By the time the Mirisch Company made “The Spikes Gang” in 1974, most people believed Westerns were well on their way in riding off into the sunset. Except for actor-director Clint Eastwood, few others in Hollywood would make any worthwhile forays in the genre in the next few decades.

“The Spikes Gang” is a mix between a coming-of-age tale and a revisionist Western that features a stellar performance by Lee Marvin as the unscrupulous outlaw Harry Spikes, who becomes an unlikely father figure for teenagers Wilson Young (Gary Grimes), Tod Hayhew (Charles Martin Smith) and Les Richter (Ron Howard).

Ron Howard, Gary Grimes and Charles Martin Smith in "The Spikes Gang"

The three boys find Spikes near their town, all shot up and bleeding, and hide him in a barn despite finding out that he’s an outlaw with a posse after him. As Spikes regains his strength, he fills the boys’ heads with colourful and romantic tales of holding up banks and living a carefree life off the spoils. 

Spikes soon leaves on a horse gifted to him by Wilson, but the boy’s action angers his domineering father, who administers a brutal whipping with a belt. The thrashing helps make up Wilson’s mind to leave home for a life on the road that is obviously inspired by Spikes’ stories.

Wilson is joined by Tod and Les and the boys drift from town to town, unable to find any work and running short of money. A run-in with a sheriff in a frontier town pushes them into making a desperate bid to rob the local bank but the act has unforeseen consequences – a gun battle erupts and one of the boys shoots dead a state Senator while another drops the loot.

The boys drift across the border into Mexico, get busted by the law for pawning and stealing back Wilson’s gold watch, only to be freed from a squalid prison by Spikes. The outlaw feeds and takes care of them before the boys and he go their separate ways. The boys take up odd jobs with a butcher and at a cantina but are unable to make much of a living.

The boys with Lee Marvin

A second meeting with Spikes leads to the outlaw taking the boys under his wing and making them members of his gang for the planned hold-up of a bank across the border. This robbery too goes horribly wrong – Tod is fatally injured and Spikes’ insistence on leaving him behind leads to a parting of ways.

Wilson goes back to his hometown to deliver a letter written by Tod to his parents, and on his return to Mexico, he learns that Spikes has become a bounty hunter in order to clear his name. Wilson is driven blind with rage when he learns that Spikes has shot and seriously injured Les, and decides to confront the outlaw in his hotel room.

“The Spikes Gang” has a grimy and grungy look that helps reinforce the drudgery and grim life on the frontier. The script by the husband-and-wife team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr (responsible for classics like “The Long Hot Summer” and “Hud”) gives many great lines to Lee Marvin, and he turns in a masterly performance. Even when he’s acting like a father to the three boys, we know Harry Spikes is rotten to the core.

There are no fancy shootouts in “The Spikes Gang” – all the action scenes, especially the final shootout between Wilson and Spikes, are brutal and hit the viewer like a slap across the face. It’s also fun to watch Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith long before they became established performers but one can’t escape the feeling that this Western could have become so much more in the hands of a more capable director. Richard Fleischer had a long career that spanned from film noir (“Armored Car Robbery”) to fantasy (“Conan The Destroyer”) but here, he seems to be painting by the numbers. 

As with the Mirisch Company’s best known Western, “The Magnificent Seven”, and its sequels, “The Spikes Gang” was filmed outside the US. In this case, Spain stands in for both Mexico and the US. “The Spikes Gang” is available in a fine transfer on DVD-R in the MGM Manufactured on Demand series.

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