Remember that time when director Hal Needham got really drunk and decided to cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as a cowboy in a western comedy? Yes, that really happened. Maybe not the drunk part, but I assume he had to be out of his mind when he cast a giant Austrian in a western. That’d make about as much sense as having John Wayne play Genghis Khan. Oh, wait. Anyway, the end result of Needham’s insane bit of casting is an anomaly of a film called The Villain.
In 1979, Needham had already directed two wildly successful films (Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper), and he switched gears and made the most unique western I’ve ever seen. This was after Stay Hungry but before Conan the Barbarian, so Schwarzenegger was still relatively unknown at this point in his career.
Let’s see how the West was fun as we explore why The Villain is a forgotten film gem.
What The Villain Is About
As its title suggests, The Villain is primarily about a bad guy named Cactus Jack Slade (played amiably by Kirk Douglas). He wants to stop Handsome Stranger (Schwarzenegger) and a lovely lady named Charming Jones from getting to their destination with the money they are carrying. He tries everything he can think of, but none of his schemes work. Each one of his plans is more garish than the last. They do get a bit repetitive because we know after the first one that he’s never going to succeed. But the real fun of the film comes from seeing it for what it truly is. I’ll save that surprise until the end. It’s a doozy.
Arnold the Cowboy
Schwarzenegger plays a Dudley Do-Right-type character named Handsome Stranger. He looks like he just arrived in the Old West alongside Marty McFly. He is so out of place in his sky-blue cowboy costume, you’ll do a double take the first time you see him.
Watching Schwarzenegger’s performance as Handsome Stranger, I couldn’t help thinking of another character he played nine years later, Julius Benedict in Twins. He has the same personality in both films. He’s always trying to do the right thing, even though he’s completely clueless in most situations and is frequently getting taken advantage of. The only difference is that there’s no Vincent for him to play off of and balance his good-hearted buffoonery against.
He’s completely oblivious to the advances Charming Jones keeps making on him. She’s desperate for love. Naturally, she is attracted to Handsome Stranger’s bulging muscles and impeccable physique, but he doesn’t pay any attention to her. That joke gets kind of stale as the film goes on, but I suppose it’s building up to the zany conclusion.
Some Merrie Melodies
The music in this film varies greatly. During the opening credits, we hear a majestic tune that fools us into believing we’re about to see a traditional western. Things change quickly as we get a glimpse into what this film truly is. For example, when Cactus Jack’s schemes fail, the music hammers that fact home with some cartoonish trumpets blaring over and over like Satan’s cuckoo clock.
The best part of the score is that the three lead characters get their own theme songs, complete with goofy lyrics. At first the songs are kind of fun, explaining the characters’ motivations and quirks. But after a while they reach new levels of hilarity when they start reiterating things about the characters that we already know and that are blatantly obvious. It’s like the movie is mocking us, spoon feeding us even the most basic information.
The Best Character
While Cactus Jack, Handsome Stranger, and Charming Jones all have their funny qualities, the real star of the show is Cactus Jack’s horse, Whiskey. Whiskey is the Greek chorus of the film. He is constantly mocking the villain for his outlandish schemes and other foibles. He steals every scene he appears in with his funny faces and perfectly timed whinnies. He’s the character I remember the most at the end.
What This Movie Really Is
I promised I would reveal the true nature of this film, and I’ve been leaving a few subtle hints throughout. Are you ready for me to spell it out? The Villain is a live-action cartoon. And not just any cartoon, but Wile E. Coyote vs. Roadrunner.
The movie is packed with pure Looney Tunes-style gags. I kid you not, at one point Cactus Jack actually paints a tunnel entrance on the side of a mountain and Handsome Stranger rides right through it. But when Cactus Jack tries to follow him, guess what happens. He crashes into solid rock. If that’s not Looney Tunes logic, I don’t know what is. I mean, compare that to this scene from a Wile E. Coyote cartoon:
And just in case there was any doubt about what this movie is, at the very end, Cactus Jack does flips and backflips high into the air again and again, hopping on rooftops and howling like a wolf (or possibly a coyote). And the music that plays during this crazy scene is none other than the classic Merrie Melodies theme song.
The strange thing is that Warner Bros. didn’t produce this film; Columbia Pictures did. They’re not exactly parodying classic Looney Tunes cartoons – they’re just copying them. I sure hope no one got sued when this movie came out.
A Little Trivia
Before I finish, I’d like to share a few tidbits of trivia that didn’t fit anywhere else:
- The Villain director Hal Needham had an uncredited role as an outlaw in another western comedy a few years earlier, Blazing Saddles.
- Sally Field starred in Stay Hungry with Schwarzenegger before doing Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper. Perhaps Needham heard about the Austrian actor from his leading lady while working on those films.
- You might recognize the voice of the actor who plays Indian Chief Nervous Elk. That’s because he also did the voice of Templeton the rat in the 1973 animated film, Charlotte’s Web. He has an unforgettable voice.
That’s All, Folks!
As I said before, The Villain is an anomaly. That’s the best way I can describe this bizarre little film. My mom loved it and she showed it to my siblings and me when we were still kids, hoping we would appreciate it. I think I like it more as an adult, knowing who the actors are and what the director did during his short career.
As a special treat, you can watch The Villain on YouTube, if you’re curious to see it. I hope you get a kick out of it.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
All images and movie clips are the copyright of their respective owners.