When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why my Dad would happily watch absolutely anything that had John Wayne in it. This was a guy who sometimes seemed dead set against ever admitting he enjoyed anything, and complained about every movie or TV show the rest of us watched. But if it had the big, lumbering cowboy with the slow drawl and two facial expressions, you could count him in.
Gene Wilder led the cast of The Frisco Kid with Harrison Ford, fresh off his Star Wars glory, in support.
As a kid I didn’t really see what made Wayne all that cool or exciting, and as I got older I found I wasn’t particularly impressed with his skills as an actor (though I have come to appreciate that he did give effective and surprisingly moving performances in a few films such as The Searchers). As I got even older than that, I realized that some day my kids would feel similarly about my willingness to watch almost anything that stars Harrison Ford (though I would argue that Ford is generally a more compelling and expressive actor than was John Wayne). While my favorite Harrison Ford movies tend to be the obvious classics that most people would choose – the Indiana Jones and Star Wars films, The Fugitive, Witness – he has a few films from early in his career that never achieved anything like the level of popularity that we associate with him.
The 1979 western comedy/drama The Frisco Kid is one of these lesser known Ford movie, featuring him in a role that was originally intended for Wayne. The film comes from the period between the first two Star Wars films, when Ford was a rising potential star looking to distinguish himself outside of the franchise. It was a commercial flop that garnered mixed reviews in its theatrical release, but has gotten a small boost on home video over the years due to Ford’s popularity. But Ford is second-billed behind Gene Wilder, who is the real star of the film in a delightful performance that I consider one of the late comic icon’s best. But what really distinguishes the film is the chemistry between Wilder and Ford. I find it to be some of the best Ford has ever had with a co-star.
Gene Wilder plays Polish Rabbi Avram Belinski while Ford is bank robber Tommy Lillard. The Frisco Kid was directed by Robert Aldrich and featured Penny Peyser in a supporting role.
Set in 1850, the story centers on Wilder as Polish Rabbi Avram Belinski, and Ford as bank robber Tommy Lillard. The two meet as Avram comes to Philadelphia from Poland, bound for San Francisco with a Torah (a sacred book of Hebrew scripture) and himself as Rabbi to a Jewish community that has neither. The film amounts to the classic odd couple buddy road movie formula we’ve all seen so many times. But a formula becomes a formula because it works, and there is a lot of pleasure to be found from the misadventures of this unlikely duo of reluctant partners and friends. Ford’s Lillard is the kind of charming scoundrel he played better than anyone in those days, but Wilder is the one stretching from his normal persona. Along with adopting a Polish accent, Avram has a quiet humility and faithful determination that are miles away from the neurotic and/or manic characters I usually associate with the late comic icon.
Wilder is extremely endearing in the role, and the two actors make the film highly enjoyable despite a somewhat thin storyline. It’s a cute, sweet little character driven film rather than one with a tightly-woven plot, and for the most part it elicits smiles and chuckles rather than belly laughs. But what matters is that it entertains. While Wilder and Ford are two very different actors who don’t seem like an obviously inspired pairing, they compliment each other very well, with Tom’s cocky toughness and refusal to play by the rules contrasting with Avram’s meek gentleness and strict adherence to Jewish beliefs and traditions. This leads both to moments of comedy and moments which are surprisingly touching, and even those which are both at the same time.
Before Star Wars in 1977, Harrison Ford had been best known for his breakout performance in 1973’s American Graffiti. It wasn’t until the success of the Indiana Jones films starting with Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 that Ford became a household name.
Director Robert Aldrich has been associated with macho films like The Dirty Dozen, but he presents a very different portrayal of strength in the gentle and non-violent Avram. It’s one of my favorite cinematic portrayals of a person of faith: Avram loves God and is deeply committed to his beliefs, but struggles with what he perceives as his own inadequacy, particularly when circumstances force him to do something completely out of character. And I like the way Tommy comes to respect Avram’s conviction, while at the same time Avram learns that perhaps he shouldn’t be so judgmental of someone who doesn’t fit his narrow idea of what a good person is.
The supporting cast is devoid of any names the average viewer will recognize, but plenty of character actors that will have you saying “Hey, it’s that one guy! What was he in?” Perhaps the most important of these is Penny Peyser, who is very likable in a sweet but rushed little romance with one of the two leads late in the film. Director Aldrich was the type of craftsman director who worked steadily turning out film after film in various genres, and this was his penultimate directing effort. While he sometimes seems unsure of exactly what tone he’s going for, overall his versatility helps with juggling the shifts from comedy to drama to action. It’s a solidly crafted film, and the cinematography by television veteran Robert B. Hauser nicely shows off the western locales. This makes it a shame that the film is currently only available in standard definition, either on DVD or for rent or purchase on Amazon. While not exactly an epic, it’s worthy of an HD release to show off the pleasing scenery.
The Frisco Kid certainly didn’t set Box Office records, nor is it considered one of the better films on either Wilder or Ford’s resumes. But writer Paul Gibbs suggests it’s worthy of reconsideration with a delightfully fun story and great chemistry between the lead actors.
I wouldn’t say The Frisco Kid achieves greatness. But it’s a charming, endearing and highly entertaining film, and must-see for fans of Ford or Wilder (and especially if you’re a fan of both.). It’s rated PG for profanity and violence, and it’s definitely worth 119 minutes of your time, and $2.99 for an Amazon rental.
⭐ For more information on where to Buy, Rent, or Stream The Frisco Kid, click here for the The Frisco Kid JustWatch page.