Savages (1975)

I’d always looked at the DVD sitting there, especially with Michael O’Donoghue’s name on it. So odd. I mean, it’s a Merchant-Ivory film, co-written by O’Donoghue (!), that refers to the said Savages – on the DVD box yet, as “the Mud People.” So it’s intriguing if nothing else.

After the outcries of the indignities in King Kong and stuff about the Noble Natives, I thought this just might be the antidote. For those who don’t know, O’Donoghue was part of National Lampoon as its regulars morphed into SNL and SCTV. He was a main writer on SNL and sometimes performer (Wolverine, Steel Needles in the Eyes), but other than Scrooged, he had precious few screenplays to his credit.

I seem to remember from his biography that he frequently punched up diaolgue, and that Tarantino used him for that purpose. Or maybe it was that an actual conversation between him and Tarantino about submarine movies was used as dialogue in Hunt for Red October – something like that.

In any case, he was funny, had a very cruel sense of humor, and died of cancer at 54.

Savages is basically modeled on a Bunuel film in reverse (Sorry, I forget which one). A group of savages, called Mud People, even with little golliwogs on the title card, though they’re all white, doing their thing, slowly, in black and white, until they discover a croquet ball. As the title cards indicate, a perfect sphere does not exist in nature and this leads them – literally – to an abandoned mansion, where they dress up and become civilized. Bunuel’s film does this in reverse, but Savages, after evolving them, devolves them back to their original state. The trappings of civility cannot hold, and they slip away, faster in some characters than others, and that makes for some of the most interesting parts of the film. A musician, who earlier in the film abandons his companions, maintains his enlightenment, while the others slip back into the dark ages, whacking croquet balls and falling out of their tuxes and gowns all the while. It’s a little funny to think of it now in the context of so many Americans and Mulsims who are sick of science and knowledge and want nothing more than to just study their Magic Book (not the same Magic Book of course) and forget all about what we know.

Another interesting bit is that while the first silent part of the film has expository title cards, the rest of the film (in color with sound), has a narrator doing voiceover, but it’s in German. A nice touch I thought.

Now this would seem like a perfect example of a Michael O’Donoghue project, but perhaps Merchant & Ivory wouldn’t jump to mind. Yet it’s still about manners, mores, class and societal expectations, which I think became some of the most prominent themes of their period films. So it’s all there, but it’s sadly just not very funny, and I’m not sure who to blame. It probably wasn’t intended to be much funnier than it was; certainly not a broad comedy, but one would wish for a little more wit in such a scenario.

There’s a thankfully short interview with the filmmakers afterwards, and they both seem genuinely proud of the film (it did well at Cannes, naturally), and apparently even started work on a second film with O’Donoghue and his co-writer George Trow. It was scrapped. So little of what O’Donoghue wrote other than for SNL is out there (Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video still not deemed fit for release, while the 3 DVD set of the Best of SNL’s Brad Hall sketches is for sale everywhere), that I’d say it’s worth seeing for fans of Lampoon, SCTV, and so on, but it won’t rank high in the pantheon of such.

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Mark Mauer likes movies cuz the pictures move, and the screen talks like it's people. He once watched Tales from the Gilmli Hostpial three times in a single night, and is amazed DeNiro made good movies throughout the 80s, only to screw it all up in the 90s and beyond. He has met both Udo Kier and Werner Herzog, and he knows an Irishman who can quote at length from the autobiography of Klaus Kinksi.

6 thoughts on “Savages (1975)”

  1. found a website biography of O’Donoghue that fills in several of his missing years between SNL & Scrooged:

    “After Saturday Night Live, O’Donoghue wrote a number of screenplays, including “Biker Heaven” (intended to be a sequel to “Easy Rider”), “Dream Master,” “Planet of the Cheap Special Effects” (purported to be his masterpiece), and “Scrooged,” which made it to production and starred Bill Murray. He also wrote a pilot for Fox for a show called “TV,” directed by Mr. Bill creator Walter Williams.”

  2. I think the Bunuel movie might be “The Exterminating Angel” where “civilized” citizens revert to primitivistic behavior when they can’t escape from a room.

  3. Just for the record, O’Donoghue died not of cancer, but of a massive brain aneurysm.

    “Mondo Video” can still be had on VHS. I’m sure copies are circulating. IMDB notes that O’Donoghue was involved in some curious little French/Belgian adult animated feature called “Tarzoon: Shame of the Jungle,” which tried (at least in the U.S.) to cash in on the Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic craze. For the American version, O’Donoghue provides one of the voices. The rest of the overdubbing is handled by much of the SNL cast. I imagine they all took liberties with the dialogue. Believe it or not, Johnny Weissmuller, Jr. provides the voice of Tarzoon. This can be had as a 2-disc DVD set here, if anyone is interested.

  4. That’s true about the brain aneurysm. I wrote part of that review over a month ago and left that cancer info in, eveen though I knew it was wrong. I think he may have been 52 as well, not 54.

  5. Plus his real name was Mitchell. There is a great bio of O’Donoghue called _Mr. Mike_ that contains a healthy dose of his writing and work, far beyond the SNL stuff. Not as good as an actual collection or dvd, but still…

    And as bios of mean comics go, it mostly avoids the psycho-mumbo-jumbo that plagues the genre.

  6. Yeah I agree, Mike. It’s a great biography (the author’s name is Dennis Perrin). I learned a lot about O’Donoghue, but also about American theatre in the 60s, underground humor, Evergreen Review, the history of The Lampoon, and about comedy in general. The stuff on Chevy Chase is priceless.

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