The Exiles was written and directed by British-born Kent MacKenzie over the course of four years (1958-1961). It premiered at the 1961 Venice Film Festival, but somehow MacKenzie never managed to secure a distribution deal for his labour of love and, apart from a few other festival screenings, the film fell into obscurity until referenced in Thom Andersen’s 2003 film Los Angeles Plays Itself, after which it was subsequently restored by the UCLA (in 2008) and at last received the recognition it deserved. Viewed today, more than 50 years later, The Exiles provides a remarkable glimpse into the lives of a disaffected people that is as compelling and relevant today as it was when it was made.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the exploits of a group of Native Americans over the course of fourteen hours, beginning late one Friday afternoon. These are not the Indians so heavily romanticised by a Hollywood machine spuriously intent on preserving their noble heritage, but an aimless bunch drifting through meaningless lives that are going nowhere. Perhaps because of this romanticism – both in American cinema and literature – their fate seems all the more sad and pathetic, although it is one that could as easily be applied to sections of any community. And yet, it is this sense of a heritage being diluted and slowly, inexorably erased that lends The Exiles and its quietly wretched characters a haunting poignancy.
We first meet Yvonne, a pregnant young Indian woman who lives with Homer, a rotund, oddly plaintive soul who sports an Elvis-style quiff and who is, tellingly, slouched in the lounge of their cramped apartment reading a comic book when we first meet him. Although she is carrying his child, the couple barely acknowledge each other when she returns home and begins cooking chops for Homer and his friends. She still has hopes that the child she is expecting might change Homer for the better, but, like all the characters here, there’s a telling resignation in the way she observes off-screen that ’”I haven’t started drinking or hanging around Main Street yet.”
We follow Homer and his friends as they trawl the night-time Los Angeles streets, hopping from one bar to another, greeting friends, sharing banter, and picking up girls. There’s a depressing inevitability about it all, a sense that these characters are doomed, trapped in an existence that systematically strips away any hopes or aspirations they may harbour, and distances them ever further from the customs and beliefs of their ancestors. The seedy bars, haunted by seamed and weathered faces, confirm their fate, and the gathering of these lost young men on a hillside overlooking the city to chant tribal songs, rather than confirming their heritage, seems to distance them from it even further.
The cinematography is astonishing. The night-time Los Angeles streets, filmed in stark black-and-white and shades of grey, thrum with an existence of their own, another character in the film that is as uncaring of its future as the people who roam them. There’s a strange vitality to it all, the people spilling in and out of bars, the policeman spinning his club as he gazes on. It’s a world that has passed, but which still echoes in the city streets of today.