Every generation gets the Tom Sawyer it deserves, I suppose. And so, the 1970s inevitably gets Johnny Whitaker and some mediocre show tunes.
And though the production is as light as a feather, it still struggles with the legacy of Twain’s messiest and most racist creation: Injun Joe. The movie is a grim relic of two eras, in a sense, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t earn some style points along the way.
Mark Twain bequeathed The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to us as episodic and breezy. Director Don Taylor honors this and observes most of the details faithfully in this obedient incarnation. Taylor was the consummate director of 1970s trash, strangely, and helmed many films that stand out in my memory for their sensationalism, like the 1977 treatment of Island of Dr. Moreau (which deserves a write-up here), as well as the first sequel on the Omen series (Damien: 1978). He even directed 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the most thoughtful work in that uneven series.
Figure 1: Imagining Tom Sawyer as a musical in the Disney tradition: attention to costume details, careful location choices, and a spectacularly lackluster production.
Despite his otherwise-inventive career, Taylor is smart enough to trust the source material in bringing Twain to the screen . Sawyer cons the kids into painting a fence. Tom and Huck Finn (a competent Jeff East) drift downstream, are given up for dead, and attend their own funeral. And most important, Sawyer falls afoul of criminals and murders, specifically witnessing the graveyard murder of Doc Robinson (Richard Eastham) by the sociopath Injun Joe (William Henry O’Brien), who attempts to frame the death on the likeable drunken miscreant Muff Potter (Warren Oates).
Figure 2: The fence painting sequence is dutifully executed.
The film never wanders too far from Twain’s framing or mood. Taylor makes a lot of smart choices in that regard, including location shooting in Missouri throughout. His camera embraces river fronts, steam boats, dusty roads and front porches in Arrow Rock (a National Historic Landmark memorializing westward expansion) as well as Lupus, Missouri. The final showdown in the cave was shot in Meramac Caverns, in Stanton, Missouri. There is something authentic in these sites that comes across as real honesty in the film.
Figure 3: Location riverboats and Missouri landings make up the landscapes of Tom Sawyer. It feels grounded.
The supporting cast is all charming and workmanlike, and again conveys something like simple honesty, including a great turn by veteran Celeste Holm as Aunt Polly. Warren Oates is also really great as Potter, a hapless freewheeling drunk that anyone would want to hang out with. I feel genuine warmth for him, and this is a sense that has lingered across the years.
A Lackluster Adventure
Still, the film never catches fire, and there are several reasons for this.
First, the movie insists on following the bizarre early 1970s tradition of making everything into… a musical (see the even-worse songsmithing from 1974’s The Little Prince)! While a couple numbers jump from the screen and dance a little (Huck and Tom sing “Freebooting” while escaping the confines of Missouri civilization in a song that I remember to this day), most of them are dreadful, obligatory and feel tacked onto the story. Kids are going to know this intuitively and be largely bored by the music. I was, then and now.
Figure 4: Jeff East, Warren Oates, and Johnny Whitaker are lively as an ensemble and some of the songs aren’t awful.
Second, the rushed, scene-to-scene retelling of Tom Sawyer’s adventures creates a paper-thin dramatic landscape, across which the characters move but in which they do little. Things just seem to happen on screen without much significance or dramatic portent, before rushing on to another event. We meet Becky Thatcher (notably: Jodie Foster at the dawn of her film career!), but not much happens. She is shelved, largely, until the terrifying climactic showdown in the cave. We follow a few charming scenes of Tom’s smoking and hooky without much sense of where the character is going, how the family is interacting. Huck Finn is tragically inert.
Figure 5: Yes, that’s Jody Foster as Becky
Whittaker (who most of us will remember as Jody from television’s Family Affair, 1966-1971) is competent, but no more. He shows up on mark, delivers his lines, does some of his own stunt work in muddy streams, but does little to either derail or inspire the proceedings. If Tom Sawyer depends in its drama on a wily rascal, it only gets a smiling troublemaker here. The result is dull.
