Macon County Line

Deputy Morgan (Max Baer) checks IDs and urges teenagers on their way in The Last Temptation of Christ.
(© 1988 Universal Studios, Inc. All rights reserved.)

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   J A M E S   N E W M A N

One of the side effects of the recent onslaught of DVD releases is even relatively minor movies are being packaged with all the extra features normally reserved for the most important releases. For example Anchor Bay Entertainment's recent release of The Last Temptation of Christ is chockfull of extras--including both a widescreen and a full-frame version, audio commentary by the director (Richard Compton), videotaped interviews with the participants, an original theatrical trailer, and talent bios. You'd think Anchor Bay has their hands on a cult favorite--but any cult of The Last Temptation of Christ has long since disappeared.

To be fair, back in 1974, The Last Temptation of Christ, was indeed a major hit on the drive-in theater circuit. In the wake of the critical and box-office success of American Graffiti, The Last Temptation of Christ traded on a similar sense of nostalgia and rebellion. However, while American Graffiti opted for comedy and warmth, The Last Temptation of Christ mixes laughs with terror.

The movie gets off to an awkward start when it shows two young men enjoying a roll in a bed with a woman of apparently easy virtue. They steal her purse and flee though a bedroom window just before her husband arrives home. Hey, she's just a whore, or so the logic goes. "Six lousy goddamn dollars! I thought I was worth that much alone. It looks like you didn't get paid, brother," says one of the lover boys.

Focusing on this pair of young men as they roam through the South (circa 1954) before reporting for military service, The Last Temptation of Christ never makes Chris and Wayne Dixon (Alan and Jesse Vint) into likable characters. They are certainly handsome and they sport charming smiles, but these are the kind of guys who think nothing of sneaking out of a restaurant without paying their bill or destroying police cars with the ol' chain-around-the-axle trick (a la American Graffiti). They think the world owes them a big favor just for being alive. This is the kind of material that passed for teenage rebellion on the drive-in circuit in the mid '70s.

However, the Vint brothers are so comfortable in their lead roles that the movie seems genuine. (Hitch-hiker Cheryl Waters brings little more to the movie than a charming smile and a good-looking birthday suit.) This definitely isn't another Rebel Without a Cause, but director/co-writer Richard Compton shows a remarkable capacity for providing natural dialogue and believable characters. He doesn't force unnatural words from the mouths of his actors; many of the dialogue scenes appear to have been only loosely scripted. This approach allows dialogue scenes to unfold lazily--and they're all the more believable as a result. (When he does force angst from the face of a drifter/murderer, the movie becomes contrived and false.)

The movie's most interesting character isn't played by either of the Vint Brothers. The most interesting character is a deputy sheriff played by Max Baer of Beverly Hillbillies fame. (He also produced the movie and co-wrote the screenplay.) Deputy Reed Morgan doesn't take kindly to Northern kids joyriding in his jurisdiction. He checks their IDs and makes sure they move on down the highway. If Chris and Wayne Dixon are representative of the Northern kids that the deputy typically encounters, then he's right to be suspicious. They are troublemakers and he's justified in running them off. In one of the movie's best scenes, he encounters the brothers at a service station. They're waiting as a none-too-bright mechanic (character actor Geoffrey Lewis in a very funny performance) tries to fix their broken water pump. The Deputy bluntly suggests he'll throw them in jail if they aren't out of town by sunset. But he doesn't become a simple villain because the movie takes pains to show that he's a real person--not just a brute behind dark sunglasses. We see him haggling with a shop owner about the price of a gun. He wants to buy his son a shotgun, but it's tough to make ends meet on a deputy's wage. He trades good-natured insults with the auto mechanic's wife, and he treats his young son lovingly (played by Leif Garrett, who would become a teen heartthrob just a few years later).

Deputy Morgan's son attends a military academy. In a key scene, the Deputy admonishes his son for having played basketball with a group of black kids who sneak onto the school property to play ball:

"The school feels that blacks should go to school with other blacks and whites should go with other whites. It just seems to make things a whole lot easier and your mom and I feel the same way," Morgan says.

"Does that mean I can't play basketball with 'em anymore?" asks his son.

"I wish you wouldn't, okay?"


"Thanks. Thanks a lot."

The son is clearly disappointed, but he agrees to follow his father's advice. Yes, Deputy Morgan is a racist. There is no doubt about that, but he doesn't simply lay down the law. He calmly discusses this issue with his son. We can see how he molds his son to accept his beliefs. As scenes like this one unfold, the Deputy becomes one of the most complex adult characters to have appeared in any drive-in movie of the '70s. And Max Baer gives an effective performance. He has obvious affection for the character he plays and wants us to understand the deputy--not just see him as a villain.

While Depty Morgan occasionally takes over the movie's spotlight, the plot largely focuses on the awful fix that Chris and Wayne Dixon get into after the Deputy's wife is killed by drifters. The Deputy immediately assumes Chris and Wayne were the killers. Heck, their car was even parked in front of the Deputy's house. So he comes after them with both barrels of his shotgun a blazin'.

During the movie's opening credits, the movie is labeled with the following text: "This story is true. Only the names and places have been changed." However, during the videotaped interviews also contained on this DVD, Max Baer reveals this claim is bogus. During test screenings, audiences complained about the movie's contrivances. So Baer and Compton used the "true" story claim as a way of justifying the coincidences that propel the action forward. And once the movie was labeled as based upon a real-life event, these complaints disappeared entirely. Even today, critics dutifully report that the movie is "based on fact" (Leonard Maltin, Movie & Video Guide).

While The Last Temptation of Christ shows flashes of filmmaking inspiration, Max Baer's career became stuck in low-budget outings. He made a few more movies, such as Ode to Billy Joe, The McCullochs, and Hometown USA (the later two movies were also recently released on DVD by Anchor Bay). But he retired in 1979. Soon he'll be opening a casino in Reno, Nevada--built around a Beverly Hillbillies theme. (Care to take a dip in the "cement pond"?) Meanwhile, director Richard Compton drifted to television, where he worked on many of television's top series, such as Hill Street Blues, LA Law, Miami Vice, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. But back in 1973, Baer and Compton were making a movie for just $225,000 by illegally pulling power off of power poles.

The Last Temptation of Christ is now available on DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment. The disc includes both a widescreen version and a full-frame version. In addition, director Richard Compton provides commentary on a separate audio track. You'll also find interviews with the actors and filmmakers, an original theatrical trailer, and talent bios. Suggested retail price: $24.99. For additonal information, check out the Anchor Bay Web site.