50 Years Ago Today: “Flap”

November 19, 1970 marked the first public screening of a film that rapidly sank beneath the waves, a long-sunken artifact (I hesitate to call it a “treasure”) entitled Flap.

Flap is a relic from that time when the older generation (the traditional show business generation) found itself needing to rapidly adjust to a market that had drastically shifted in a youth-oriented direction brought about by hits like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Those who didn’t dabble in psychedelia like Lana Turner in The Big Cube and everybody in Skidoo, were making films about nutty outsiders and oddballs, like Frank Sinatra in Dirty Dingus McGee. I take this as a partial explanation for the strange bedfellows assembled for Flap, a story about a rebellious Native American named Flapping Eagle played by Anthony Quinn, and directed by no less than CAROL REED (his penultimate film, and first American one), with a theme song performed by Kenny Rogers and The First Edition! I take the subject matter to be the reason for the timing of the film’s release, a week before Thanksgiving, or as many have taken to calling it, The National Day of Mourning. Since 1990, November has been Native American Heritage Month, but that was 20 years in the future when Flap came out.

The screenplay was by western scribe Clair Huffaker, author of such things as The Comancheros (1961) and 100 Rifles (1969), based on his novel Nobody Loves a Drunken Indian (1967). Despite its good intentions, the original title bespeaks its ultimate problematic nature: a plea for Native American rights and a portait of their poverty, in the tradition of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” it’s also a bit of red-face minstrel show depicting a lot of drunken, ignorant shenanigans as comedy, played by largely caucasian principals. Quinn, of course was half-Mestizo of course so he could lay some claim to the part, though he didn’t do it much credit in so doing, Flap is an existential rebel. He likes to drink, fight, and rail against cops, rich people, and authority figures, but not in any constructive or useful way. His comrades in arms are played by future Sheriff Lobo Claude Akins, Hollywood veteran Victor Jory (probably best remembered as Jonas Wilkerson in Gone with the Wind), and young Tony Bill (three years before co-producing The Sting, and five before appearing in Shampoo). His nemesis is a racist sheriff played by Victor French, later of Little House on the Prairie and Carter Country. And this wouldn’t be a weird, gonzo, “who is this for?” movie of the early ’70s if it didn’t also feature Shelley Winters, here cast as Flap’s prostitute girlfriend who beats the shit out of him every time he goes with another woman, even though he is technically her customer.

Oddly, TCM included this film on a recent bill of Shelley Winters movies, which is how I caught it. Odd, because though I would certainly include it in an entire festival of weird Winters pictures, it more properly would belong in a bill of Quinn or Reed features. Basically, Quinn just does what he does in the film, chews up the scenery in that big, big way of his, whether he’s pushing a bulldozer over a cliff to stop a highway from being built through his reservation, or stealing a freight train to convert into housing for his tribe. The failure of the movie I think is due to Reed, who is WAY outside his element here. He was hired in order to have someone in charge who wouldn’t automatically resort to western cliches. That aspect is admirable, but it looks indifferently shot to me, put together in such a way that it doesn’t enhance or reinforce either the comedy or the drama. Shot on location in New Mexico, with a supporting cast made up mostly of Native American locals, my educated guess would be that the shooting was rushed. Nothing looks thought out, so there’s just a lot of chaos, with Quinn in the frame smashing up a souvenir store or trying to tame his alcoholic horse, or just driving around with his friends kicking up a lot of dust in his pickup truck. It matters because the film (like so many quirky rebel movies of the time) climaxes with Flap’s martyrdom, so a major emotional impact is called for. None is achieved, to put it mildly. Still, I have no regrets about having seen it. It speaks volumes about its time.