Director: George Englund
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Living with a hippie from the 60s has pretty much guaranteed that I’m going to watch every hippie movie ever made. The hubby defines the hippie movement as an attempt by certain naïve people to reach nirvana. The films he identifies as hippie movies include Between Time and Timbuktu (1972), I Love You, Alice B. Toklas (1968), Head (1968), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Easy Rider (1969), and Hair (1979, based on the 1968 stage musical), for their sensibility and honest depiction of the successes and failures of hippies to reach their goal.
Zachariah is perhaps the quintessential hippie movie, telling as it does the story of a young man trying to find himself. Of course, the hero’s quest is as old as humanity itself. What locates this telling in the American hippie movement is that it is a Western shot through with rock and roots music from Country Joe and the Fish, The James Gang, The New York Rock Ensemble, White Lightnin’, Doug Kershaw, and Elvin Jones.
Over the opening credits, we watch the prototypical scene of a lone horseman riding across a vast expanse of open land to the strains of a slightly romantic score. Into this idyll is introduced an unfamiliar object—a Lucite guitar turned blood-red by the rising sun. Soon, The James Gang crank out a hard-rocking song on this open plain, and our lone rider, Zachariah (John Rubenstein), jumps off his horse, and runs to a scrubby hillside to open a kraft-wrapped box. Inside is a pistol. He squares up to draw, pulls at the gun, and it flies out of his hand. The first word of dialog is his exclamation: “Shit.”
Zachariah heads into town where he visits the blacksmith shop of his best friend Matthew (Don Johnson). Coyly, he teases Matthew about something new he just got. Finally, he asks Matthew to make him some silver bullets. Matthew asks if he has some vampires he needs to get rid of on the farm, then sends his young Mexican assistant away so the two friends can be alone. Zachariah pulls out the gun he just received “in a brown paper wrapper.” Both young men are enamored with it and run off for some shooting practice. They both become very fast and very accurate in a very short span of time. With that, Zachariah decides he is leaving town to make his fortune as a gunfighter. Matthew presents him with a silver bullet—only one due to a lack of materials. At this point, the two friends decide to go off together.
The first group of outlaws they meet up with are the Crackers (Country Joe and the Fish). In awe of their reputation, Matthew and Zachariah follow them into a saloon, where the outlaws take up musical instruments and bang out their signature song “We’re the Crackers.” Matt and Zach are enjoying the music, but another patron isn’t so happy. Zach explains that they are only trying to enjoy the music and have no quarrel with him, but to no avail. The man calls Zach out, and Zach shoots him dead right in the saloon.
Having made his first kill, a thrill that has him shaking in both horror and triumph, Zachariah decides he must become an outlaw. He and Matthew ride out to the Crackers’ camp and force them at the end of a rifle to take the pair on. The Crackers, as it turns out, aren’t very good at robbing anything. They get outrun by a stagecoach and miss a rendezvous with a train. Fed up, Matthew and Zachariah dream up a scheme to rob a bank. The Crackers will play music at one end of town, draw a crowd, and then the team will go in and rob the bank. The plan works, but Zach becomes dissatisfied. He’ll never make it to the top with this motley band. He and Matthew leave.
A wanted poster leads them to the man they must find—Job Cain (Elvin Jones), the fastest gunfighter in the West. On arrival at Cain’s hangout, Matthew and Zachariah watch him kill a challenger. Matthew impetuously urges Zachariah to call Cain out. No, says Zach, we need to learn how he got so fast. At this point, Cain picks up a pair of drumsticks and takes over for the drummer of his band (The James Gang). When we watch him beat the kit, we understand how he got his lightning draw.
Abuptly, Zachariah leaves again. He still hasn’t found what he’s been looking for. Matthew stays. The two friends are now on divergent paths. Matthew is on the narrow track to success as defined by his society. Zachariah continues on a spiritual journey that has him explore hedonism, including taking up with whore Belle Starr (the hippie go-to actress Pat Quinn, who played Alice in Alice’s Restaurant), and finally, exploring the power of the desert.
I’m not sure you could find a better blueprint for the hippie movement than Zachariah, including its Amateur Hour feel. There are some laughs along the way (though many fewer than one would expect from a writing team composed of members of the comedy group The Firesign Theatre), but this film is surprisingly serious. Hippies did have to make choices, important choices, and as with the drug-dealing duo in Easy Rider, some made very wrong choices. The sketchy script and the no-budget look of this film make Zachariah a very rough affair indeed, and many will dismiss this movie as a self-indulgent experiment that’s only worth watching for the music.
But there is a wonderful gem at the core of this ragtag film—the relationship between Zach and Matt. If you detect something gay in their rapport, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. (It may come as a surprise to younger readers that Brokeback Mountain wasn’t the first gay cowboy film. In fact, neither was Zachariah. The Celluloid Closet  outed Monty Clift’s character in Red River  with this line, again said over a gun: “There are only two things more beautiful than a gun: a Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. Ever had a good… Swiss watch?”) Rubenstein and Johnson are exceedingly pretty at this early stage in their careers, and they have a chemistry and close affection that is quite touching. Although the hippie ethos was to make love to anyone in the spirit of freedom, not necessarily gay liberation, there is a true gay love story in this film.
Aside from this very watchable duo, the music showcases some of the top performers of the time who also happen to capture perfectly the sensibility of the film. In addition, roots players White Lightnin’ and, particularly, fiddler Doug Kershaw play some of the most haunting music I’ve heard in a while, placing this story squarely in the American experience and honing its spiritual edge.
Zachariah takes a universal story, and particularizes it for its generation. But it also manages to create a lasting impression that one can enjoy even at this more-distant time. This is a film that is both of its time and ahead of it. l