Basically a riff on Billy Jack (1971) without the hippy-dippy speechifying and pretentions to political significance, Gentle Savage stars B-movie muscleman William Smith as “Camper” John Allen, an impoverished Native American who stumbles into a hassle with racist white people. Cheaply made and tonally inconsistent, the picture is little more than a brisk drive-in distraction, and the angsty leading role of pushes Smith’s limited acting abilities past their limits. What’s more, cowriter/director Sean MacGregor demonstrates only borderline competence, so the characterizations are stereotypical, the escalation of violence is predictable, and the oh-the-humanity pathos permeating the piece is trite. Yet taken for what it is, Gentle Savage (sometimes marketed as Camper John, hence the above poster) more or less gets the mindless job done. Naturally, those predisposed toward grooving on Smith’s singular screen persona, all growling primitivism and sinewy intensity, will get more out of the experience than others—even though his big crying scene is dodgy, Smith is interesting to watch whenever he expresses simplistic moods of anger, lust, and rebellion.
John’s trouble begins one night at a dive bar, where hot-to-trot white girl Betsy Schaeffer (C.J. Hincks) propositions him. Initially refusing her advances, since he’s got a wife and kid at home, John unwisely accepts her offer of cash in exchange for a ride home on his motorcycle. Upon reaching her place, Betsy yanks John into bed, but then Betsy’s racist father, Kent (Kevin Hagen), arrives in time to swear vengeance against the escaping John. Later, Kent rapes his daughter and blames the crime on John, setting up a fugitive situation that enflames simmering racial tensions. Most of what follows is straightforward, excepting perhaps the “comedy” bits during which two white cops are stranded in the desert wearing nothing but underwear. Still, Gentle Savage hits the required notes of civil unrest, horrific violence, and martyrdom. Those seeking a race-relations drama with depth and relevance will be disappointed, but those seeking a straight shot of action-infused melodrama might find the picture adequate.
Gentle Savage: FUNKY