The Frisco Kid

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The Frisco Kid (1979) tells the tale of Rabbi Avram Belinski,  played by Gene Wilder, who travels from Poland to San Francisco in 1850.  Along the way he is set upon by robbers, befriended by the Amish, set upon by wild animals, befriended by a bank robber, set upon by Indians, befriended by Indians, and so on.  The robber who befriends the rabbi is played by Harrison Ford (before his Indiana Jones days — in fact, Wilder claims in his autobiography that Ford was cast in the role partly because of his performance in this film.)   It is a classic buddy film:  a mismatched pair meet cute, make a journey, and are both changed by the experience.  It was directed by Robert Aldritch (Dirty Dozen and The Longest Yard.)

Commentary

This is a very funny, very thoughtful movie about the challenges of living a Jewish life in a non-Jewish environment.  Rabbi Belinski appears to be an innocent at first, but there is much more to him:  he is insistent on his devotion to Torah and Jewish values, and his approach to both fortune and misfortune is informed by that devotion.

Bob Bloom of the Lafayette Courier & Post dismissed the film as “sterotypically offensive” in its depiction of Jews and Indians, but both the script and Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the rabbi go beyond the stereotypes (which are played for laughs, true) into the values behind the stereotypes.  “What would you trade for Torah?” the Indian chief asks the rabbi.  (The depiction of the Indians in this movie is another matter, I confess.  The Indians in this picture are not characters, but mere devices.)

Much of the humor in the film is “inside” Jewish humor — if you “get” the jokes,  rest assured, you are beginning to get a feel for cultural Judaism.

Question

Try watching the film for moments when the rabbi does something that surprises or annoys the other characters:  what Jewish value is expressed in his choice?

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