The Exiles

At once profound, seedy, sweeping and intimate, The Exiles chronicles a particular (and often ignored) moment in mid-20th century American history.

The Exiles

Director: Kent Mackenzie
Cast: Homer Nish, Yvonne Williams, Eddie Sunrise
Distributor: The Milestone Cinematheque
US DVD Release Date: 2009-11-17

Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles is what esoteric film fanatics are talking about when they refer to a hidden gem. The film was shot in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and completed in 1961, but has remained largely unseen for the past 48 years. Milestone Film and Video has beautifully restored The Exiles, and prepared it for DVD release (along with lots of very good extras) this November. At once profound, seedy, sweeping and intimate, The Exiles chronicles a particular (and often ignored) moment in mid-20th century American history.

The film closely chronicles the lives of Native Americans living in Los Angeles in the gritty Bunker Hill neighborhood moving through the night to the sounds of good time rock 'n' roll. A group of loosely interconnected American Indians has left Southwestern reservations to look for work and a better, or at least different, life in L.A.

The Exiles opens depicting the Native American in a more “traditional” atmosphere—set against a soundtrack of chanting and beating drums, viewers see the iconic Edward Curtis photograph of Navajo on horseback crossing Canyon de Chelly, and portraits that 20th-century Americans so often associate with “Indians”. A male voice that sounds like Ward Cleaver informs us of the plight of the Indian: his wandering ways, rich traditions, and how he was forced to settle on confining reservations. We’ve heard this before, the white man lecturing about the condition of the Indian. This narration would be condescending if it was recorded today, but considering the time, it leans towards earnest rather than demeaning.

We abruptly break from visions of the prophetic American West to the busy streets of L.A. Wide Cadillacs with wings, dingy storefronts, and the bustle of people dominate the scene. Voice-over narration continues throughout The Exiles, but after the introduction, the characters speak for themselves. While this technique could be cheesy, it comes off as surprisingly moving. Mackenzie offers thoughtful close-ups of his character’s faces while they’re speaking, and the authenticity of their words is striking. (The actors wrote the monologues, based on their own real-life experiences). The actors also look like 'real' people (young and old, ugly and attractive), because they are.

The narrative most closely focuses on Homer and Yvonne, a recently married couple. Yvonne is pregnant, and spends large portions of her days alone: grocery shopping, looking at window displays, and going to the movies to watch Westerns by herself. We meet Yvonne’s husband, Homer, when she returns from her shopping. He’s sitting around the house with his buddies, waiting for darkness to fall so he can venture out and begin the usual nightly business of drinking, cards, and convertibles.

Homer and friends drop Yvonne off at the movies before they descend into debauchery. She stands alone in front of the movie theater, clutching her purse. Yvonne’s mouth is full and expressive, and the corners of her lipsticked mouth droops as she watches her husband drive away. The sight of Yvonne solitary and all dressed up is enough to break your heart, and make you hate the boys. Yvonne is complacent and sad, but she’s not stupid. She stays with Homer because he’s the father of her unborn child, and because she has nowhere else to go.

Homer himself would be more sympathetic if he didn’t leave his sad, beautiful wife standing alone beneath the marquee, and continue to exhibit passivity throughout the film. Outside a liquor store, against a backdrop of booze, Homer reads a letter from his parents. He narrates a flashback to his home in the Arizona desert. Speaking a mix of their own language and English, Homer’s family relaxes and works around their home, which is stark and bleak in the bleaching Arizona sun.

No subtitles or explanations are offered when Homer’s family speak their own language, which is as it should be. The scene is natural and so far from contrived that subtitles would interfere. What the family is actually saying is not important, though we catch the gist when they lapse into English. The un-translated dialogue emphasizes the separateness of Homer’s life in Bunker Hill. We view Homer’s family through his recollections: their abject poverty, his sister in a plaid school uniform, his father sitting beneath a tree in scarce shade. Homer is clearly glad he’s not back on the reservation, but carries a melancholy (and the letter) with him throughout his poker playing and whiskey- drinking.

The Exiles clearly recognizes and articulates the significance of a small subset of the population: Native Americans who’ve left their home turf in search of something more, but find themselves adrift and misunderstood in the wider world. They band together to little effect. Yvonne mentions that Homer and his friends don’t work, that they drink to excess, and at several points manhandle or force themselves on women that aren’t their wives. All of this is treated as a matter of course.

