Ben (Sam Bottoms) is a gullible college student working at a gas station in the Mojave desert. Horton Madec (Andy Griffith) is a wealthy attorney from Los Angeles who walks with a limp and who fancies himself a big game hunter. Madec hires Ben to serve as his guide through the desert. Madec says that he’s hunting a ram but instead, he ends up shooting and killing an old prospector. Even after Madec offers to pay him off, Ben wants to go to the police. Madec gives it some thought and decides to hunt Ben himself.
After forcing Ben to strip down to his shorts, Madec sets him loose in the desert. As Ben tries to make his way back to civilization, Madec follows close behind and uses his rifle not to kill Ben but instead to keep him from drinking water or taking shelter from the sun.
Savages deserves to better known than it is. The film does a good job of making you feel as if you’re trapped out in the desert with Ben, trying your damndest to survive while some maniac follows close behind, taunting you and refusing to allow you to get any relief. Horton Madec is pure evil, a maniac who brags about how he can do anything he wants because he has money and he knows people. That he’s played by Andy Griffith makes him even more dangerous because you know there’s no way anyone would believe that Andy Griffith took you out to the desert tried to kill you.
After playing the folksy and friendly Andy Taylor for nine seasons on The Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tried to leave Mayberry behind by taking on villainous roles in made-for-TV movies like this one and Pray For The Wildcats. Though he actually started off his film career by playing a villain in A Face In The Crowd, it was still probably a shock for audiences in 1974 to turn on Savages and see Andy Griffith cruelly drinking a martini while another man nearly died of dehydration in front of him. Griffith goes full psycho in the role of Horton Madec and is totally convincing. (Of course, audiences preferred the folksy side of Griffith which is why, even after ten years straight of playing bad guys, Griffith still ended up starring in Matlock.)
Even though it’s Griffith’s show, Sam Bottom does okay in the role of Ben. He has the right look for the character and that’s really all that the part requires. For the majority of the movie, it’s just Griffith and Bottoms but eventually, James Best shows up as Sheriff Bert Williams. Five years later, Best would achieve a certain immortality when he was cast as Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard.
Savages has never gotten an official DVD release but it can be viewed on YouTube, along with Griffith’s other villainous turn from 1974, Pray for the Wildcats.