Thursday, December 18, 2008
EUROPEAN SAGEBRUSH SAGAS: THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY OF POLITICS
1966 was an important year for the Italian western genre. Leone would complete his 'Dollars' series with the epic, THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, Guiliano Gemma would continue to draw big numbers at the box office and Italian westerns would revel in an increasing amount of violence spurred on by the release of Corbucci's DJANGO (1966). Also, 1966 would usher in a new style of oater, the political western. These westerns with strong underlying themes dealing with revolutionaries and the suppression of the Mexican people by foreign powers were also called 'Zapata Westerns', so named for Mexican freedom fighter, Emiliano Zapata.
The first of these western movies with a message was the fascinating and intriguing A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (aka EL CHUNCHO, QUIEN SABE?) from director Damiano Damiani. The film is quite possibly the most successful in conveying the struggle of the Mexican people during this most tumultuous time in Mexico's history.
The Mexican Revolution began in 1910 under rule by General Porfirio Diaz. He brought lots of wealth and industry into Mexico but at the expense of the peasants and farmers and the lands that they had lived on. A growing influence from foreign powers kept agricultural families penniless with much properties in the hands of American and European dignitaries.
Lasting about a decade, the Mexican Revolution was ripe for the picking to Italian producers looking to expand the western landscape. Whereas American westerns were partial to the time worn themes of 'Cowboys & Indians', Italian westerns focused a lot of attention on Mexican banditos with a good number of entries concentrating on the Revolution or renegades fighting a more personal cause of varying social importance. A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1966) covers so many bases in its 2 hour running time building several characters of substance in addition to its thought provoking approach to the historical material.
Damiani's film also effectively retains the violence that made the European western variants appealing to fans of the genre. A very interesting cast populates the picture including Gian Maria Volonte (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS), Lou Castel (KILL & PRAY), Klaus Kinski (THE GREAT SILENCE) and Martine Beswicke (THUNDERBALL). Theater performer Volonte was an actor of some importance and felt disparaged after appearing in the first two Leone movies. Receiving numerous scripts in a similar vein (including THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY), Volonte refused to undertake commercial villain roles that brought him recognition and vowed to only appear in productions of some repute.
A devout political activist, Volonte's role as El Chuncho in A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL served him well as did his complex turn in Sergio Sollima's classic political western, FACE TO FACE (1967). Despite his far more complex and multi-layered portrayals in these two motion pictures, he will forever be associated with the two sadistic characters in Leone's first two westerns. Interestingly, earlier in his career, Volonte featured in a fusto adventure, HERCULES & THE CAPTIVE WOMEN (1961) starring Reg Park.
Damiani's superior western with a statement was about a gang of Mexican revolutionaries that robbed shipments of guns for General Elias. During the opening train heist, Chuncho meets the enigmatic Tate (he's called El Nino throughout the film). Tate joins the cause and is anxious to meet up with General Elias, a greatly respected radical whom Chuncho thinks most highly of.
Over the course of the journey to deliver a large shipment of weaponry to Elias, Chuncho's character undergoes a change. He's not a particularly learned man, and Tate easily cajoles Chuncho into abandoning a village of defenseless peasants opting to head for Elias's encampment to sell off the guns.
Upon reaching the General's base, Chuncho learns that the village was destroyed and all the inhabitants were massacred. If he had remained there dispersing the guns to the poor farmers, they would have been able to fight back when the Federales arrived. Chuncho is to be put to death for this crime. Tate saves him and also manages to assassinate Elias with a golden bullet he carried around in a valise.
Now confused, Chuncho has lost everything that was important to him. Tate takes him under his wing giving him lots of money and showing him what it's like to enjoy the finer things in life. However, Tate divulges that his friendship with Chuncho was really just an intricate scheme to fulfill his obligation with the Mexican government to assassinate General Elias by any means necessary. At this point, Chuncho sees Tate bullying some peasants prior to boarding a train for the United States. He comes to his senses and shoots Tate before tossing money into the air demanding that the peons not buy bread, but dynamite.
The films original title comes into play just prior to the shooting of Tate. He asks Chuncho, "Why must you kill me?!" to which Chuncho responds, "Quien Sabe?"(Who knows?). Those two words are uttered by Chuncho over the course of the film. Volonte is excellent in this movie and displays both confusion and galvanization during his transition from a roguish bandit, to (briefly) a man of status and finally, his transformation into a revolutionary. Lou Castel as Tate is fine in the part. He seldom changes facial expressions but this approach suits the role. Castel also appeared in the unusually quirky westerns, REQUIESCANT (KILL & PRAY; 1967) and MATALO! (1970).
