For Superbowl Sunday Joe Namath & "The Last Rebel" by Fred Blosser
BROADWAY JOE -- WEST OF ROME
Around Super Bowl hoopla time, football fans remember favorite games and favorite players from the past. For aging fans, the crowning memory of Joe Namath is likely to be the image of the brash 25-year-old QB holding up his index finger in the "Number One" sign after the Jets' Super Bowl III victory in 1969. If the fan also happens to be a dedicated Western movie buff and trivia enthusiast, he may remember Joe Willie slinging bullets instead of passes as the star of an old Spaghetti Western, THE LAST REBEL.
Namath wasn’t the first or only gridiron celebrity to make Westerns. A fair number of pro football players appeared in successful releases in the 1960s and early ‘70s. Jim Brown and Fred Williamson had star billing in their films. Mike Henry played a bad guy in RIO LOBO. Roman Gabriel and Merlin Olsen had supporting roles in THE UNDEFEATED, infusing new blood into the aging stock company that John Wayne had inherited from John Ford.
Doing THE LAST REBEL when it was pitched to him in 1970 may have seemed like good show biz exposure to Broadway Joe, or at least a decent payday in Nixon-era dollars. Clint Eastwood had jumped to stardom from Sergio Leone’s Spaghettis, and the genre was still delivering fair box office returns. Namath was promised $150,000 for five weeks’ work, and the script wasn’t likely to demand that he deliver much dialogue or dramatic emotion.
Released by Columbia in 1971, the film opened to dismal reviews, like Vincent Canby’s in the Sept. 25, 1971, NEW YORK TIMES. Canby called it “dumb and technically dreadful.” Of Joe Willie's performance, Canby said, “Either Namath seems embarrassed . . . or else he simply grins, as if in acknowledgement of his great good luck to be making any movie at all.”
The first part of the film meanders aimlessly for a while, as Namath’s character Hollis and his buddy Matt (Jack Elam), two Confederate soldiers, ride off after learning of Lee’s surrender and drift West. Hollis saves Duncan, a black Union Army vet (Woody Strode), from lynching, and the three men wind up in a saloon where Matt stakes Hollis in a match against a pool shark (Michael Forrest). Hollis wins, but Duncan absconds with the money.
The ex-slave doesn’t want the cash for himself: he takes it for a good cause. But Matt wants his cut, and he sets off after Duncan with the help of the Klan and a crooked lawman (Ty Hardin). Hollis catches up and sides with Duncan.
A siege and shootout in the final part of the film are well mounted, but otherwise the direction and production values pretty much live down to Vincent Canby’s assessment. There are worse examples of the genre, like almost anything that Demofilo Fidani directed, but that's not saying much. Given Broadway Joe’s flamboyant press image of partying and gorgeous women, it’s surprising that he hardly makes an impression on the screen. He’s overshadowed by Strode, Elam, Hardin, and Forrest, who know how to command the camera. In a scene where Hollis is in bed with a hooker, Namath looks sheepish, like a kid who’s afraid that Mom is watching.
The scene and others in the movie underscore a remark that Namath made around that time about acting, quoted in Mark Kriegel’s NAMATH: A BIOGRAPHY (2004): “It is fun at times, but I still don’t feel comfortable.” The segment where Hollis and Duncan swap lead with the Klansmen suggests that maybe Quentin Tarantino saw the film and stuck the idea away with memories from Blaxploitation Westerns for DJANGO UNCHAINED. Or maybe not. It isn't likely that many people recall the picture; even Namath's athletic fame may be fading away as the decades pass.
Sony/Columbia evidently has a good print of the movie somewhere, because it ran on Turner Classic Movies in 2010, but there isn’t a legitimate DVD or Blu-Ray. In 2002, a British record label released a collectors’ CD edition of the soundtrack, a pretty good score written and performed by British rockers Jon Lord and Tony Ashton.