Sunday, March 27, 2016

Cool Ass Cinema Book Reviews: Patterson & Gimlin's Bigfoot Film From the Perspective of A Hollywood Makeup Artist


By William Munns

492 pages; softcover; B/W; first edition 2014

The author takes the reader on an extremely detailed journey that seeks to prove the Hominid seen in the most famous 60 seconds of film is (or was) a real, living, breathing Bigfoot. Munns is as passionate about his research as he is comprehensive; tackling the subject with seriousness that, while occasionally defensive, is an ideal presentation for open-minded readers and general fans of Sasquatch lore. If you enjoyed all those nifty Bigfoot and 'Mysterious Monsters' type documentaries from the 70s, you're bound to find this thorough examination of the PGF from a makeup effects artist point of view of interest. An essential volume for Bigfoot fans (I know you are out there!).

Former Hollywood SPX artist William Munns has, in addition to over three decades in the film business, added wildlife artist, Cryptozoology studies and museum exhibit designer to his lengthy resume. A lifelong interest in the PGF (Patterson-Gimlin Film) has resulted in Munn's compilation of a near 500 page examination of the controversial short that takes up approximately one minute's worth of 16mm film. 

As a kid I was always into anything mysterious; especially if it was monster related. I watched as many Bigfoot movies as possible (as many as I could see on television back then) and always wanted to believe that such a creature was alive and well and walking around somewhere. I still don't think a Sasquatch is real, but don't discount the possibility of its existence now or at any time prior. The mystery surrounding them has been entrenched within American culture for so long (not to mention its folklore the world over), if I were to be somewhere out in the Pacific Northwest wilderness, I can't honestly say I wouldn't be wondering if a hairy hominid was watching somewhere out there.

Strictly from a fan's perspective, WHEN ROGER MET PATTY (Patty, as in the name given to the Hominid in the film, bearing female features) is arguably the most in-depth dissertation on the subject matter yet published. Munns examines from every angle imaginable; everything from the frames of film, to the location itself, to suit construction is heavily scrutinized. 

His expertise being the makeup effects field, Munns uses those years of experience to make his argument that the infamous Hominid captured on film by Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin isn't (or wasn't) a guy in a costume. In doing so, the author has, over the years, received a lot of derogatory notices as well as praise for his extensive research. This book isn't likely to change that, but it's difficult to say the book isn't without merit or interest--especially to those with an appreciation for film genres like fantasy and horror.

Regarding special makeup effects, there are two chapters that touch on topics intrinsic to the authors credentials and vital to his approach to the subject. Chapter 3 is a mini-biography detailing Munns's early life, how he came to be interested in ape and ape-like creatures, and his eventual work with animals at Ralph Helfer's famous Gentle Jungle wild animal compound. 

The chapter directly following this one extends the coverage of Hollywood makeup effects; which further nurtured Munns's interest in exploring the famous film by Patterson/Gimlin. In these sections, Munns discusses some of his Hollywood work accompanied by a number of behind the scenes photos from films like SAVAGE HARVEST (1981) and THE BEASTMASTER (1982).

I know nothing of suit building or the art of makeup design outside of what I've read, so Munns's well-rounded documentation is certainly engaging for readers with a casual interest in not just Sasquatches, but also the art of filmmaking. If nothing else, the author definitely succeeded in holding my attention.

Negatives are minor, down to mere spelling errors and the way some of the pictures are presented. For example, some of the photos are far too small; particularly in chapter 8 wherein Munns dissects every nook and cranny of a man-made suit--the author using some of his own works as a template. In addition to being too small, some photos are too bright; whereas color would have been a better choice in this respect.

Another stone Munns doesn't leave unturned is the negative connotations associated with this subject--that the short film is a hoax. Covered predominantly in chapters 10 and 14, Munns occasionally, and always passionately, defends his assertions while delving into the skeptical aspects with discussion of other books on the subject.

I didn't come away from WHEN ROGER MET PATTY with a changed mind that Bigfoot is real (no hairs or skeletal remains have yet to turn up), but the author is certainly dedicated to its subject matter in ways few have ever been. Just as intriguing as any of those fantastic Bigfoot/Mystery Monster documentaries of the 70s, it's difficult to read Munn's book and not be the slightest bit captivated by his exhaustive analysis as to whether or not the fabled Bigfoot does indeed exist.

To purchase this book through amazon click HERE.

You can read more about William Munns work HERE.

