www.bangitout.com Jordan Hiller's epic 25 Essential Jewish Movie List continues on to the final 4….
#4 The Frisco Kid
The Frisco Kid has the feel of an artist’s charmingly naive youthful indiscretion. One would think that the cinephile fantasy pairing of Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford as unlikely traveling companions in the old west, where the former plays Avram Belinski, a Polish Rabbi, and the latter, Tommy Lillard, a bank robbing bandit, would be possible only as a fortunate quirk, a providential misstep in the early, unsteady careers of both. One would imagine that director Robert Aldrich would helm such a movie, an unpredictably paced part screwball comedy farce, part dramatic buddy picture, part spaghetti western, only as an inexperienced rookie venture, trying to get anything on the résumé while paying some electric and hot water bills. The almost impossible to believe truth is that The Frisco Kid hit theaters in 1979. Gene Wilder had already been a household name from such classic comedy gems as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Silver Streak. Star Wars was released in 1977 and the entire civilized world recognized Mr. Ford as laser for hire rake Han Solo, and quite possibly from minor roles in major films like Apocalypse Now and American Graffiti. Robert Aldrich was a sixty year old professional veteran filmmaker credited with directing over thirty films including The Dirty Dozen, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and The Longest Yard.
I mention all this not to eventually categorize The Frisco Kid as necessarily an amateurish production; rather I say it so that when anyone watches or re-watches this joyful little movie in wonder, they can adequately marvel at the uncommon innocence and unselfconscious humility of it. An audience can do so knowing that, practically and reasonably speaking, the movie should never been made, and certainly not made in such a fancifully labor of love sort of way. More astounding yet is one would guess that since the movie is so thematically off the grid and clearly close to someone’s heart, that the men behind it would be Jews seeking to express a fondness for their heritage. Not the case. Aldrich, nor writers Michael Elias and Frank Shaw are members of the tribe.
Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee Wisconsin, and Harrison Ford has Jewish roots (on his mother’s side), but while that may explain these successful actors’ participation there is no indication they had a hand in establishing the film’s extraordinary Jewish premise.
As much as the film is about a rabbi banished from a serious European yeshiva for his unconventional, sweet simpleton nature, and after his arrival in New York he somehow must scrap, trust others (often times to his detriment), and make it cross country to his new congregation in San Francisco (where he is promised a buxom Jewish bride), The Frisco Kid makes sure to stress and remind that we are also watching the perilous but ultimately sanctified journey of a Sefer Torah. In fact, the scrawny, meekly robed Torah scroll which was given to Avram to deliver into the eager arms of a modern, wealthy San Francisco kehila, is likely the most compelling, enigmatic character in the film. While Tommy is a hollering, fuming patented Harrison Ford cliché’, and Avram, while gracefully and memorably portrayed by Wilder, is nothing more than well executed extended shtick, it is the Torah which infuses an exceptional ruach chaim into what otherwise would have been an amusing if inelegant affair.
Throughout the film, Elias and Shaw make sure that the Torah remains an integral focal point, not just lifeless cargo being hauled from Europe to America. Whether cruelly abused and degraded, or functioning as a divine protector, the Torah, and surely the God it stands for, is depicted with an awesome reverence and represented by a overwhelmingly sacred mystery. To that end, The Frisco Kid is, all pratfalls and tuchus jokes aside, the quintessential “Torah “movie.
There are many movies about Torah observant Jews, some good some bad, but Alrdich’s movie allows the Torah to speak for itself. And its voice is silence, its dress is modest, but its effect is reverberatingly powerful.
Yes, we see and respect Avram for refusing to ride a horse on Shabbos until the sun goes down (which is not exactly halachically correct), even though a posse is in hot pursuit. But we’ve seen such things before. However, when Avram is tied to a stake and being lowered into burning embers as an Indian Chief holds the book aloft threateningly inquiring whether Avram would sacrifice his life for Torah, and Avram answers he would and closes his eyes (which, again, is not exactly halachically correct), that is something special. Wrapped up in a chaotic, strange, and dusty film whose existence defies all logic is something we as Jews vaguely recognize as eternal.