Hello, I'm Johnny Cash: The Film Career Of The Man In Black

Johnny Cash. To sum up his career in the music industry with one word, you can't go wrong with ICON. 

With over 90 million records sold worldwide, he remains one of the best selling musical artists of all time. When he wasn't behind the microphone, Cash quietly strung together an impressive film and television career, starring opposite some of the biggest names in Hollywood. A musician often has to convey emotion to give a song conviction and that same skill often transcends to film. While it may sounds like an easy transition, few musical artists have been able to successfully make the jump. Cash proved to be just as charismatic on screen as he was behind a guitar. That charisma would even lead to Cash hosting a musical variety show on ABC. The Johnny Cash Show ran for two seasons and racked up 58 episodes between 1969-71. Successfully merging both worlds of entertainment, Cash proved to be just as talented on the screen as he was on the stage. 

Five Minutes To Live - 1961
Not far removed from the "cop and robber" films of the ‘50s, Five Minutes To Live plays out like most delinquent crime films of the era. It begins with traces of the Noir film movement in a dark and shadow filled carport. From the opening scene, it’s easy to tell Cash is a bad seed. Playing gun for hire Johnny Cabbot, Cash mows down a police officer with a Tommy Gun before the opening credits even roll. For all the songs of redemption and the gospel that Cash sang, he often countered those tunes with songs of sin. The subject of murder even popped up on occasion and Cash took the unique approach of singing these songs in a first person perspective. That theme sets the foundation of Cash's first film role. Cabbot is a thug who is always looking for his next payday. In one scene he even uses an adolescent Ron Howard as a human shield. Aside from a song Cash wrote for the opening credits, the soundtrack is primarily jazz, another carryover from the ‘50s crime film era. In fact Cash's song seems a bit out of place in this film. Cash has no problems pulling off a heartless criminal. His brutish portrayal has that cold arrogant machoism that many actors of the era were known for. It’s easy to see Cash drew from performances by Marlon Brando and James Dean when portraying Cabbot. Overall Cash is impressive in his big screen debut. 

A Gunfight - 1971

In this film, Cash stars opposite screen legend Kirk Douglas as two aging gunfighters looking for past glories and one last great paycheck. It all began when screen writer Harold Bloom sent Douglas a copy of the script. Douglas loved the story so much he decided to co-produce and star in the film. Douglas even convinced Cash to star opposite him. This lead to the Jicarilla Apache Indian Tribe partially financing the film. Tribe leader Chief Charlie was a big fan of Cash. The Man In Black was admired by many Indian tribes for his vocal support of Native Americans. Cash impressively holds his own opposite the charismatic Douglas. When the two gunslingers decide to sell tickets to a gunfight, the whole town forks over their money. In some ways, this plot parallels the brutality of bullfighting. The general public has long had a fascination with death. No matter how horrific, curiosity gets the best of most. It’s a memorable plot, with both gunfighters becoming friends leading up to the shootout. While both men are cut from the same cloth, they remain different in their own right. The film plays out like many classic westerns with long scenes of drawn out tension before the main event. 

The Gospel Road - 1973

It is no secret Cash was a spiritual man. Throughout his life he was very vocal about his Christian faith. His gateway to music began at a young age learning gospel hymns, many which he later recorded when his music career began. He was so enlightened by Jesus that he decided to make a movie about the life of Christ. Cash wrote the script along with friend Larry Murray, and hired documentary film maker Robert Elfstrom to direct. Filmed in Israel, Cash appears and narrates the tales of Jesus. The film has little dialogue, except for a scene in which Mary Magdalene, played by June Carter Cash, recounts her gratitude for being saved. It’s a bit of a strange film, yet appealing for the same reasons. Elfstrom even stars as Jesus, and decided to portray the role without altering his golden beach boy blond hair. Cash never intended to write a soundtrack of songs for the film aside for the opening track, but he ended up doing so when post production began to help lend a cohesive storytelling element to the film. Spending over $500,000 dollars of his own money on the film, Cash considered The Gospel Road to be one of his greatest achievements. 

