Man, it’s hard to get a bead on this one. A modernized (unofficial) adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel Don Quixote, this comedy-drama hybrid ostensibly tells the story of a proud old rancher succumbing to dementia, which prompts him to rail against imagined enemies and shoot guns at strangers. In his mind, he’s a Wild West hero fending off varmints, but in reality, he’s a deranged coot getting by on handouts from his granddaughter, a professor at a small college. Notwithstanding the granddaughter’s occasional visits, the protagonist’s only companion is a Mexican laborer who crossed the U.S. border illegally to seek employment. A local developer wants to push the rancher off his dilapidated spread, so the protagonist battles forces he cannot possibly defeat. Were the comedic elements extracted, the storyline would seem frightening or sad. Indeed, the vibe of Scandalous John wobbles between melancholy and whimsical, with some scenes played for laughs while others strive for pathos as the picture drags its way through a bloated 113-minute running time.
Yet the strangest thing about Scandalous John is that it’s a G-rated family film from Walt Disney Productions. Prior to the company’s experiments with grown-up fare in the late ’70s and early ’80s, this might well have been the bleakest live-action feature the company had ever released. Brian Keith, his features buried beneath bushy facial hair and one eye perpetually squinted shut, stars as John McCanless, who fancies himself a gunslinger protecting his land from Apaches and thieves. He lumbers about his dusty house, hollering and ranting and singing, even as his granddaughter, Amanda (Michele Carey), tries to keep John from injuring himself. She hires Paco (Alfonso Arau) as a caretaker, and John soon embraces the fantasy that Paco is a bold comrade-in-arms. Facing various past-due notices, John endeavors to drive his herd to town for a cattle sale, though his herd comprises only one ragged-looking steer. Meanwhile, Jimmy Whitaker (Rick Lenz), son of the developer who wants John’s land, tries to help John as a means of wooing Amanda.
Scandalous John includes several colorful episodes, such as a silly bit of John and Paco riding their mounts into a store and an action-filled climax, but much of the picture comprises leisurely scenes of Keith delivering florid monologues in garbled frontier-speak. (More than a few lines are indecipherable.) Keith is such a charismatic and forceful actor that watching him hold forth should be fascinating, but Scandalous John becomes tedious thanks to redundancy. Instead of one or two choice moments to set the tone, the movie offers perhaps a dozen long-winded soliloquies. Wistful scoring by Rod McKeun adds to the general sense of preciousness. It’s tempting to give Disney points for trying something this dark, but because the studio undercut the artistic qualities of this piece with dodgy elements including the stereotypical characterization of Paco, Scandalous John is, at best, an offbeat misfire.
Scandalous John: FUNKY