Klaus Kinski plays Chuncho's slightly unhinged brother, the monastic madman, El Santo. It's a particularly spirited Kinski role, considering his performances vary from film to film. He did so many of them, and unlike Volonte, Kinski did the Euroaters for the money and nothing else. He would take the role that paid him the most money, even if he thought the script to be garbage. Often, his participation is very limited as the lower budgeted spaghetti westerns could only afford him for a limited amount of time.
While the Italian westerns began a cycle of films towards the cerebral with the inclusion of politics, Guiliano Gemma continued to be a popular and dominating force at the Italian and international box office with his more linear outings. 1966 saw the release of both FORT YUMA GOLD (PER POCHE DOLLARI ANCORA) and ARIZONA COLT (THE MAN FROM NOWHERE). In FORT YUMA GOLD, Gemma (under his Montgomery Wood pseudonym) plays captured Confederate Captain Gary Hammond.
The Civil War is over and Hammond is hired by the commanding officer of the Union forces to escort two of his officers to Fort Yuma to warn them of an impending attack by Hammond's own men. Led by the villainous Major Sanders, the attack is merely a decoy as Sanders has his own plans for getting into the fort. It's an action packed adventure film with a little bit of everything thrown into the mix. Previously a leading man in sword and sandal epics, Dan Vadis plays one of the main villains, Nelson Riggs, who is in league with Sanders. Directed by Giorgio Ferroni, the accomplished director guided Gemma in two other spaghetti westerns, ONE SILVER DOLLAR (1965) and WANTED (1967).
ARIZONA COLT saw Gemma return to the success of his 'Ringo' movies. Although not a second sequel, the character of Arizona Colt is very similar to the one Gemma played in A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965). One of the most obvious similarities is that Arizona drinks milk. His personality is very similar as well, but with a heavier slant towards the cruel and demoralizing. Another connection to the first Ringo picture is in that film, Gemma had a catch phrase he used throughout, "It's a matter of principle." In ARIZONA COLT, Gemma repeatedly states, "I'll think about that." Also, the singer, Raoul, who sang the lyrics to Gemma's main theme from A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965) does the same for ARIZONA COLT (1966).
Colt breaks out of prison when it's attacked by a gang of killers led by Gordo Watch (played by Fernando Sancho, another Ringo connection) seeking new members. Colt refuses to join and uses his cunning to escape Gordo. He ends up in the town of Blackstone which is soon to be plagued by the likes of Gordo and his gang. When one of the daughters of the bar owner is brutally murdered, Colt offers to bring back the killer if the bar owner agrees to hand over his other daughter as payment!
Colt manages to kill the murderer in a fight, but he's severely injured by Gordo's men and left for dead. The bandit goes to Blackstone and holds the town hostage. Colt returns to avenge himself on Gordo and free the town in addition to a rather suave final scene that shows Arizona Colt may not be such a bad guy after all. ARIZONA COLT was released in America under the title, THE MAN FROM NOWHERE, in relation to the catchy main theme sung by Raoul.
With the success of A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, a handful of political westerns of varying popularity would follow up to the early 1970's. Sergio Sollima, whose films seemed to always contain some socially relevant underlying themes, directed some of the best entries of this sub genre. 1966 saw the release of one of the most well known examples. THE BIG GUNDOWN starred two of the most recognizable and popular stars of Italian cinema-- Lee Van Cleef and Tomas Milian, an actor of Cuban descent who would make a niche in the political pasta sub genre among his many Euro western credits.
Van Cleef plays Jonathan Corbett, a lawman turned gun for hire who takes a job hunting down and capturing a Mexican peon named Cuchillo. Accused of raping and murdering a 12 year old girl by a rich businessman named Brockston, Corbett catches up to Cuchillo on several occasions but the crafty knife thrower eludes him everytime. As the movie progresses, it is soon discovered that Cuchillo saw who the real murderer was and that Brockston is covering up the incident.
Sollima's movie has less to do with the Mexican Revolution than it does the social status between the rich and the poor. Fearing what a crime of murder would do to the family of some standing, the blame of the brutal crime is laid on a person that because of his race and appearance, was a prime candidate for transgression.
The sequel to this picture was RUN, MAN, RUN from 1968. Milian returns as Cuchillo, but Donald O'Brien takes over a similar role to the one Van Cleef played in THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966). What sets this film apart is that whereas the focus was mainly on the Corbett character in GUNDOWN, Cuchillo is the main thrust of the sequel.
Also along for the ride are former peplum beauty, Chelo Alonso and Linda Veras. This was another political western that straddled the lines of showcasing a message utilizing the Revolution as a backdrop. The message of social status is less prevalent than in the previous movie relying instead on traditional western cliches to tell its story. It nonetheless is a great little chase picture involving the search for hidden gold driven by an energetic soundtrack from Ennio Morricone (credited to Bruno Nicolai to allow him some credit).
