Western RoundUp: Joe Kidd

Western RoundUp: Joe Kidd

It may be hard to believe, given my love for Westerns, but up to this point the only Clint Eastwood Western I’d seen was his early film Ambush at Cimarron Pass (1958), which I reviewed here close to two years ago.

I watch relatively few post ’60s Westerns, being leery of the more overt violence often found in films of that era, but I’ve nonetheless been intending to give Eastwood’s “spaghetti Westerns” a try. However, I decided I’d start my Eastwood Western viewing with Joe Kidd (1972).

Joe Kidd Poster 1

I was drawn to Joe Kidd by its locations, including Old Tucson, which I’ve visited a couple of times, and Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, an area with which I have great familiarity. The movie also filmed around Bishop and Sherwin Summit, spots further north of Lone Pine on Highway 395.

I was also interested as the movie was directed by John Sturges. Sturges had previously worked in Lone Pine on Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and The Law and Jake Wade (1958). Coincidentally, Sturges also directed the last movie I reviewed for this column, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957).

Joe Kidd Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood as Joe Kidd

Joe Kidd is set in Sinola, a town in the American Southwest, circa 1900; the film was actually titled Sinola in some countries. Eastwood plays Kidd, a one-time bounty hunter in jail for disturbing the peace.

Kidd, now a rancher, is recruited by wealthy land owner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall) to track down Chama (John Saxon), a revolutionary trying to reclaim local ancestral lands for his people.

Kidd initially declines to join Harlan but changes his mind after he finds Chama has injured one of his workers and stolen his horses. However, Kidd quickly becomes dismayed with the brutality of Harlan and his men.

Joe Kidd Lobby Card 1

Harlan’s gang takes over a small village and sends a message to Chama that he’ll periodically kill five hostages if Chama refuses to surrender. By that point Harlan no longer trusts Kidd and puts him in the town church along with the hostages.

One by one, Kidd manages to quietly knock off some of Harlan’s men standing guard at the church, then puts in motion a plan to escape and capture Chama himself. Kidd plans to deliver Chama to the sheriff in Sinola, which will also draw Harlan away from the hostages.

Joe Kidd, John Saxon and Clint Eastwood
John Saxon and Clint Eastwood

I thought Joe Kidd was a solid film with a good performance by Eastwood. He’s clearly an imperfect person, as evidenced by his rather childish behavior as the film opens, but he’s also a strong, observant man who isn’t to be trifled with.

Eastwood’s Kidd may be downright scary at times, but he also has some wonderful moments of dry humor, starting with a scene early on where he holds off one of Chama’s men in a saloon, pouring himself a beer while holding a rifle. A French film poster alludes to this moment:

Joe Kidd Poster 2

There’s also a very amusing set piece near the end where Kidd drives a steam train straight through a saloon, gaining the advantage in a shootout with Harlan’s men.

Robert Duvall is as good as one might expect as the powerful Harlan. Initially the viewer sees Harlan as someone willing to spend money and hire bad men in order to have his own way. As the film progresses, however, Harlan reveals he is completely evil, willing to kill indiscriminately and threaten the lives of innocent women and children if Chama doesn’t comply with his wishes.

Joe Kidd Clint Eastwood 3

Saxon’s character isn’t quite so developed, and he shows himself to be an ungrateful chauvinist in a scene with his loyal girlfriend (Stella Garcia). That said, Saxon does what he can with the material he has to work with, particularly near the end when he and Eastwood reach a situation where “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Chama may not like Kidd trying to take him to the law, but he does recognize Kidd is far more ethical than Harlan.

The section of the film where Joe is held with the hostages but manages to knock off a couple of his captors seemed strikingly familiar…and then I made one of those wonderful movie connections which helped explain that feeling. The Joe Kidd screenplay was by Elmore Leonard, who also wrote the story which inspired the Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film The Tall T (1957).

In The Tall T, Scott is held hostage by Richard Boone, but late in the movie he manages to cleverly dispatch a couple of Boone’s henchmen. No wonder that Joe Kidd sequence seemed so familiar! In another nice connection, The Tall T was also filmed in the Alabama Hills.