The film is strangely saved, however, by the very thing that makes it most repugnant: Injun Joe.
The Problem of Injun Joe
Mark Twain’s reflection on race, power, and the black experience in post-Civil War America are justly famous, often-debated and a touchstone of American cultural reflection. We remember Huck Finn’s story as both reinforcing and challenging American racial imaginary.
Twain’s role in representing or challenging our notion of native peoples is conversely obscure. This is because Indians for Twain were either invisible or truly evil. His oeuvre contains only the darkest characterizations of native people. His 1870 essay, The Noble Red Man, mocks James Fennimore Cooper’s romantic image of Indians, replacing them with a picture of lazy, shiftless, degenerates. This is repeated in Roughing It, in 1872, and a disturbing and murderous account in 1897’s Following the Equator.
Figure 6: Injun Joe has troubled Tom Sawyer and his readers since 1876.
And so we get Injun Joe. Here is a character of pure evil, doomed worse by being a half-breed, who plots murderous revenge on Tom Sawyer and his family in a portrayal that provides the most important, and narratively compelling line of the story. As a result, the key dramatic core of this otherwise weak film, the thing that any forty-five or fifty-year-old will tell you they remember from the screening in the theater, is Injun Joe. Injun Joe stalks the screenplay just as surely as he stalks Tom and Becky in the sexualized darkness of the cave in the film’s climax. He is crucial to the drama and a cringe-worthy part of the movie’s emotional core.
And that is the curse of Tom Sawyer, never to be evaded or ignored. The most compelling element of the story is its most repellent one.
The burden of playing Injun Joe here falls to William Henry O’Brien (Kunu Hank), a Wisconsin Ho Chunk from Black River Falls, with a respectable career, mostly in television, including turns on The Rifleman (1958-1963) and Wild Wild West (1965-1969). He is memorialized here in Ho Chunk country, and is said to have been friends with Burt Lancaster and Chuck Conners. For Tom Sawyer, he is asked to channel inexplicable rage and ruthlessness, brandish a very big knife and convincingly say terribly scary things like : “I’ll kill you Tom Sawyer!”.
Figure 7: William (Kanu Hank) Henry O’Brien leaves it all on the playing field as “Injun Joe”, a racist relic played with admirable intensity and deadly seriousness.
As unforgivable as this part is, O’Brien/Kunu Hank is quite simply fantastic. Far and away the most clear, motivated, and screen-controlling performance in the film, Injun Joe will haunt the memories and dreams of any kid who sits through this movie.
And of course, that’s what makes the film one I couldn’t recommend to anyone. O’Brien’s Injun Joe rescues this tepid fare and makes it real, deeply wounding, and ironically frightening. And he does so by channeling Twain’s worst racist instincts.
That’s really a shame, because the film’s legacy probably stands as one of the most memorable efforts by a Ho Chunk actor in Hollywood.
My experience of the film: Fair/Disturbed
Chances Alexander will like this movie: Fair
What a shame to run down this movie! This was the way it was as Twain recalled. It just so happens that native Americans were one of the targets. Other races are targeted too. Muff is a white drunk…It doesn’t mean we believe all native Americans are evil or all white men are drunks . …. Race is a fact… why is race made out to be something bigger than what it is? These actors and actresses did a fabulous job!
Hi Debbie, thanks for reading. As I hope you can see, I sort of like this movie. I saw the darn film in the THEATRE for goodness sake (that’s how old i am). Twain is a cornerstone American writer and one I admire. But “Injun Joe” is not a character that tells the kind of story I can put in front of my kid without caveats. And I say this with STRONG recommendation of the fine Ho Chunk actor William Henry O’Brian; he is remembered warmly here in Wisconsin. The reality of the film has to speak for itself. If we choose to show old movies to our kids, we have to be ready to do a little work, that’s all. Hope you read my other entries. With best wishes to you! PFR (warning: I’m about to reboot this blog!).