Once Clint Eastwood returned from Europe following the success of the Dollar trilogy the western genre had changed considerably. Starting with The Wild Bunch (1968) there was a major shift and increase in violence. Eastwood came back from Europe a star, appearing as the headline in his first American feature, Hang ’em High and started his own production company, Malpaso. Over the next few years he would be returning to the genre of the western and has carried on doing so ever since. Now the genre was a lot more violent than before he went to Europe in 1964, but it also had returned to the psychological aspect of the western and the male it was developing in the fifties. Eastwood also made the fun Two Mules for Sister Sara in 1970 and Joe Kidd was released in 1972. Joe Kidd was a lot more fun, almost mocking the Eastwood loner and even the violence was portrayed with much comedy, yet still remaining bloody with some frankly unpleasant characters. From the opening music by Lalo Schifrin we are given the impression that this might easily have been an Italian western had it not been for the Universal logo that precedes the film. The establishing scenes of the western even maintain this deception with shots of what appears to be a deserted town on the verge of becoming a ghost town with the rosy fingers of dawn waking the town up to Schifrin’s spaghetti-like score.
The first shots of a still fresh faced looking Eastwood languishing in jail following a drunken brawl the night before. We are soon drawn to the impression that Joe Kidd is a man with a reputation as a known, but relatively respected and harmless troublemaker to the locals but, it transpires was a bounty hunter. When he is sent to the courthouse to have judgment sentenced on him, Joe is given the choice of a $10 fine or 10 days behind bars. He chooses the latter. While this judgment is being passed the courthouse is raided by bandits to free the other two men Joe was in jail with, who he had an altercation with just moments before. These bandits are led by Luis Charma (John Saxon) who is leading a peasant revolt against landowners who are trying to kick them of their land. (Joe then kills one of the men who had tried to humiliate him in jail.) A little while later a posse of gun wielding riders arrives in town that take over a whole floor of the local hotel and force Joe to join them in hunting down Charma and his bandits. Having discovered that his own land has been raided by Charma’s men Joe no longer feels neutral but has an uneasy alliance with the posse led by the ruthless wealthy landowner Frank Harlan (Robert Duvall). Joe soon plays both ends to the middle and becomes a man acting alone to get his own revenge and plays the bandits off against Frank Harlan.
Joe Kidd was adapted from a novel the highly prolific Elmore Leonard’s, a writer of popular western fiction. The book was called ‘The Sinola Courthouse Raid’, and was adapted for the screen by Jennings Lang. However, politics are never too far away from Eastwood’s films, even in a miner film such as this one. An incident in 1967 led to Reies Lopez Tijerina, a Mexican immigrant in New Mexico to raiding a courthouse in New Mexico demanding that Mexican immigrants be given the rightful lands back. Clearly Saxon’s Saxon’s character was based on Tijerina.
The external scenes for Joe Kidd were shot in the eastern part of the Yosemite National Park, while the town and interior scenes (of which there are only a few) were shot in Old Tuscon where John Huston was just finishing shooting The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean starring Paul Newman. There was also a big name to the directing credits in the form of John Sturges, who had previously shot The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963). Therefore, it is surprising given Sturges and Eastwood in the lead that this is such a minor film. From the cast themselves there seemed uncertainty about the development of the characters and I think that comes across in the film. Eastwood himself was sick during production, suffering from the effects of a bronchial infection. Ultimately Joe Kidd is one of Eastwood’s lesser known films and won’t have much appeal beyond his fans. However, his performance is relaxed, displaying his good nature in such roles while much of the action is given a genuine comic bent to it.