Though it suffers from the on-the-cheap film style of the 1970s -- bland lighting and too many cheesy zooms instead of dollies, for instance -- "The Spikes Gang" plays like a good novel, a drama about growing up and disillusionment rather than a standard rip-snortin' western. Richard Fleischer, son of animator Max Fleischer and director of one of my favorite childhood films, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," paints an unsentimental portrait of the old west, even if it retains some of the imagery we've come to expect.
Sturdy Lee Marvin is in fine form here, playing Harry Spikes, the sort of gentleman bandit that children (and even some foolish adults) want to believe is the reality rather than the fiction. Despite his geniality, he is a realist -- direct, logical, unflinching, and in his own way, honest. When three boys (Ron Howard, Gary Grimes, and Charles Martin Smith) fall under his influence, it spells the beginning of the end of their innocence. "The Spikes Gang" is the kind of story that rarely gets told anymore, actually showing the consequences of violence, selfishness, and poor choices. It offers a greater range of emotions than most films do today -- at times, the boys really are on the grand adventure they think they are on -- but it always comes back to harsh center. In some ways, it's a revisionist western, but "The Spikes Gang" really has more in common with the sentiments of Mark Twain, who blamed romantic writers like Walter Scott for filling the heads of boys with foolishness about the glory of war.
In many ways, the film also serves as a critique of mainstream American culture. It's easy to forget that the Bible-quoting father, for instance, rules his family with a belt and an iron fist, teaching them that love is always accompanied by violence, and that all of the male role models in this film are brutal while all of the women are either untrustworthy or self-absorbed. The only place where peace even seems possible is in Mexico.
Brief scenes with Arthur Hunnicutt and Noah Beery, Jr., highlight this film. Though Fred Karlin's music is at times intrusive, the emotions of the story generally run true. Unlike with most contemporary films, where the feelings are gone a few minutes after you leave the theater, this one may stay with you a long time, especially after you experience the ending, as consistent with the film as it must be.