Perhaps when they arrived in Los Angeles, things were different, Homer and his pals were hopeful about finding work and changing the status quo. On the surface, they look like any '50s greasers in white t-shirts, wearing blue jeans and just the right amount of leather. But there’s a crackling unrest in their movements—the way they swig a beer, lose at cards, grip the steering wheel. The characters are aware that all is not well (as much is revealed in the voice-over narration, too) but remain in a state of controlled chaos; one gets the sense that something’s about to erupt.

The treatment of women in The Exiles reflects the subtle, though constant discontent among the men. There are several instances of casual violence: the men press themselves on the women they meet at the bar, laughing but clearly not joking around. Once they set off in the convertible, one of the female cohorts pays to fill up at the tank, only to be abandoned at the gas station. At one point, in the wee hours of the morning on “Hill X” overlooking the city, a buddy of Homer’s pins a girl against a car, and when she struggles, slaps her and walks away. Homer watches this leaning on a nearby car hood with no action or comment.

His seeming disregard reminds us of Yvonne, who has walked herself home from the movies. Yvonne spends the night with a female friend and seems content enough, if lonely. Her husband’s absence is clearly a regular occurrence. By chance, Yvonne wakes up at the end of the film, just as dawn is breaking. Out the window of her neighbor’s apartment, she spots Homer and his friends stumbling home in their cowboy boots, arms draped around the girls from the bar. Yvonne’s expression doesn’t change.

Like her husband’s mask of complacency through his wild night, she has resigned herself. Homer and Yvonne's simultaneous solitude, whether alone or among comrades, marginalizes them within their own community-- they are the exiled among exiles.

The Exiles comes packed with a wealth of special extras. While interesting, the other Kent Mackenzie features included with The Exiles don’t come close to matching the stark beauty and unexpected profundity of the main attraction. Also directed by Mackenzie is A Skill for Molina, about Native American/ Latino/ black men going back to school to learn to become a welders and other trades.

Molina comes off as government propaganda, which in fact, it is. (The end credits reveal that the short film was produced by the US Department of Labor and the Education Bureau of California.) Story of a Rodeo Cowboy also directed by Mackenzie is like a '50s TV special, showcasing the glamour and the harsh realities of a traveling cowboy side by side. Both films feel dated in their voice-over narration and unfortunately unsynched dubbing. (This is a problem in The Exiles, too, but is less noticeable.)

Ivan and his Father is much more naturalistic. A group of white and black teenagers (again, not actors) sit around communicating in a sort of group therapy. The therapy itself is hilarious to jaded 21st century eyes (they actually role play with one another). The 'comedy' extends to the hairstyles, clothing (argyle, loafers, varsity jackets) and use of words like “patsy”, but is meant to be serious. Ivan and his Father demonstrates Mackenzie’s commitment to cinéma vérité, but much of the original poignancy may be lost on contemporary viewers.

Bunker Hill 1956 is a USC graduate student project, which also features real Bunker Hill neighborhood residents, though the people in the film are white. Bunker Hill 1956 provides a different perspective on the area, and uses voiceover monologue technique similar to that of the The Exiles.

Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal provides interesting and valuable historical context about the neighborhood since the Civil War. Understanding the many influences on the area (ranchers, the advent of the railroad, the construction of Angels Flight streetcar) if extraneous, lends new depth to The Exiles. Learning about how the entire neighborhood has been destroyed and rebuilt many times enhances a viewing of the film.

White Fawn’s Devotion is purportedly the first film completed by a Native American director. The style is typical of silent film: three acts, lots of gesticulating and the use of intertitles. The depiction of Native Americans and their behavior is gruesome and cartoonish, though this is difficult to avoid in early cinema when all characterizations tend to be reduced and obvious.

Perhaps most notably included are interviews with Sherman Alexie, the director of Smoke Signals, and a Coeur d’Alene Indian (his term of choice) who was involved with the restoration of The Exiles. Alexie is interviewed by independent film critic Sean Axmaker, and the two also provide commentary for The Exiles as an additional special feature. The commentary is funny and entertaining, and Alexie’s perspective as an Indian is appropriate and beneficial. Noting when Alexie laughs as well as when his explanations from his personal experience make the film more accessible to outsiders.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

Next Page

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.