The 1970s are fondly and nostalgically remembered as a golden age for American cinema, which saw the release of a number of iconic, groundbreaking films. Of course, despite all of the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls of that period, the era also contained a number of stinkers.
Perhaps more common however than either of those two extremes are the films that simply flew under the radar at the time of their release. Tucked in between heavyweights like The Sting, American Graffiti and The Exorcist, 1973’s Scarecrow was just such a film. A small, intimate story about wayward souls hopelessly at odds with mainstream America, Scarecrow has all the trappings of popular 1970s cinema, yet it still failed to connect. This is a minor tragedy, as the film is an artistic gem and one of the great cinematic time capsules.
In keeping with the tropes of its period, Scarecrow is about characters rather then plot. The story begins by introducing us to two colorful vagabonds: Al Pacino’s childlike sailor Lion and Gene Hackman’s firebrand ex-con Max, who meet on a unbearably lonely road in the American west. Inexplicably, the ill-matched pair form a fragile and tentative friendship, even agreeing to travel across the country together and go into the car wash business as partners. With this modest goal in mind, the duo embarks on a freewheelin’ adventure, which takes them from western locations like Denver, where Max’s sister lives, to Detroit, where Lion hopes to see his five year old child for the first time.
Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, Scarecrow is a big-hearted film in love with not only with these two men but also with America itself. Marked by wide shots, Schatzberg’s film effortlessly captures the sheer enormity of the country, drawing a contrast between the land’s promise and the small dreams and capabilities of its two protagonists. Despite its rigid focus on characters over plot, the film also moves swiftly, and the script by Garry Michael White manages to offer psychological insight even in the most banal of moments.
While the contributions of Schatzberg and White are critical to Scarecrow’s success, this is the type of film that would absolutely crumble without the presence of its two acting titans, who were both in the midst of career renaissances at the time of its release. Pacino was just coming off the powerful success of Coppola’s The Godfather, while Hackman had won the Oscar for The French Connection just two years prior. Their collective work in Scarecrow – while intense, funny and deeply moving – is perhaps most notable for now nuanced it is, in spite of their recent elevation to superstar status.
Both actors are completely exposed in the film, and both commit themselves wholeheartedly to characters who are likable but incredibly flawed. Pacino is entirely willing to make a goofy ass out of himself in playing Lion. Yet, he also does an excellent job selling the character’s growth once Lion experiences trauma out on the open road. Similarly, Hackman is stellar as Max, a character who also changes dramatically through his unpredictable journey across America. Violent and somewhat pathetic, his Max is a bit of a thug, and its incredible how Hackman’s performance connects an audience to the character’s humanity.
One scene in particular, a seemingly unimportant moment where Max, Lion and Max’s sister (Dorothy Tristan) share a bucket of KFC, is emblematic of this genius. Through the melding of Hackman’s acting, White’s script and Schatzberg’s resolute focus on character observation, this small scene becomes a window into Max’s tortured soul. It’s some of the best acting Hackman has ever done.
While relegated to secondary status in the canon of 1970s American film, Scarecrow is a great, underrated character piece, emblematic of a lost time and of a lost style of filmmaking. Of course, there is still a road movie or two being made these days, and every so often you’ll see a big Oscar-winner in a tiny, micro-budget indie. Few of these feel as authentic and humane as Scarecrow does, which brilliantly uses its transitory characters to show us a different America than we often see on screens today. The human figures in Scarecrow are largely desperate, working class types, barely able to carve out a place for themselves on the fringes of society. Despite this inherent bleakness, Scarecrow never wallows. Instead, it captures the magic seen in other special 70s films (Midnight Cowboy for one), showing that salvation from life’s cruelties can be found in friendship, at least for a little while.