregnant, becomes the grand prize in a set of races on the beach, something J J conjures up to buy time. Sadly I think this is the point of the film: it's all about J J finding something to believe in and fighting for it. The problem is that we really don't care because that's not exactly much to hang a movie on, especially when he never makes a stand, just conjures up delaying tactics until someone else does something.
Dern is sincere, but then he was always great at sincere. For a film that hinges around him, he doesn't really get a lot to do though and that's the greatest flaw of the movie. Unless we can buy into his discovery there's literally nothing here and he seems to do his utmost to avoid us buying into his discovery. Nicholson gets far more to do as Bunny, because at least he knows what he wants: Karen. However while we get a few of his memorable faces, he has nothing but a one shot character to play, just another footnote in the varied career of a fascinating actor. Stanton is even more wasted here, which wasn't meant to be a pun but the brief shenanigans he pulls while stoned are effectively the sum of the comic relief of the movie. Mitchell is a non-entity, so much so that we almost want Nicholson to win his girl because at least Nicholson has some charisma. Diane Ladd is capable as Karen but she's so far above the material it's unreal.

In fact the only interesting thing about the entire film is something I don't even know for sure but presume is true. In 1967, when The Rebel Rousers was shot, Diane Ladd was Bruce Dern's wife. They had two daughters, the first of whom sadly drowned in 1961 and the second of whom is actress Laura Dern, born in 1967. In other words, I'm presuming that Ladd really was pregnant during the shooting of this movie, making this Laura Dern's screen debut of sorts, even though she only appears as a bump. Mother and daughter first appeared together in the 1973 Burt Reynolds movie, White Lightning, and have continued to do so over the years. The Oscar nominations they got for Rambling Rose in 1991 were the first time mother and daughter were ever nominated for the same movie. It really doesn't say much for this film when thinking about this sort of thing is more interesting than the story, but that's the truth of it.

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