Taking themes from the John Wayne hit The Cowboys (1972) to an even darker extreme, The Spikes Gang is a terrific Western drama about a group of young farm boys who emulate an outlaw, with deadly results. Gary Grimes, still fresh off the coming-of-age charmer Summer of ’42 (1971), teams with Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith, who previously costarred in American Graffiti (1973), to play a trio of young, unsophisticated men who discover a wounded outlaw in a forest near their families’ farms. The gunslinger, Harry Spikes (Lee Marvin), asks for their help, so Will (Grimes), Les (Ron Howard), and Tod (Smith) transport Harry to a barn, feed him, and tend to his gunshot wounds. Once Harry recovers, he promises to help the boys if they ever need anything, and then rides off on a horse Will provides. Will’s stern, ultra-religious father discovers his son’s activities and beats Will, which prompts the young man to run away from home.
Eager for adventure and seduced by Harry’s grandiose stories about his exciting life as a criminal, Les and Tod join Will. They rob a bank, incompetently, and kill a bystander in the process, so they’re quickly indoctrinated into the dark side of the rebel lifestyle. Eventually, the lads get arrested and land in a Mexican jail, but Harry passes through the Mexican town and honors his debt by arranging their release. Flattered by the boys’ idolization, Harry hires the young men as his new gang and attempts a brazen robbery, during which things start going terribly wrong.
Even with solid production values and uniformly good acting, the movie’s best virtue is a sensitive screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., the Western-cinema veterans who, not coincidentally, wrote the script for The Cowboys. Equally adept at crafting sparse dialogue and indicating characterization through behavior, Ravetch and Frank create a grown-up style of melodrama, so the storyline feels fresh and surprising as it winds toward a sad climax that’s infused with a powerful sense of inevitability.
Director Richard Fleisher, a journeyman who worked in nearly every imaginable genre, serves the screenplay well by shooting scenes simply; his economical frames allow the actors to express the script’s relatable emotions in an unfussy manner. Playing the film’s leading role, Grimes does fine work, building on the frontier existentialism he explored in The Culpepper Cattle Co. (1972). Concurrently, Marvin’s gruff poeticism perfectly suits the role of a self-serving career criminal. Howard and Smith balance the leading players with their complementary shadings of adolescent angst and affable naïveté. It’s true The Spikes Gang traffics in familiar themes, but graceful execution and heartfelt performances help the movie connect on a deeper level than expected. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
The Spikes Gang: GROOVY