February 01, 2010

Joe Hawk in Banacek pilot

I recently watched the complete run of the mystery TV series Banacek. The pilot episode featured an Indian subplot.

Here's the story:

BanacekBanacek (one of the rotating NBC Mystery Movie series) is a short-lived, light-hearted detective TV series starring George Peppard on NBC from 1972 to 1974.


Peppard played Thomas Banacek, a suave, Polish-American freelance investigator based in Boston, who solved seemingly impossible thefts (see locked room mystery). He then collected from the insurance companies 10% of the insured value of the recovered property.

Pilot (1972)
"Banacek: Detour to Nowhere"  20 March 1972

Banacek finds himself in a race against his old adversary, Chief McKinney of the National Meridian Insurance Company, to solve the case of a missing armored truck carrying $1,600,000 of gold bullion that disappeared without a trace while under a police escort.
Apparently no one on the Internet has written about this episode, so let's do it.

First, the setup: The truck is heading north on a desolate stretch of highway near the Texas/Oklahoma border. A sniper gives the police-car escort a flat tire, and truck continues on alone. When it doesn't reach a checkpoint a few miles away, the police investigate. They find tire tracks leading across the desert to a deep gully...the guard's body on the rocks...but no truck. It's vanished as if it flew off the edge of the precipice.

The Texas location is relevant to the Indian subplot. In fact, the area looks like the Mojave desert in eastern California to me: arid plain, gullies in the foreground, low mountains in the distance. Something like this:

In contrast, a site near the Texas/Oklahoma border looks like this:

Hmm. No mountains or gullies, and a grassy plain rather than a sandy desert.

The Indian suspect

There's an isolated town near the desolate highway, and a man was murdered there recently. Banacek doesn't believe in coincidences, so he asks to meet the murdered man's friend. That turns out to be Joe Hawk, an Indian convict in jail.

Vic Mohica plays Joe Hawk. Mohica also played an Indian in Johnny Firecloud. He's Puerto Rican, which means he probably has some Indian blood. The casting could be better, but it could be a lot worse. At least he looks like an ethnic type rather than a white guy in a wig.

Hawk is a career criminal who's been in and out of jail. When Banacek questions him, he's surly and uncooperative. But he has an air of alertness and intelligence about him; he's not just a dumb brute. If his criminal past suggests a savage, his dignity suggests a noble savage. Again, could be better, could be worse.

Banacek stages a fist-fight with Hawk and takes a fall to earn his respect. Later Hawk tells him what happened to his murdered friend.

The plot thickens


It seems Hawk and his buddy were "prospectors" using metal detectors to hunt for buried treasure.

To be specific, they were hunting for Caddo Indian gravesites. Why? According to Hawk, because the Caddo buried their dead with their valuables.

Okay, let's think about this a minute.

First, the Caddo lived in eastern Texas but now have a reservation in central Oklahoma. As far as I know, they never lived in northern Texas. But it's conceivable they might've lived there for a while and buried people there.

I don't know anything about Caddo burial practices, but a quick check shows they probably buried objects with the dead. For instance:

Caddo BurialThey put into the grave whatever they think the deceased should take with her or him, for a woman, cooking utensils, plates, etc., clothing; and for a man, besides clothes and blankets, bow and arrows "to defend himself on his road if anything bother him," since "evil things try to get the soul before reaching heaven."The plot goes off the road

Despite these facts, the show's plot twist is utterly ridiculous. Why would Hawk and his buddy be hunting in the middle of nowhere--in an empty desert, according to the show? How in the world could they have found a Caddo gravesite? There's zero evidence that they or anyone within 100 miles has the slightest bit of archeological knowledge.

Even if it makes sense to search for Caddo gravesites at random, why would you do it? Yes, someone might bury his jewelry with him--but it's much more likely the metal would be an old knife, watch, belt buckle, medallion, or cooking utensil.

And then what? You spend a night of back-breaking labor to unearth a rotting corpse? Because the metal you detected might be something other than iron? How absurd can you get?

Searching for unknown gravesites on the off-chance they might hold gold is about the silliest "get rich quick" scheme ever. Working at McDonald's, buying lottery tickets, or answering Nigerian e-mails would be a better use of your time.

I wouldn't say this twist was stereotypical. It just seems stupid to me. The only stereotype may be locating the Caddo Indians in a barren desert. It feeds into the notion that all Indians lived in remote corners of the country--because they chose to, not because we forced them to.

I presume it was cheaper to film the pilot in California than in Texas. Okay, then refer to one of the many California tribes that passed through the Mohave. Don't tell us the Caddo farming culture lived in a desert.

The mystery revealed

So Hawk and his buddy were searching for lost Caddo treasure. Instead they found the armored car, which the criminals had cleverly buried. The criminals learned about Hawk and his buddy and hunted them down.

It was an intriguing mystery until Hawk revealed his treasure-hunting scheme. Then the story became laughable. I believed the criminals would bury the truck and dig it up later, but I didn't believe Hawk would find it accidentally.

Most of the Banacek mysteries were better than this one. The first season, especially, had some puzzlers I couldn't begin to fathom. If you like a good mystery, check out Banacek's first season on DVD.

For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

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