Rock on Film

Retro Rock and Roll Cinema – “Zachariah”

Zachariah Billed as the “first electric western,” “Zachariah” is definitely not your typical cowboy movie. This becomes evident right from the opening credits, when close-ups of an electric guitar and drum kit are flashed between scenes of a rider racing across the desert. A couple of minutes later, The James Gang (the one fronted by Joe Walsh, not Jesse and Frank) is shown rocking out in the middle of nowhere. The incongruity of electric instruments and rock and roll in the Old West is never explained, but who cares? “Zachariah” is not the least bit concerned with historical accuracy, and that’s what makes it such a quirky, amusing, over-the-top artifact of early seventies pop culture.

Released in 1971 and mostly written by The Firesign Theater, “Zachariah” takes place in an Old West where people say, “Far out” and “Right on,” the saloon girls are go-go dancing hippie chicks, and Job Cain, the baddest gunfighter of them all (played with smoldering, steely-eyed menace by legendary jazz drummer, Elvin Jones in his only film role), sits down at a drum kit and delivers a breathtaking solo after vanquishing a foolhardy challenger. It’s an Old West where the most notorious outlaw gang, The Crackers, is also a rock and roll band played by Country Joe and the Fish, who perform a couple of whimsical songs about life as stoned out, rockin’ outlaws who “play better than they rob,” and demonstrate an unexpected flair for slapstick comedy. In fact, The Crackers are so inept at crime that the amount of the reward for their capture keeps dropping throughout the movie.

The story is essentially about a farm boy named Zachariah (John Rubenstein) and his best friend, Matthew (a very boyish looking Don Johnson in one of his first films), who become quite proficient at the fast draw and decide to seek adventure by becoming gunfighters and outlaws. Along the way, they join up briefly with The Crackers, encounter Job Cain at his saloon where only gunfighters are allowed to hang out and The James Gang is the house band, and ultimately part ways because of philosophical differences. Zachariah becomes disillusioned with violence and decides to pursue a life of peace while Matthew wants to challenge Job Cain and take his place as the fastest gunfighter in the West. They meet up again at the end for a climactic showdown, but you’ll have to watch the movie to find out how it all ends.

Other notables in the somwhate off-beat cast are The New York Rock Ensemble, Cajun fiddler Doug Kershaw who, not surprisingly, plays a character called The Fiddler and displays a wild-eyed intensity that makes him seem like a cross between Marty Feldman and Ernest T. Bass, and even, very surprisingly, Dick Van Patten in a brief role as a slick talking used horse and buggy salesman called The Dude. While “Zachariah” is not a great movie in the technical sense by any means, it’s great, low budget cinematic fun, even if it occasionally gets heavy-handed with its messages.

Unfortunately, “Zachariah” is almost impossible to find as a rental and it’s unlikely to be shown anywhere on TV, so if you want to see it you will probably have to buy it. It’s currently available through for about $14 including postage.