I truly believe, that in this vast universe, we are not alone. I also believe, that for whatever (perhaps the very same) reason we don’t always get what we feel we deserve. Such is the case with Search for the Gods (1975), a cracking good yarn and failed TV pilot with Kurt Russell and Stephen McHattie as a couple of adventurers tracking down ancient astronauts.
Originally broadcast March 9th as part of The ABC Sunday Night Movie, Search had to deal with so many cops on the other networks; Kojak and Mannix on CBS, and the Sunday Mystery Movie juggernaut of Columbo/McCloud/McMillan & Wife over on NBC. No matter; Search was shuffled off to die a quiet death regardless of how it performed, and we the viewers were denied a potentially thrilling precursor to The X-Files.
Let’s look to the heavens (or at least this moldy pile of mags) and see what’s in the stars:
SEARCH FOR THE GODS (Sunday, 8:30PM, ABC)
A drifter and a local set out to find the ancient and possibly extraterrestrial origins of a broken medallion. Kurt Russell, Stephen McHattie star.
Our telefilm opens in shadow, as the mysterious Tarkanian (Albert Paulsen – Eyewitness) gives orders to his assistant Stryker (Raymond St. Jacques – They Live) to track down a piece of a metallic medallion in New Mexico from a Native American elder who has just returned to his birthplace. Set upon by two young N.A. thugs, Lucio (John War Eagle – Tonka) is aided by a hitchhiker, Willie Longfellow (McHattie – Pontypool). Seeming fishy to local law officials, they haul both men off to the tank. Once put in holding Willie meets another local boy, Shan Mullins (Russell – The Strongest Man in the World). Lucio gives the chunk o’ medallion to Willie and then mysteriously passes, but not before asking him to give it to his granddaughter Genara (Victoria Racimo – Prophecy).
Once he and Shan track her down, the three have noted archaeologist Dr. Henderson (Ralph Bellamy – Rosemary’s Baby) examine the curiosity and to their surprise (but not ours) it turns out to be 50,000 years old, and made from an indiscernible source. Naturally another piece is close by, buried in a tomb, and our three intrepid heroes must beat Stryker there if they intend to keep another part of the mystic puzzle, as well as their own lives…
Search for the Gods was born of a late ‘60s cultural fascination with Chariots of the Gods?, a book by Erich Von Daniken that hypothesized aliens coming to earth and influencing ancient technologies and the building of such artifacts as Stonehenge and the Egyptian Pyramids. With nary a Google to be found, people gobbled it up which led to a whole sub-culture of alien “what if?” scenarios. TV, of course, is the perfect media to really see what the public wants (or at least it was; now it’s merely a cog in a flaming cultural wheel), and while pseudo-docs (such as the filmic version of the book) like In Search of Ancient Mysteries (’73) appealed to lovers of the boob tube, a narrative take hadn’t really been attempted. Search for the Gods should have been that long form dive for the “what if?”-er in us all.
The stars aligned before their time, cast wise; Bellamy was of course a veteran character actor, and McHattie had only a few credits to his name at 28 when he took on the role of Willie. He already seemed aged and wizened beyond his years, and he makes a very noble hero, if not more than a little stone-faced. (One would think if it had gone to series the character may have loosened up a bit.) Russell was the topliner, even though Shan is closer to a supporting character. But, he was the Disney kid, star of three popular movies as college student Dexter Riley, so the top of the bill it was. And of course he’s really good; I always adore his early performances that are buoyed with youth and sly energy (as well as his later weighted and weary persona; I’m in for all of it).
Director Jud Taylor (Star Trek) and writer Ken Pettus (Mission: Impossible) keep things moving even though Search is essentially an origin story, as most pilots usually are. Great care is taken as well with the Native American mythology, and the weaving of that with the extraterrestrial angle is encouraging in its lack of exploitation. (Perhaps a larger budget may have offered special effects that would diminish the dignity of the indigenous people.) McHattie gets to walk away as an action hero, to boot; that’s a treat unto itself.
So what does Search for the Gods leave us with? A lot of promise, really. Willie and Shan travelling the globe, collecting bits of medallion that when formed, could unlock the mysteries of our world and beyond. The biggest mystery of all is why audiences never warmed to the idea. The truth was out there way before Scully and Mulder; we just never gave it a chance.