The early-seventies were an interesting and pivotal time for gender identity and reinforcement. While the women’s liberation movement was in full-throttle and dominating the news headlines (along with the music charts, thanks to Helen Reddy’s anthemic 1972 battle cry “I Am Woman”), many men were also going through a period of self-discovery, awareness, and change. John Lennon helped make primal therapy en vogue. Machismo was still desired and important, but it was now also okay to want to get in touch with your inner man and consider what it may reveal about yourself. Males in their twenties and thirties who had gone through the counterculture movement of the late-sixties, or served in Vietnam, entered the seventies as young men expected now to forge a career and make something of their lives. The peace and love catch cry and shared communal living of the hippy era was giving way to the self-absorbed, possession, wealth, and status obsession of what became known as the “ME” decade.
One movie which really captures the American male zeitgeist of the period for me is Pray for the Wildcats, an ABC TV Movie of the Week which first aired in the prime time spot of 8:00 – 10:00pm on Wednesday, January 23, 1974. Directed by Robert Michael Lewis, who cut his filmmaking teeth on many episodes of The Mod Squad (1968–1973) and McMillan & Wife (1971–1977), as well as the excellent TV movie The Astronaut (1972), Pray for the Wildcats is ostensibly classified as a thriller, though it is not one in the traditional sense of the genre and format. It is certainly a psychological thriller, and one which tackles some pretty heady themes, but it also works as an intense character study, as well as providing an enjoyable riff on one of the most popular exploitation sub-genres of that period, which is that of the biker film.
Pray for the Wildcats starts out as a male bonding session before leading its characters into a fight for emotional, physical, and financial survival. Sam Farragut (Andy Griffith) is a successful but controlling Californian business executive who refuses to sign a big contract with an advertising agency unless the three men involved in the campaign agree to join him on a motorbike trip to the Baja desert to prove their mental and physical toughness, as well as to scout out the location for a potential commercial. While art designer Terry Maxon (Marjoe Gortner) and company man Paul McIlvain (Robert Reed) are receptive to the adventure, Warren Summerfield (William Shatner) is less enthusiastic. Claiming to be too busy to take off on an impromptu road trip, the real reason for Summerfield’s reluctance to join the others is his recent firing from his agency (which his co–workers do not yet know about), which has sent him into a suicidal depression. Summerfield finally relents, but only after taking out a large life insurance policy on himself, after which he plans to commit suicide while on the trip and make it look like a road accident in order for his wife Lila (Lorraine Gary) to collect the money to ensure a comfortable future for herself.
Decked out in customized, matching black leather jackets with “Baja Wildcats” stamped on them in white lettering, not to mention coloured t-shirts that look like Star Trek cast-offs, it isn’t long before Maxon, McIlvain, and Summerfield begin to realize that Farragut is a ruthless and rather unbalanced individual whose dangerous behavior could lead to serious consequences for all of them. The first major sign of trouble comes when the foursome stop to wet their whistles in a grimy little dive bar out in the middle of the desert, where the drunken Farragut leers and applauds wildly as a young blonde hippy girl with bell–bottom jeans and a crop–top dances by herself to the music playing. Not content with merely watching, Farragut decides to get up and dance closely with the girl, something which her boyfriend Michael (Robert ‘Skip’ Burton) clearly doesn’t appreciate. A brief fight breaks out between the two, which Farragut seems to be winning before the scuffle is broken up.
The four men jump back on their bikes and continue on the journey deeper into the desert, with Summerfield at one point contemplating riding his bike over a high cliff top, while Farragut continues to stew over the incident back at the bar. A powder keg has been lit and the fuse is burning, and the weekend adventure to Baja quickly becomes a fight not just for employment and stature but of freedom and survival, and for life itself. Though the film at times looks like it may be about to break out into a Deliverance-like fight for survival, it ultimately decides not to go down that route, and emerges more interesting because of it while still delivering a denouement that is exciting and explosive as well as downbeat and strangely cerebral.
All four of the male leads put in very good performances in Pray For the Wildcats, but it is William Shatner and Andy Griffith who steal the show. Shatner is in fine form (though not fine toupee) as the suicidal advertising executive, now out of a job and facing a future without income and a mounting string of debts, while Griffith, who was 48 at the time, plays well against type as the leering, hedonistic sociopath who needs to control all those around him, and lets nothing get in the way of what he wants. Griffith really does give a creepy, menacing performance, and seems especially effective when compared to the role he was at that point best known for, Sheriff Andy Taylor in the long–running television series The Andy Griffith Show (1960–1968). If he was deliberately seeking to break out of type, he succeeds with aplomb here. Despite being the oldest of the Wildcats, Farragut is the one who seems to most embrace the youthful counterculture of the time, which may be partly put down to the classic mid-life crisis but also gives him a reason to impose superiority on others (“I’m a hippy with money”, he teases the financially poor young Michael, while waving a hundred dollar bill in his face, a clear offer of payment in exchange for sex with his girlfriend).
