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Once the biker movie became a standard of the film business in the late ’60s, enterprising filmmakers at all levels of the business put everything on a bike to see what would sell: experiments included films about female bikers, black bikers, gay bikers, even werewolves. It might seem odd to include Pray For The Wildcats in this lineup of oddball biker flick offshoots as it’s a t.v. movie, it arrived late in the game (1974) and wasn’t really about a biker gang in the classical sense. That said, it’s worth considering as it inverts biker movie style and elements to fit its own unique interests.

Pray For The Wildcats could be more conventionally defined as a male menopause drama.  Its focus is a group of men working for an ad agency: Warren (William Shatner) is trying to keep his firing secret as he prepares to transition out of the gig, Paul (Robert Reed) is the ambitious second-in-command who will likely take Warren’s place and Terry (Marjoe Gortner) is an art director who is trying to figure out where he fits in the corporate world as he deals with newly pregnant wife Kristie (Janet Margolin).  To add further complexity, Warren is dealing with guilt from cheating on his wife Lila (Lorraine Gary) with Paul’s wife Nancy (Angie Dickinson) and his behavior suggests he is contemplating suicide over his floundering career and financial issues.

A catalyst is introduced to this bubbling pot of workplace and domestic issues via the introduction of Sam Farragut (Andy Griffith), a swaggering industrialist who is deliberating over whether or not he’ll accept a bid from the ad agency employing the other men. To clinch the deal, Warren, Paul and Terry must agree to accompany Sam on a cross-country motorcycle trek across Mexico. Once they’re on the trip, Sam reveals there are lustful and violent elements of his persona that could get the other men killed or imprisoned, forcing them to define their own morality as they deal with the fallout of Sam’s impulsive actions.

The result kind of sneaks up on you in that vintage t.v. movie way.  Pray For The Wildcats starts off in primetime soap opera mode as we meet the main players in their familiar surroundings.  All the dramatic setups are familiar but veteran t.v. screenwriter Jack Turley lays them out with an appropriate cynicism and a sense of the characters stifling their inner selves for the sake of being civil, the only pressure valve being the often barbed dialogue they exchange. Shatner plays his role with greater subtlety than you’re used to and Dickinson establishes herself as a scene-stealer with her sardonic commentary on the lives of the men.

Pray For The Wildcats really shapes up when the men cross the border into Mexico. Griffith does effective work playing against type here as an obnoxious “self-made man” type who believes his success means he is entitled to indulge any moment of lust or rage he feels, revealed effectively in the way he terrorizes a young vagabond couple the group meets on the road. The scene where Griffith sidles up to the young woman like the big bad wolf as she dances in a cantina has become a classic amongst ’70s t.v. movie fans. Shatner and Reed get some great scenes together as they grapple with the morality of the situation, both clearly relishing the chance to play some intense adult drama, and Gortner gets a darkly amusing drunk scene after he allows Sam to corrupt his morals.

However, the most interesting thing going on Pray For The Wildcats is the way it subverts the norms of the biker genre. Usually, these movies are about young societal outcasts hitting the road and trying to be free as they deal with resentment and violence from the older generation.  In this film, it’s the older “respectable” members of society who are the bikers. They’re looking for freedom in their own ways but they’re also running from their own mid-life crises or at least the consequences of what they’ve done. Another novel twist: it’s the older generation terrorizing the younger one in this film instead of vice versa, with Sam coveting their youth and freedom even as he punishes them for not submitting to his whims.

In biker movie fashion, there’s also some excellent footage of the men (or at least their stunt riders) cruising through the atmospheric Mexican desert.  Director Robert Michael Lewis stylizes these moments in the groovy travelogue style utilized in biker movies but the ever growing darkness of the mens’ quest is reflected in Fred Myrow’s musical score, in which jazz and rock motifs curdle and grow edgier as the story progresses. Elsewhere, the infidelity subplot continues back home, depicted in a well-acted scene between Dickinson and Gary that plays out in a way you might not expect.

In short, Pray For The Wildcats deserves its rep as a cult classic of the t.v. movie world. Its fusion of masculine mid-life crisis and biker movie elements is totally unique, the star-studded cast is guaranteed fun for fans of old-school t.v. and there’s a genuine and sometimes surprising dark mood beneath the soap operatics here.

Blu-Ray Notes: after decades in home video limbo, this title has been revived on blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber. The blu-ray was viewed for this write-up and it boasts a nice, crisp remaster. Also included on the disc is a commentary track by Amanda Reyes and Bill Ackerman.