George Dean (Robert Taylor) is an angry and defeated man. He has been fired from his job as a college professor and is forced to take a job as a teacher of Seminole Indian children on an Everglades reservation. He is broke and angry when he arrives at the reservation with his three children.
At the same time, Chief Sam Tiger (Ford Rainey) of the local Seminole tribe is dying. He has seen his death coming soon and is desperate to get his grandson, Johnny Tiger (Chad Everett), to replace him. His son, Johnny’s father, left the tribe and died of alcoholism in the white world.
Johnny himself is living in two worlds. A self-proclaimed half-breed, he is a hard partying man who seems to be on course to follow his father’s fate. As the movie progresses, Johnny becomes a pawn in the battle between the school teacher and his grandfather. Dean wants Johnny to go to college on a scholarship—the first of his tribe to do so. He isn’t entirely selfless about this. He thinks Johnny is a good subject for publishing a book that would bring him recognition in the academic world. Chief Sam, however, is equally desperate for Johnny to abandon the white man’s world and settle down to running the tribe.
In a dramatic plot twist, Randy, George’s youngest child (Steven Wheeler) is trapped in a forest fire. His frantic father plows around in the woods looking for him but it is Sam who decides his fate.
The premise of this film is interesting—extremists with very different points of view thrown against one another with no hope of compromise. The endless battle between old and new raging on in an unusual setting.
Ford Rainey and Marc Lawrence are excellent as the tribal chief and medicine man. Geraldine Brooks is intelligent and sultry as the doctor. Brenda Scott is innocent and lovely as George’s eldest daughter. Chad Everett is muscular and energetic as Johnny. The editing has a number of highlights; George is contemptuous of the tribe as “savages.” As he says the word, the film cuts to a group of 1960s young people gyrating to rock music.
The women in Johnny Tiger aren’t treated well. George seems completely uninterested in Barbara except for helping him get close to Johnny. He doesn’t protect her early in the film when Johnny is frightening her with his horse and blatantly uses her later to win Johnny over. Johnny also has a slutty girlfriend. The wonderful Geraldine Brooks waggles her butt at the camera when she is first seen. Later she asks George to hand her the bottoms of her pajamas.
Nevertheless, the interplay between George and the doctor is good. There is a wonderful scene where she grabs George and throws him down on the bed, kissing him enthusiastically. When they surface he splutters and acts indignant. She concludes that he has no feelings. By the end of the film she has decided that he “shows promise.”
The problem is the usually wonderful Robert Taylor. Still handsome in his mid fifties, Taylor just isn’t convincing as a pompous, arrogant, defeated twit. George is totally self-centered and completely oblivious to the needs of others. Robert Taylor’s persona has almost always been larger than life. He is believable as a dedicated doctor, a strong and handsome lover, a soldier, a Roman commander, a knight, a tough cop, a gangster. We believe him when he’s saving lives, fighting off armies, taking on Nero, rescuing maidens, taming the West, saving herds of horses and so on. Taylor is not believable as a wimp. In one scene he is called upon to cry and does so unconvincingly. Men of his day did not cry. It is also hard to believe he would be so passive in his interactions with the sexy doctor.
This is not to say that he doesn’t have good scenes. His anger against Sam Tiger is convincing, especially when they’re head to head. George’s belief that the “only purity in this world is knowledge” rings true.
Robert Taylor wanted “Johnny Tiger” to be the beginning of his transition into character roles. He was tired of being the “beautiful lover,” as Ava Gardner put it. He told an interviewer that his days in the boudoir were over and then hastily corrected himself–”on film.” However, Universal Studios abandoned this picture, not promoting it at all and eventually reducing it to second billing to “The Munsters.”