We look back at an initially unappreciated 1969 Disney drama.
Editor's Note: Throughout the month of October, C&I is celebrating the golden westerns of 1969, a year that changed the game for the beloved film genre. Check the Entertainment tab each day to see a different film recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for the upcoming November/December 2019 print edition, which prominently features one of the 25 greatest films of 1969 on its cover.
After directing a period action flick (The Fighting of Donegal) and a lavish musical comedy (The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band) for the Walt Disney studio, Irish-born director Michael O’Herlihy — who also had multiple episodes of Maverick, Rawhide, and The Guns of Will Sonnett on his resume — returned to his TV western roots for Disney with the contemporary western Smith!
Glenn Ford has the title role in this engaging family-friendly drama, playing a white rancher raised by Native Americans. When Gabriel Jimmyboy (Frank Ramirez), a young Indian accused of murder, seeks refuge on his property, Smith attempts to organize the fugitive’s defense — a noble act that places him in conflict with Vince Heber (Keenan Wynn), a racist deputy sheriff.
Unfortunately, as film historian Leonard Maltin notes in his authoritative book The Disney Films, Smith! was one of several features that got “lost in the shuffle” during the aftermath of Walt Disney’s death in December 1966. This “solid little film without an easy handle,” Maltin wrote, boasted a strong supporting cast (including Chief Dan George, Warren Oates, Dean Jagger and Nancy Olson), “a timely pro-Indian theme, and a mature romantic relationship [between Ford and Olson]. But it was ignored or dismissed by critics, and even the Disney company didn’t seem to know quite what to do with it.”
In the true Hollywood tradition, however, there’s a happy ending to this story: Over subsequent years, Smith! has been rediscovered and embraced by viewers thanks to streaming and home video exposure.