Ridin’ The Rails: The Great American Train Story - 1974

Cash narrates and stars in this documentary style film about the history of the locomotive. Told through reenactments of historical events, Cash seemingly time travels through an entire century as he explains each historical passage, often picking up his guitar and singing a corresponding song. It’s a fun watch as Cash pulls viewers through time and narrates each event wearing period worthy clothing. At times his narration gives way to boyish excitement. It’s no secret Cash grew up admiring trains and the topic was the subject of many of his songs. It’s hard not to share his excitement as he charismatically explains the importance of trains during the forging of America. The documentary also covers historical locomotive folk heroes such as John Henry and Casey Jones. It’s apparent Cash had to do little acting for this role and his performance comes across as pure joy as he rides a variety of trains across the country. If you are a fan of The Man In Black, this is the Mount Everest of Johnny Cash's film career.

Thaddeus Rose And Eddie - 1978

In 1978 Cash starred in Thaddeus Rose and Eddie, a CBS TV film about two carefree Texas cowboys. Cash plays Thaddeus Rose, a cocky rancher who spends his Friday nights chasing pretty girls at the local honky tonk with his best friend Eddie (played by Bo Hopkins). After a little scuffle at the bar where we see Cash beat up a half dozen men, Rose must face the reality that he needs to change his lifestyle. So he does what most men do when they come to the crossroads of life - he decides to become a citrus farmer. June Carter Cash plays Crystal, Rose’s old girlfriend. Their relationship is a complicated one, and both do service to the conflicting nature of carrying out a friendship after parting romantic ways. Overall Thaddeus Rose and Eddie is a bit of an odd ball in Cash’s film career. Seeing Cash portray a character with a bit of masculine arrogance is rare in his overall screen catalog, but he does the character justice, showcasing his ability to play a number of diverse roles.

The Pride of Jessie Hallam - 1981

One of the most unique roles in Cash’s film career puts him in the role of widower Jesse Hallam. After his wife’s death, Hallam sells his Kentucky farm and moves to Cincinnati, using most the money to pay for his daughter Jenni’s spinal operation. The big city change is difficult for Hallam, and is especially hard on his son Ted, who discovers the school system in Cincinnati is more advanced than his former school in Kentucky. Hallam is a matter of fact likable blue collar guy. He struggles to find work in the city, and viewers are quick to learn the reason why. Hallam is illiterate. The film tackles a problem that plagued many American adults in the '70s and '80s. At its peaks, 13% of adults were illiterate in English (according to a test given by the Census Bureau in 1982). It also highlighted the divide in education systems between state lines. Cash is memorable in the role as Hallam as he goes through a roller coaster of emotions. While struggling with his own problems, Hallam must balance his time between his son, the hospital, and work, all while trying to learn to read. He’s an underdog who’s hard not to root for. Cash’s music is used throughout the film, which reinforces Hallam’s character and Southern roots. Cash himself liked to sing songs about suffering and struggle, and the use of his music fits perfectly in this film.  

Murder in Coweta County 1983

Murder in Coweta County pairs Cash with movie and TV veteran Andy Griffith. Based on the novel of the same name, the film is a true life adaptation of actual events that occurred in Meriwether, Georgia in 1948. Griffith plays wealthy landowner John Wallace, who’s financial status allows him to run the town and local law enforcement. When one of Wallace’s farm hands acts out of line, Wallace carries out his own style of vigilante justice that occurs just over the Meriwether County line in Coweta County. The event is witnessed by several people, who immediately contact Coweta police sheriff Lamar Potts, played by Cash. Seeing how the crime took place in his jurisdiction, Potts travels to Meriwether and finds his presence unwelcome. Although Cash and Griffith have little screen time together, both men own their roles. Griffith is especially memorable for the ruthlessness of his performance. Wallace is a cruel and arrogant man, and despite his years of playing the honest natured Sheriff of Mayberry on the Andy Griffith Show, Griffith tackles the opposite role with conviction. Cash holds his own with the TV veteran, portraying Potts with a no nonsense serious approach. June Carter Cash also appears in the film as the quirky backwoods farmland clairvoyant Mayhayley Lancaster. A TV veteran herself, Cater Cash steals the scene whenever her character is present, providing an occasional laugh in an otherwise serious film.  

