The first time I saw the movie “The Frisco Kid” was in 1983 when I was 15 years old. We were visiting family friends one Shabbat afternoon when they introduced us to the delightful 1979 comedy about a rabbi who befriends a bank robber in the Old West. It instantly became one of my family’s favorite films and we went out and bought a copy on VHS.
How many times, during the 80s and early 90s, did we all sit around the living room after dinner and someone would say, “What shall we do tonight?” and someone would suggest, “Hey, let’s watch ‘The Frisco Kid’”?
I had a chance to see this old family favorite the other night, for the first time in a decade or more, and I was so pleased to see that it’s still retained its freshness after all these years. And my fiancée, Natasha, was as delighted with it as I was the first time I had seen it, all those years ago.
If you’ve never seen this movie, you must check it out. It takes place in 1850, just after the 1849 discovery of gold in California and the city of San Francisco starts booming. A new Jewish congregation is in need of a rabbi so they write to a yeshiva in Poland to send them one; they promise that the rabbi will get to marry the daughter of the congregation’s president (even though she is in love with someone else). The yeshiva decides to send to America their least valuable graduate, Avram Belinski (Gene Wilder). When he arrives in Philadelphia, he discovers that the ship to San Francisco on which he had booked passage has sailed early due to the Gold Rush and he must now travel across the continent over land.
The plot proceeds a bit like a historical fish-out-water tale where the rabbi who has grown up in the sheltered environment of an Eastern European shtetl must confront mainstream American society in the mid-19th Century.
His first greeting in America is not a friendly one as he falls victim to a trio of conmen (Ramon Bieri, George Ralph DiCenzo, and William Smith) who take all his money. But after a number of false starts (including a humorous stint working on the railroad laying track), he finally meets up with a lone bank robber named Tommy who takes pity on him and helps him get to California.
Tommy is played by Harrison Ford who, in 1979, was still pretty early in his career. It was only two years after the first “Star Wars” and another two years before “Raiders of the Lost Ark” would be released. Tommy is rogue with a heart-of-gold; sort of a Han Solo of the Wild West.
In a way, Tommy and Avram couldn’t be more different, but somehow this odd couple really hit it off. Even though they constantly get on each other’s nerves, they just cannot desert each other. In theory, their friendship may seem preposterous, and yet the incredible chemistry between Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford makes it work, as they learn from each other and recognize the common humanity in each other. (One of the funnier exchanges is when Tommy learns what “Oy gevalt!” means and Avram learns the definition of “Oh Sheeit!”)
Crossing the continent, the pair confront all sorts of dangers and share charming adventures, one of the highlights of which is being captured by Indians. The funniest of these episodes, in my opinion, is when they must deal with Spanish Catholic monks who have taken a vow of silence.
(By the way, I think it’s interesting to observe Avram’s reactions to the Christians that he meets in this film. Coming from Europe, his experience with Christians leads him to fear them as the oppressor and bringer of violent pogroms. Yet the religious Christians he encounters in America, the Amish and the Spanish monks, prove to be kind and helpful, as contrary to his prejudice as the prejudice of mainstream Americans to Jews.)
Yet the real power of this movie, for me, comes as Avram is continually forced to address situations that challenge his Jewish principles. For example, how can Avram deal with the fact that his friend and protector, to whom he owes his life several times over, is a man who robs banks and shares the ill-gotten loot with him?
Another example is that he won’t ride on the Sabbath. At first this is just a minor inconvenience that delays his travels by one-seventh of the time. But after Tommy robs another bank and a hanging posse is chasing them, they have to ride fast to save their lives. But it’s Saturday and Avram cannot ride.
Again and again, Avram refuses to abandon his principles even in extreme circumstances.
Eventually, Tommy and Avram meet up with the conmen again. A demand for justice does not go well, violence ensues, and then later escalates. Facing a life-or-death situation, Avram has to take a horrible action. The consequences of this act lead him to fret that he may have made the wrong decision and fears that his moral failings will prohibit him from continuing to be a rabbi.
Finally, in the grand climax, on the streets in San Francisco, Avram must find some non-violent solution or sacrifice himself to end this conflict with the bad men. It’s a powerful resolution which has had an influence on me throughout my life, as I’ve struggled to find solutions true to my own principles.
I’m so pleased that even after all this time, this film can still touch me. It can say something profound about struggling to hold on to your faith in the midst of an indifferent world while at the same time it can have a lot of fun. As I’ve learned in the last three decades since I first saw this film, life is both a struggle and a celebration; so is “The Frisco Kid.”