Three teenage friends, Will (Gary Grimes), Les (Ron Howard) and Tod (Charles Martin Smith) are out in the countryside near their homes one day when they stumble upon a body lying in the undergrowth. They stand around him wondering what to do next when he grabs one of them - he's still alive, in spite of the gunshot wounds on his chest, and they make up their minds there and then to help this man, who he tells them is Harry Spikes (Lee Marvin), an outlaw on the run from a persistent posse. The boys hide him away in Will's father's barn, and their lives are changed...
Supposedly The Spikes Gang was a follow-up to an earlier cult western, Bad Company, and it does take a similarly cynical view of the Old West, although here the drama is a little less pungent, more like something you might see on television on one of those countless western shows that were beginning to die out around this time. It was based on a novel by Giles Tippette, adapted by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr, and like its predecessor took a steely look at what could possibly lead decent young fellows into a life of crime, the reason here more rebellion than any great ideas.
Once they have nursed Harry back to health the boys allow him to go on his way, something he is very grateful for although we see and they do not that he is happy to take advantage of them. Marvin could play this kind of disreputable charmer in his sleep, but that's why he was cast - not to sleep, but because he was the best around for this story. For the first but not the last time, Spikes bids his assistants farewell, but Will, fed up of his strict father's violent behaviour should he ever go against him, decides to leave all this behind and sets out for a life on the road, just as his new hero Spikes lives.
He makes sure to say goodbye to his two friends, but the allure of his new lifestyle is too much for them to turn down and soon all three are running away from home, or riding away anyway, looking for adventure - but as they soon find out, this is not that kind of film. Presently they are starving, with no money and no skills to get any, and so the inevitable happens and they turn to crime. However, it goes badly wrong when the bank they rob gains them precisely nothing except a criminal record as Tod accidentally shoots someone who tries to impede their getaway and the cash is blown away by the breeze in the confusion.
It is then Harry hoves into view once more, looking to return their favour and giving them a good meal and a little money, along with the poisonous notion that following his lawbreaking habits can get them somewhere. Time and again, they are proven wrong in this assumption, yet refuse to learn their lesson, and although they eventually team up with Spikes he still does them no good even if his charisma has them believing they are living a romantic life of a bandit. Yet there is no glamour here really, it may be warmly photographed but that's all that is warm about the trio's descent into hell, which seems inescapable once they go down this road of crime. Not the cheeriest of westerns, then, in spite of some lighter moments, but as a moral lesson it does its job well. Marvin is as good as he ever was, too. Music by Fred Karlin.