Theme Song: Like most 70s prison movies this soundtrack consists of jazz. Lots of jazz.
Interesting Dated References: Prison when it was still fun and exciting.
Best Line: “I would say that’s about as plain as the balls on a tall dog.”
Social Context: On The Yard came out at a time when theaters were just finishing up with some great prison pictures. Now as for why people were so obsessed with prison in the 70s? I can’t really say as I was not alive. I think it had something to do with the dangerous nature of them, as this was before the prisons had been homogenized into the efficient yet boring systems of today.
Summary: Being a big fan of prison films/prison culture of the 70s, I was excited when On The Ward popped up in my pile of movies to watch. During the first 20 minutes of the film we are introduced to the main characters and what will probably be the main conflict of the film. Thomas G. Waites (of The Thing and The Warriors fame) plays ‘the go-to guy,’ Chilly, a convict who runs things in jail. His assistants are the old-man sidekick, Red, and the latino hit man, Gasolino. The inner-workings of this trio are pretty simple and nothing too gritty appears to be going on. A few unpaid debts, a shank, a couple of cartons of cigarettes, this movie feels a lot like a made-for-TV prison film. I don’t even think there’s been much swearing or rough dialogue, although the rating on the box clearly states Rated-R.
Regardless, the movie paces itself nicely and has that total 70s prison film aura. Chilly eventually lends a carton of cigarettes to the straight-laced convict, Juleson (John Heard), with the promise he will pay him later. As the movie progresses, Juleson is unable to pay Chilly, and so Chilly starts to ask favors. Not like sex or heroin favors like in most prison movies, but nice things like, “get my friend a job.” Add to this the fact the new Captain Blake (Lane Smith) wants to bust up Chilly by intimidating Red, and a full on prison drama is in effect. In the middle of all this, we meet Morris, a normal guy with a sort of man/child vibe. Morris is building a balloon out of fabric to fly out of prison. This seems like a subplot at first, but winds up providing the main arc of the narrative
So things continue with Chilly wanting his friend to get the job in the print shop. In fact, I’ve never seen someone who wanted their friend to get a job in a print shop so badly. They refer to the job in the print shop as being “easy street” and “a real cush job.” Obviously this guy knows nothing about working in a print shop. Juleson still can’t pay off Chilly and stands his ground that he won’t get Chilly’s friend in at the print shop. Some of the staff at the prison offer Juleson protective custody if he snitches on Chilly, but he declines. Oh, and this whole time Chilly has agreed to help Morris collect supplies for his hot air balloon. There’s a lot of other shit going on here such as Juleson’s cell mate, Manning, is in for touching his step-daughter, Juleson is forced to reenact fights with his wife in counseling class, Red is up for a parole hearing, and Morris’ cellmate, some young kid, is all up in his business about the balloon. The plot gets a little muddled-down through all this and it’s still very PG.
Eventually Juleson decides rather than wait for the hit man, Gasolino, to come kill him, he will go attack him. A really sloppy fight ensues with no clear winner. However, one important thing happens here: Gasolino is shot in the hand by a guard, and while he is getting patched up, we see him huffing gasoline out of some canister. My guess is this is how he got his name Gasolino, but I could be wrong. Also, the way he huffs gas is all wrong. Wait, now he’s drinking the gasoline and kind of crying like he’s depressed. Maybe it isn’t gasoline, it’s in some type of bug sprayer or fire extinguisher-looking canister.
Gasolino is never seen or heard from again, and it’s kind of inferred he died. But there’s no real dialogue or aftermath of that, the movie just moves along. So the balloon guys young cellmate wants to see the prison boxing match. In order to do so, he agrees to “attack” Juleson for Chilly, only he forgets. Now this should be somewhat of a turning point in the film, but it doesn’t come across that way, and instead just becomes another event to make more stuff happen. Chilly gets interrogated about ordering the killing, Red gets his parole rejected, and everyone goes to attend the big boxing match. Well, everyone except for Morris and his young cellmate, who forces Morris to launch the balloon so he doesn’t have to face charges for killing Juleson. They make it fucking impossible to figure out this young fucking cellmate’s name. Hold on. I don’t know, I think it may be Nunn. Let’s just keep calling him “young crazy cellmate.” So Morris winds up warning Chilly and Red that young crazy cellmate is stealing balloon, they stop him, and since the balloon is inflated already, Red decides to float away. It’s actually a pretty good scene and since Red is the old man, it’s even a little heartwarming. The movie closes with one final scene of a new inmate’s arrival to the prison about 6 months later, and sure enough Red gets off the bus, meets up with Chilly, and they begin anew. I know that was all very confusing.
Now On The Yard isn’t the best prison movie of the 70s, but there is certainly something here. It would appear the flaws it does have are because of the writing or its adaptation from acclaimed book to panned film. The movie is based on a book of the same name and was adapted for the screen by the original author. Looking around on the internet, it seems the book version is highly regarded as one of the great prison novels actually written in prison. The author Malcolm Braly wrote the novel in 1967 at the age of 40 and at that time he had spent 17 years in prison. All reviews are very positive, most indicating Braly weaves a variety of characters and stories into one cohesive piece. But yet, with the film, the story seems a bit choppy, and perhaps a little too crowded. So this seems to be an instance in which the director/studio producing the picture tried to edit the story down and make what could have been a great, gritty film in the vein of Short Eyes, into an action prison adventure that would cash in on the success of Escape From Alcatraz. What they wind up with, however, falls short of both of those films, which had both come out the previous year. Where Short Eyes succeeds in its gritty and hopeless storytelling, On The Yard downplays that aspect and loses a lot of its power in the process. And whereas Escape From Alcatraz creates an entire movie based around one mans attempt at escape, On The Yard only dedicates half its time to that. Either due to time or editing constraints, the movie doesn’t fully paint a picture of what the characters intentions were.
That being said, On The Yard is not a shitty film, at all. It’s just a little lost. There are some great acting performances in this picture, and for anyone who is a fan of the era, I recommend it. According to other online sources, the book handles the balloon escape in a different way and I guess a fire breaks out and a bunch of people die. Does anyone remember reading?
Poster and Box Art: Now here’s where things get really convoluted, and this is just further evidence that throughout the entire making of this picture, the staff couldn’t decide if they were making a gritty prison drama, or an uplifting prison film. The main theatrical poster, seen above, has the vibe of a buddy-escape-from-prison film. It’s executed well enough, but this isn’t really the movie people were going to see when they went into the theatre. Now I also found this poster:
This one is similar to Short Eyes advert claiming, “Jesus help me because man won’t.” Here we see the same type of plea quote: “Get me out before they kill me!” It also features an awesome graphic for the logo that isn’t featured on any other art for the movie that I have seen. Now add to this the fact that it also has a review quote that specifically references Escape From Alcatraz, and you have one confusing mess of a poster, although it probably is more true to what the film is actually about. The European Beta box art is actually pretty nice and features the awesome “spotlight” graphic more prominently.:
I really like that spotlight graphic and I’m certain it was probably reserved for newspaper ads and small print displays.
Availability: Totally unavailable on dvd, this movie strongly deserves a remastering and deluxe treatment. It has aired on MGMHD, if you get that channel. It is available on Amazon Instant Video. No word on if that’s the restored MGM print though.