Friday, September 2, 2016

Rabbi of the Wild Frontier

1001 Movies To Watch Before Your Netflix Subscription Dies, Part 12
Robert Aldrich (director), The Frisco Kid

Rabbi Avram Belinski has no business travelling abroad. Having recently finished rabbinical school in Poland (with great difficulty), his superiors have shipped him to America to bury him. But he takes his mission seriously, to help found San Francisco’s first Orthodox synagogue. When the road across America proves perilous, he falls in with Tommy Lillard, a bank robber and relic of the fading Wild West. This mismatched pair learns they need each other to survive.

Critics pooh-poohed this movie upon its 1979 release, dismissing it as harmless, unkempt vehicle for its star, Gene Wilder. Already in his middle forties, Wilder made an unusually aged rabbinical graduate, though the culture clash aspect of his performance, so different from his saddle-weary Blazing Saddles character, received praise. Breakout star Harrison Ford, as Lillard, went largely unremarked at the time. However, it marks a pivotal moment in America’s relationship with its own frontier history.

Rabbi Belinski arrives in Philadelphia laden with ample baggage: ritual garments, traditional temple silver, and a hand-transcribed Torah. Within minutes, though, he finds himself robbed of everything except his precious scroll, beaten senseless and dumped roadside in his long underwear. In the classic Western tradition, he loses everything. Pennsylvania’s storied Amish community nurses him back to health, Belinski’s first encounter with distinctly American culture. Remember, this predates Ford’s star-making turn in Witness by six years!

Losing one’s baggage, literal or metaphorical, looms large in Western literature. Owen Wister’s genre-defining classic The Virginian begins with his nameless hero losing his Back East luggage. The West, in American mythology, strips newcomers of their urban, “feminizing” affectations, making everyone equal. The American West defines us by where we’re headed, not where we come from or what we bring with us. Though reality doesn’t always follow this myth, the story remains important to Americans.

Gene Wilder (left) and Harrison Ford in The Frisco Kid
Having made his recovery, but lost his resources, Rabbi Belinski must work his way across America; he quickly finds employment laying railroad track, a job for which he’s supremely unsuited. (As the established star in 1979, Wilder, as Belinski, gets greater screen time than Ford, especially in early scenes. More recent releases, since Ford became a bankable star and Wilder eased toward retirement, have foregrounded Ford’s unshaven cowboy. Realize in advance, this is slightly inaccurate.)

Ford, as Tommy Lillard, makes his living robbing trains. Superficially, he’s good at his job, cutting a dashing image on rearing horseback. But his hauls are embarrassingly small, and he lives out of his saddlebags, largely spending each day’s spoils that night. His journey frequently overlaps Belinski’s for some time before they actually meet; each inadvertently keeps covering the other’s lapses. Even before they join up, these men plainly complement each other’s respective, profound weaknesses.

Once they meet, Belinski and Lillard struggle to handle one another’s culture. Like countless white settlers before him, Belinski must learn that Eastern urban mannerisms don’t belong out West; he must make bold stands, spit tobacco, and occasionally fight for his beliefs. Lillard, meanwhile, faces a frontier rapidly approaching its close. He must learn culture and build connections with others, because soon enough, his rootless, rapacious lifestyle will have no place in America’s New West.

All this message gets bundled through raucous screwball comedy. Though somebody else plays the Decaying Cowboy role, the story nevertheless presents another angle on the character type Wilder immortalized in Blazing Saddles. Its similar “buddy drama” quality, inverted for laughs, also unpacks characters by showcasing their weaknesses. But it expands upon Blazing Saddles by being even more fiercely Jewish than even Mel Brooks would dare. The motley product is alternately hilarious, pious, humane, and touching.

Almost by definition, the Frontier means occupying an eternal present, where past heritage and future aspirations vanish into savage Mountain Man fantasies. But being Jewish means keeping ancient traditions alive, despite society’s advancing demands. And being American means embracing the continent’s diverse influences: Belinski and Lillard quickly find themselves indebted to various Christian and Native American communities. These two men find themselves changed by each other. But they’re also changed simply by being in America.

That, ultimately, is this movie’s binding theme: that being who you are isn’t good enough, you must also be who you’re becoming. Individually, these characters are unprepared for the changes history forces upon them. Together, they have the ability to grow. Each encourages the other, pushes through the other’s weakness, and brings out the other’s most hilarious potential. Like Blazing Saddles, there’s a serious message here. We just needed a ludicrous comedy to find it.

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