Welcome to 4:3 & Forgotten — a weekly column in which Rob Hunter and I get to look back at TV terrors that scared adults (and the kids they let watch) across the limited airwaves of the ’70s. This week’s movie is Search for the Gods.
In 1968, Erich von Däniken published a book called Chariots of the Gods? In the book, the author proposes that ancient astronauts visited the Earth thousands of years ago and brought with them technologies, artifacts, and religions for civilizations to embrace. These beings gave us the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and other famous wonders of the world. Naturally, human beings mistook the aliens for gods and that’s how Christianity and other crazy dogmas came to fruition.
Däniken’s theories have been debunked in academic circles, but that doesn’t matter. Chariots of the Gods? sold millions of copies and sparked people’s imaginations. More importantly, it inspired the creation of Search for the Gods, a TV movie from 1975 starring Kurt Russell and Stephen McHattie.
When: March 9, 1975
Directed by Jud Taylor, the film opens in a dark room with a man (played by Albert Paulsen) ordering his assistant to track down an ancient medallion. A Native American holds the artifact, and it doesn’t take long until he’s warding off violent thugs with a staff. Willie Longfellow (McHattie) just so happens to be in the area when the altercation is happening. This brings him into contact with the Native elder and they’re subsequently taken to jail.
The Native then gives the medallion to Willie before he passes away that night. Willie’s mission is to take the artifact to the Native’s granddaughter, but that proves to be a difficult task. There are goons on the hunt for him, and they want the mysterious object. Willie finds an ally in the form of the beer-guzzling Shan Mullins (Russell), but no one can really be trusted in the small towns of New Mexico.
It turns out that the medallion might be the key to higher knowledge about the universe. It might even explain how humankind came to be. No one knows the extent of its power, but that’s what makes it so highly sought-after among some very powerful, wealthy, and dangerous people.
The 70s was the golden age for conspiracy thrillers. Most of them involved Satanic cults and shadowy organizations. Search for the Gods boasts some of the edge-of-your-seat sensibilities that make movies of this ilk so enthralling, but its ideas are all over the place. The amalgamation of extraterrestrial concepts and Native American mythology bring an interesting hodgepodge of ideas into the mix. The movie also blends these elements together in some truly bizarre ways.
In one scene, Willie takes part in a Native American ritual for enlightening reasons. This causes him to hallucinate and witness the shadows of bird-like creatures flying around him. Some viewers might enter this expecting more science fiction than anything else. But Search of the Gods is also a tripped out peyote movie that has spirituality on its mind. Watch it baked and contemplate the bigger picture.
Of course, the movie is very much a product of society’s growing fascination with UFOs at the time. The idea of aliens existing is more wondrous than dangerous. The only real horror comes in the form of human beings in positions of power, willing to do bad things for their own self-gain. But viewers who like to ponder the “what if” scenarios of the universe will respond positively to this element of the film. It’s actually similar to Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that regard.
Telefilms from this era were often low-budget affairs, and the action set-pieces in the majority of them are quite unmemorable as a result. Search for the Gods contains some entertaining car chases that add some oomph to the adventure, and the movie also appears to be larger in scope than it actually is. This mostly due to the stunning desert backdrops and mountainous regions providing a sense of awe at times. This is especially true during the climax, which takes place in a canyon.
The performances are strong across the board. Even when starring in forgotten TV movies, McHattie and Russell showed that they were destined for bigger things afterward. At the time, McHattie probably seemed like the most likely candidate to find mainstream success as a leading man in action movies. While that never materialized, it’s fun to see him in this type of role.
Unfortunately, the movie lacks a satisfying conclusion. That’s because it was made as a pilot for a series that didn’t see the light of day. It’s evident that the creators had long-term plans in mind for a show and didn’t want to reveal all of the cards too early, so you can’t fault the movie for laying the foundations for more long-form storytelling that could have been excellent.
Search for the Gods can be chalked up as a case of wondering what could have been. But it’s still an entertaining effort that’s elevated by the settings, action, and performances. Most viewers will want more answers, but the ABC executives are to blame for not green-lighting a series. Maybe they didn’t want us to know that aliens really do exist.