In between these two productions, Sollima directed his best movie, FACE TO FACE (1967), a film that has lots to say about the human condition as well as dealing yet again with themes of social status. What's intriguing about Sollima's most cerebral western is the manner in which the characters are presented and the way in which they literally switch places.
Brad Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonte) is a professor of history who moves to Texas where fate deals him an unusual hand when he crosses paths with violent outlaw, Beauregard Bennett (Tomas Milian). Violence is a running theme throughout Sollima's movie. Fletcher becomes entranced with the use of the gun and eventually is seduced by the power the weapon brings. Bennett, on the other hand, sees how such power can seduce a civilized and learned man, turning him into a ruthless killer.
Once Fletcher has taken over as leader of Bennett's gang, he has something that makes him more dangerous. Bennett's violence was born out of a need to survive while Fletcher uses his intellect to derive power from violence. Fletcher talks of expanding his dictatorial forces and how violence perpetrated in numbers relates to history and not just the act of a desperate man or relative few with nothing more to gain aside from petty robbery or other deeds of random criminality.
The fascinating aspects of FACE TO FACE (1967) are in its incredibly deep characterizations. Fletcher discovers aggression and the power and pleasure from inflicting pain while Bennett finds morality and a sense of justice as well as regret for his past acts against mankind. Sollima may have only directed three westerns, but he dabbled in other genres with equal attention to plot and character development.
Famed western director, Sergio Corbucci, directed a number of political westerns, some of which are considered classics, such as THE MERCENARY (1968), COMPANEROS (1970) and the comedic, WHAT AM I DOING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE REVOLUTION? (1972). The first two films both share Franco Nero in common. Tony Musante co-stars in the former and Tomas Milian in the latter. THE MERCENARY is considered by some to be Sergio Corbucci's finest film; again dealing with familiar territory of the Mexican Revolution as well as the usual plot point of pairing an individual of stature with a less mannered freedom fighter.
This time, though, the ambitious Mexican peasant anxious to rally a revolution, hasn't the slightest idea on how to do so. This is where Nero's character of Kowalski comes into play. First hired by Colonel Garcia to safely transport a massive shipment of silver across the border onto American soil, a group of disorganized Mexican bandits have laid claim to the silver. When Kowalski arrives, he now must get the silver back, but in the process, he ends up joining the bandits led by Paco Roman and shows them how to start a revolution.
Nero played a similar character modeled on greed for COMPANEROS (1970). Here, Nero plays a Swedish arms dealer named Yodlaf who comes to Mexico in search of money. Hearing of a safe with abundant treasures within, Yodlaf volunteers to locate Xantos, the only man that can open the safe. To make the job more difficult, Xantos is being held inside a Mexican prison.
Joined by Vasco, a Mexican revolutionary, the two characters have very different ideals with Yodlaf really only interested in making off with the riches for himself. Another obstacle comes in the form of Jack Palance as the crazed villain, John. Palance's bad guy is a pot smoking mercenary with a pet falcon named Marsha who was previously double crossed by Yodlaf and is out for some revenge.
Both MERCENARY and COMPANEROS have a lot of similarities besides the casting of both Nero and Palance. Both films are built around flashbacks and both feature a greedy foreigner looking for some dollars at the expense of the suffering Mexican people. This counter productive pairing is a mainstay of the political western subgenre. Some of these films honestly have something to say while some others use ideology and affairs of state as a framing device for near endless scenes of action and violence.
TEPEPA (1968) is a classy and thought provoking example of the political western from director Guilio Petroni (DEATH RIDES A HORSE). It follows the events of the Mexican Revolution fairly closely fashioning a fictional story around factual events creating a compelling dramatic action film with a message. What's fascinating about the script by Franco Solinas (who also wrote A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL) is that the film blurs the lines of the hero and villain.
For what Tepepa (the leader of the Revolution) has done to Price's fiance, should he be condemned for his crime of rape in lieu of his ultimate good for his countrymen? In a later scene, Tepepa gives what he considers a reasonable explanation for his actions; that he only did what a man would normally do with a woman. Whereas the other Revolution westerns most often had a curious pairing of polar opposites in the form of a dirty freedom fighter and a well to do individual of some repute, TEPEPA follows this dichotomy but distorts the perception of its protagonist by making his actions questionable.
There were very few of these character and historically driven westerns but several of these are widely considered some of the best the entire genre of European westerns has to offer. Around the time the political westerns had dissipated, the comedies were just around the corner, yet there was still a good few serious oaters to see the light of a projector before the laughter took over.