Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Euro Western Cinema Classics: Silver Saddle (1978) review
SILVER SADDLE 1978 aka SELLA D'ARGENTO
Giuliano Gemma (Roy Blood), Geoffrey Lewis (Two Strike Snake), Ettore Manni (Thomas Barrett), Cinzia Monreale (Margaret Barrett), Aldo Sambrell (Garincha), Donald O'brien (Fletcher)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
The Short Version: Lucio Fulci, prior to embarking on the portion of his career he's most remembered for, directed his fifth, and final Italian western. Benefiting from the participation of the iconic Giuliano Gemma, Fulci fashions some energetic action set pieces that keep the middling plot afloat. While not one of Gemma's best movies, it's miles away better than a few hundred similar movies that came before it.
Sent by a man named Barrett to murder his father, young Roy Blood guns down his fathers killer. Taking the assassins ornately designed silver saddle, Roy grows up to be a lone gunman feared by many. Hired to kill whom he presumes to be the same Barrett that ordered his fathers murder, Roy discovers his target is actually an innocent little boy. Roy takes the kid under his wing and along with his sidekick, Two Strike Snake, they seek out the one behind the plot to murder the little boy. Along the way, they're ambushed by outlaws and pursued by a Mexican bandit gang.
The last of Fulci's five western pictures were among a handful that thankfully put this genre out to pasture up on Boot Hill. The cycle having gone on longer than it should have, these 'Last of the Bad Movie Men' were of a grittier variety than the previous ten years worth of six shooter cinema from Europe. SILVER SADDLE is the least grim of the likes of CALIFORNIA (also with Gemma), MANNAJA (1977), KEOMA (1976) and Fulci's bizarre gore-bore of a western, FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975). While some of these were high caliber affairs, it became obvious the genre had become both stagnant and unpopular, and the few later examples were lacking the magic of even these late 70s entries.
Whereas the American west got a little nastier courtesy of the Italian variants, the Italians likewise took a cue from the sort of overt brutality western movies dabbled in during the 1970s post Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969). Movies like SOLDIER BLUE (1970), THE HUNTING PARTY (1971) and HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973) look to have had a possible effect on the last phase of the Euroater. The visual aura of THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES (1976) appears to have been highly influential as well. SILVER SADDLE, by comparison, almost seems stuck in a time warp as these kinds of movies became fewer and far between after the tidal wave of comedic antics proved the death knell for the genre with nowhere to go but six feet under.
Modern day crime thrillers ripped straight from the headlines replaced the cowboys and Mexican banditos. There had been approximately 600 Italian westerns in ten years so by this point, the well had run dry rendering SILVER SADDLE a relic of a dead genre. Granted, Clint Eastwood almost exclusively kept the genre alive in America in the late 70s and into the 1980s and the Italians would sneak one in every few years (TEX & THE LORD OF THE DEEP, DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN, JONATHAN OF THE BEARS), but the template followed in SILVER SADDLE is typical of a 60s entry. For what it is, Fulci's adios to the genre is an enjoyable exercise in action spectacle with the most minuscule story to hold it together. Without Gemma, it's likely this movie would hold little to no interest whatsoever. There's literally nothing here that hasn't been seen in hundreds of other similar, and better movies.
Still, Gemma is a screen icon in his native Italy and that alone makes SILVER SADDLE well worth a viewing, or two. Relatively few of his westerns could be considered average and even those are made tolerable by Gemma's presence and endearingly likable persona. A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965) cemented his popularity and while his movies were well received in the US during the 60s, it's startling that none of his pictures have been made widely available in sterling special editions on DVD in North America. Incidentally, it appears the same house and grounds from that genre defining movie is used here for the Barrett household. Gemma was famous for his smirking heroes and showing off his entrancingly white teeth. But here and in the gloomy CALIFORNIA (1978), Gemma plays it mostly with a straight face.
Geoffrey Lewis is wasted as the comical sidekick to Roy, Two Strike Snake, a wanderer who loots the dead left in Roy Blood's wake. I expected him to be the villain here considering how well he acquitted himself as the evil bastard seen in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973). No doubt he would have brought more to the bad guy role than Ettore Manni does, who remains largely absent from the film. The 'Two Strike' character, while also only popping up infrequently, wasn't even needed--he adds nothing to the narrative and the film would have worked just fine without him. His sole purpose here is to act as additional assist during the films bigger action set pieces.
Ettore Manni has been in many Italian actioners including the peplum-horror crossover ROME AGAINST ROME aka WAR OF THE ZOMBIES (1964) and the gladiator cum war picture GLADIATORS OF ROME (1964). Cinzia Monreale will be instantly recognizable to Euro horror fan-addicts from her role as the object of obsession in BEYOND THE DARKNESS (1979) and the ghostly sentinel from Fulci's THE BEYOND (1981). Donald O'brien also has a small role and he was memorable in Sollima's RUN, MAN, RUN (1968) and made a mess as DR. BUTCHER M.D. aka ZOMBI HOLOCAUST (1980). Aldo Sambrell is one of the most celebrated Euro actors and he has graced dozens of movies both good and bad. One of his finest roles was as the main villain in NAVAJO JOE (1966).
Fulci shoots these action sequences with a keen eye for rhythm and these scenes are just as exciting as they were in his much earlier MASSACRE TIME from 1966. This is helped immensely by the agility of Gemma who shows he was still quite capable of spry activity at 40. While he has just as many fans as detractors, Fulci obviously had a knack for capturing exciting shoot outs and this movie has more than a few. The budget appears to have been ample and Fulci pulls off a surprisingly engaging, if derivative throwback to the European sagebrush sagas of the 1960s.
This review is representative of the Koch Media R2 PAL DVD