The Baron and the Kid - 1984

In 1981 Cash released the album The Baron. The title track of the same name was accompanied by Cash's very first music video. The song is a narrative story, and the video unfolds like a short film. In it Cash stars as a fancy dressed gentleman pool player who walks into a pool hall and schools a young billiards hustler named Billy Joe. After Cash repeatedly beats Billy Joe he discovers the young man is his son he never knew was born. The song would become Cash's 51st Top Ten hit, and the video was so popular it inspired a made-for-TV movie. From the outside The Baron and the Kid looks like a hokey '80s TV movie, and it is. Yet the movie is a lot of fun, and one of the most enjoyable in Cash's film career. June Carter plays The Baron’s ex-wife, and the two often share the screen in a tension filled “why don’t you get back together already,” scenario. The plot is a more fleshed out version of the song, and the film puts Cash in a variety of odd and often comical scenarios. The most impressive aspect is Cash’s actual pool skills. He nails quite a few impressive shots for the film. Overall, The Baron and the Kid is an all around feel good goofy story paired with some good humor. Viewers be warned, the song that inspired the film constantly plays throughout the movie. So much so that any person who dares watch this film will risk having The Baron stuck in their head until the end of time.   

The Last Days of Frank and Jessie James - 1986

Cash stars opposite Kris Kristofferson as the legendary bank and train robbers of the late 1800's. Way before Bonnie and Clyde, Frank and Jessie James’ notorious antics captivated the population. The public was so enthralled with the brother’s outlaw lifestyle that they became minor celebrities. Their fame inadvertently helped forge gossip news columns as reports of their heists became more extravagant than the last in newspapers across America. Cash plays Frank James, Jessie’s older brother. The movie begins near the end of the James Gang’s 20 year crime spree. Frank James is trying to adjust to a normal life, and it is a joy to watch Cash curse out a team of stubborn mules in a farm field with a fury of Shakespearian insults. Kristofferson and Cash work great together in a film that highlights the public’s never ending fascination with crime. Cash was 54 at the time of filming, and was still just as spry as ever riding a horse and an uncomfortable looking vintage plow. Fellow country star Willie Nelson also makes an appearance as a retired Civil War general. Last Days is a good historical watch, and Cash recites Shakespeare so much throughout the film, one could practically use this movie as a drinking game.

Stagecoach - 1986

Cash’s last major role is a doozy. Teaming up with his Highwaymen bandmates Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, the four outlaw country stars star in Stagecoach. Released a year after the supergroup's debut album, Cash plays Curly Wilcox, a US marshal in a newly developed western settlement. When news comes of an Apache Indian uprising, Wilcox decides to take up shotgun guard duty on a stagecoach scheduled to run through hostel territory. Among the passenger is a gambler named Hatfield played by Waylon Jennings, and famed western legend Doc Holliday, played by Willie Nelson. Kristofferson joins the fun as wanted outlaw The Ringo Kid, who is arrested and forced to join the other passengers on the stagecoach. The film is a remake of the 1939 Academy Award winning film of the same name. June Carter Cash and John Carter Cash (Johnny and June’s son) also have roles in the film. If you’re a fan of Cash, and the classic Outlaw era of classic county music, you'll probably enjoy this film so much you'll want to watch it at least once a year. Seeing how this was Cash’s last film role, he no doubt enjoyed his last ride behind the camera with his family and the friends he shared the stage with behind the microphone. 

Overall, Cash strung together an impressive film career, especially considering he entered the world of entertainment as a musician. Like his music, the theme of redemption is constant in his films. His characters were often true to his Man In Black persona. One thing of note was the characters Cash portrayed often displayed compassion for minorities. From the black farm hands who are called to testify in Murder in Coweta County, to the Mexican farmer who knows little English in Thaddeus Rose and Eddie, Cash’s characters always interacts with respect and concern. 

The most charming element of Cash’s films is he often gets to share the screen opposite June Carter. Usually paired together in a tension filled relationship, we get the see the famous couple reconcile and fall in love all over again on a handful of occasions. Their real life love was one that was greatly admired, and that love is often on display in these films. Cash’s films are often overlooked, but he had a consistent run on screen and took on some memorable roles and unique characters. Along with these notable films, Cash had over a dozen roles in a variety of television shows, and appeared in 6 episodes of the Civil War mini-series North and South. Moving from behind the microphone and in front of a camera is jump that a lot of musicians attempt. While both aspects of entertainment revolve around telling a story, the transition isn’t always successful and vise versa. In the case of Johnny Cash, it didn’t matter if it were a movie or song, the man was a talented storyteller, and pulled many along for an entertaining ride.

-Lee L. Lind