Joe Kidd Clint Eastwood 2

Speaking of locations, it’s somewhat amusing to have the characters in Joe Kidd ride out of the Alabama Hills straight into Old Tucson, but that type of editing is also something Western fans are accustomed to seeing. For instance, I recall a Hopalong Cassidy Western where characters in the Alabama Hills shoot at people who are at Iverson Ranch!

The movie was beautifully shot in Technicolor Panavision by Bruce Surtees, son of Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees. Bruce Surtees worked on numerous Eastwood films as both camera operator and cinematographer.

The unique Alabama Hills landscapes look marvelous in Joe Kidd, as shot by Surtees. Here’s a screenshot prominently showcasing Lone Pine Peak, in the background at the left. Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States, is deeper in the background, just left of center. I suspect it was as cold as it looks here!

Alabama Hills 4

Here are a couple additional screen captures of the stunning views of the Alabama Hills:

Alabama Hills 1
Alabama Hills 2

As it happens, my husband has taken horseback tour groups past some of the Joe Kidd locations in his role as a tour trail guide for the Lone Pine Film Festival. Fans of the film should considering attending the festival for an “in person” look at the scenery.

There are a number of familiar faces in Joe Kidd’s supporting cast, including Don Stroud, Dick Van Patten, Gregory Walcott, and Chuck Hayward.

It was fun to see Clint Ritchie, who plays Calvin, in this film; Ritchie later spent a couple decades playing Phil Carey’s son on the soap opera One Life to Live.

Lynne Marta, who plays Duvall’s rather giddy mistress, who finds herself attracted to Joe, just passed away in January 2024, at the age 78. Marta was part of a sad story in Hollywood history, providing eyewitness testimony on the shooting death of her friend, actress Rebecca Schaeffer, in 1989.

The Joe Kidd musical score was composed by Lalo Schifrin.

Joe Kidd Bluray

Joe Kidd is a solid mid-range Western with a number of positive things to offer, including good performances, excellent locations, and connections to Westerns past. I found it worthwhile, and seeing it encouraged me to continue digging deeper into Eastwood’s Westerns.

I watched this film on an attractive Universal Pictures Blu-ray released in 2018. The disc had English subtitles but no extras. Two years later the movie was released as a Kino Lorber Special Edition Blu-ray with a commentary track and an interview with cast member Don Stroud.

– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

This entry was posted in Films, Posts by Laura Grieve, Western RoundUp and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Western RoundUp: Joe Kidd

  1. tom j jones says:

    I haven’t seen this in so long – all I really remember is the steam train! I have seen most of Eastwood’s westerns. The best one IMO is Unforgiven, because it’s partly about how the legend of the West was created (and who by) – people rave about The Outlaw Josey Wales (Orson Welles loved it, apparently), but when I watched it recently, it had some great moments but also some weaknesses

    With the spaghetti westerns, it’s not the violence you may struggle with (although I doubt you’d like A Few Dollars More), but the morality. As Sir Christopher Frayling has said, in an American western, the hero is the best shot – but in an Italian western, the best shot is the hero.

  2. Jerry Entract says:

    I have great admiration for Eastwood as both actor and director. Liked him all the way back to his Rowdy Yates days on RAWHIDE and still enjoy that series today. I really like his ‘cop’ films over the years but his westerns less so generally apart from his OUTLAW JOSEY WALES & UNFORGIVEN which are very fine. I think it is because his other westerns always have that ‘spaghetti’ feel about them. Not surprising since those westerns made his name but they really don’t appeal to me as a traditional western fan.
    I’m a great admirer of director Sturges too but I would take his OK CORRAL film over JOE KIDD any day personally.

  3. Lyson says:

    Enjoyed this review – I’m also not into his Westerns with the exception of Unforgiven – which I found magnificent. The other exception for me is Pale Rider – which has some stylistic connections to a favorite of mine – Shane.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.