Much like Robert Reed’s character, which is pretty much reduced to a supporting role, the female performers in Pray for the Wildcats are unfortunately not given a whole lot to do, though Angie Dickinson and Lorraine Gary share a nice scene together when Dickinson’s Nancy confesses to Gary’s Lila about the affair she is having with her husband (a revelation that comes as little surprise to her) and also tries to raise concerns about her fears that Warren is planning to kill himself (a fear that the in–denial Lila brushes aside). There is an interesting little class battle that is established between Nancy (McIlvain’s wife) and the more materialistic Lila, which helps give their dynamics a bit more depth, but it’s never really expanded on or explored. This is, after all, a Man’s movie, where women are not allowed to either interact or interfere too much (perhaps no shot more telling of this than when the wives and partners watch the Wildcats take off on their big adventure through the divining restraint of a chain link fence).
Though it is neither developed nor complex, the character of Maxon does give former evangelist and child preacher Marjoe Gortner a couple of chances to flex his developing acting muscles in this early role, holding his own against his more seasoned co-stars. At least a decade younger than the other three men, Maxon is clearly the up–and–coming hotshot of the advertising team, with high career ambitions that make him the one to be most easily manipulated by Farragut (who brands Maxon a “maverick”). One of Marjoe’s key moments in the film takes place when we see him in his home studio, as he proudly shows his girlfriend Krissie (the late Janet Margolin) a very colorful, Peter Max-inspired painting that he hopes Farragut will use for his campaign. His excitement is tempered somewhat when Krissie announces that she is pregnant with his child–a piece of news that Maxon is unsure of which way to take. While Maxon seems happy in his relationship with Krissie, he clearly feels a little trapped by the thought of becoming a father and no doubt thinks the responsibilities involved in having a child might slow down his career development. He even turns a blind eye when Farragut grabs Krissie in a clearly sexual manner while they are out on a group picnic. Maxon is hungry for success and the presumed happiness, wealth, and status which he feels it will bring him. “I’m gonna get me a piece of the American Dream!”, Maxon exalts to his companions in the bar, with a wild–eyed fervour that instantly recalls Marjoe’s evangelical sermons. The experience of the Baja road trip obviously effects Maxon deeply and helps him to mature emotionally, as we see when he is reunited with Krissie (a reunion which has a sting in its tail and clearly indicates that the dynamic of their relationship has been changed). Marjoe would go on to appear in two more motorbike-centric movies in the following years, playing a hotshot rival of Evel Knievel in the delirious Viva Knievel! (1977) and an upcoming motocross champion in Sidewinder 1 (1977).
At 100 minutes, Pray for the Wildcats runs somewhat longer than the typical TV movie of its time (which usually clocked in at around the 75–minute mark to fill out a 90 minute timeslot). Much of the extended runtime can be explained by the lengthy sequences of motorbikes kicking up sand as they race across the Baja desert, which do provide a nice view of the scenic locations. Also, motorbike lovers will enjoy watching the Kawasaki and Triumph machines in action. The motorbike sequences also give composer Fred Myrow the chance to inject the soundtrack with some cool acid/fuzz guitar passages, a familiar sound in classic biker films.
The biker film aspect to Pray For the Wildcats is interesting. The spate of grimy cycle cinema, ignited by drive-in hits like Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966) and The Glory Stompers (1968) starring Dennis Hopper, and elevated further into the public consciousness (not to mention cinema mythology) with the release of Easy Rider (1969), had pretty much run out of steam by 1974. There was still the odd exception, like the comedic female-centric black action flick Darktown Strutters (1975), and one of the greatest biker films of all time, Sandy Harbutt’s Australian masterpiece Stone (1974), was released the same year as Pray For the Wildcats. But for the most part, the genre had peaked a few years earlier. In an accidental way, it helps to provide an intriguing juxtaposition with the four male characters in the film, particularly the three older ones, who are themselves out of time in so many ways, struggling to either stay relevant and virile or make their mark while they still can.
With a screenplay by prolific television writer Jack Turley (The Fugitive, Lost in Space, The Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-O, and many more), Pray for the Wildcats does an admirable job of balancing action and drama with character, and examining the psyche of the 1970s American male coming to grips with the fact that they are not as young as they used to be and feeling increasingly irrelevant in a youth–obsessed world (“Where do good–looking, aging boys go?”, a tired and worried McIlvain asks of Summerfield at one point).
Previously available for home viewing on grainy VHS releases and cheap public domain/gray market DVD labels, Pray for the Wildcats has finally received the treatment it deserves with a terrific new Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber. The 2K scan of the print looks lovely and really bring an additional level of visual depth to the film, especially during the stunning aerial sequences and desert wide shots. The Kino Lorber release also comes with some trailers for other 70’s action films, such as Vigilante Force (1976) and High-Ballin’ (1978), and a very informative and entertaining audio commentary track from writer/TV movie authority Amanda Reyes and Bill Ackerman from the great Supporting Characters podcast. Reyes and Ackerman definitely know their stuff and they have a very nice and smooth sympatico on their commentary here, combining a good mix of thematic interpretation, production history, and cast biographies, while also expanding to include discussions on sub-topics like the biker movie genre and the history of the ABC Movie of the Week.