To read the CAC interview with William Munns click HERE.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Hateful Eight (2015) review


Samuel L. Jackson (Major Marquis Warren), Kurt Russell (John Ruth), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Daisy Domergue), Walton Goggins (Sheriff Chris Mannix), Demian Bechir (Bob), Tim Roth (Oswaldo Mobray), Michael Madsen (Joe Gage), Bruce Dern (General Sandy Smithers), James Parks (O.B. Jackson), Dana Gourrier (Minnie Mink), Zoe Bell (Six-Horse Judy), Lee Horsley (Ed), Gene Jones (Sweet Dave), Keith Jefferson (Charly), Craig Stark (Chester Charles Smithers), Belinda Owina (Gemma), Channing Tatum (Jody)

Directed by Quentin Tarantino

The Short Version: Another three hour (187 in its roadshow version) QT snooze-fest is the ultimate in pretentiousness on the part of America's most self-congratulatory director. Tarantino delivers his most long-winded work yet, moving along, as Kurt Russell says in the film, "molasses like". Fans of the director will find all his signature staples--a dearth of extraneous, unnecessary dialog; ego-stroking scenes that go on forever; mismatched music cues; flashbacks that bridge interminable yapping with bloody violence; nods to this or that film; and frequent use of the word 'nigger'. Tarantino is nothing else if not consistent. THE HATEFUL EIGHT is more like THE WASTEFUL THREE.

While transporting a criminal to Red Rock for hanging, John Ruth picks up a few more passengers aboard his stagecoach before a massive blizzard forces them to seek refuge at a waystation for the night. Four men wait inside, all of which have some story to tell and a bloody secret that unfolds over the course of a single night.

As an opening title card informs us, this is Quentin Tarantino's 8th (Boring) Movie... another movie where people talk about nothing for extended periods of time till jarring scenes of brutality upset the tedium. His 6th Boring Movie, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, the war picture that never depicts an actual war, was touted as the first of one big, boring trilogy--continuing with DJANGO UNCHAINED and wrapping up with THE HATEFUL EIGHT; which apparently has connections to characters in the aforementioned and awkwardly spelled INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. 

THE HATEFUL EIGHT is sort of a western version of Carpenter's THE THING (even implementing some of that film's unused music)--a film Tarantino already reworked to a degree for his RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). You'll also find elements that may remind you of snow-caked westerns like DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959), the Spanish gore western CUT-THROATS NINE (1972) and Corbucci's THE GREAT SILENCE (1968). Another Italian western that seems very familiar is Giuseppe Vari's SHOOT THE LIVING AND PRAY FOR THE DEAD (1971)--a talky suspense western starring Klaus Kinski in one of his prime bad guy roles; but unlike Tarantino's movie it's only 90 minutes in length.....

Most movies, by the 70 minute mark, are building to a climax.... 70 minutes into THE HATEFUL EIGHT things are barely getting started (and there's 100 more to go!). Virtually every scene goes on ad infinitum. We're nearly 40 minutes in before the setting finally changes from a stagecoach to the "Minnie's Haberdashery"--owned and operated by Minnie, a character who is conspicuous in her absence, and one whom we meet in a flashback around the two hour mark. At that point, we're introduced (and, in some cases, re-introduced) to characters already at the cabin; and what happened to them prior to the arrival of the stagecoach.

From that point to the end, the oral onslaught continues but with the addition of extreme violence and bloodshed. It gets so ridiculous, it borders on parody. So much blood is splattered on, or seeping from, Jennifer Jason Leigh, you get the impression the director was trying to outdo the amount of red stuff Bruce Campbell wears in THE EVIL DEAD (1981). One of a few running gags, Daisy Domergue is not only drenched in bits of brains and gallons of blood, but gets punched in the face at regular intervals throughout the movie.

An epic in self-indulgence is what's really up on screen in 70mm. It's the director's ultimate gab-fest, trapping a group of people in a single locale where they talk... and talk.... and talk..... often repeating the same things over and over again. Imagine a record player skipping for 170 minutes. THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a near 3 hour bomb of intentionally repetitive ego-stroking.

One example of this film's monotonousness is witnessing people entering the establishment having to hammer nails into the door over and over again to keep the biting freeze of winter's breath from getting inside. Some half a dozen times we watch as various cast members nail flimsy boards into a door without a latch. Some would call this a running gag; I call it an editing problem. 

Mercifully, Tarantino doesn't give himself an onscreen part in his Wild West version of GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER (1967), but he does narrate a few scenes; and not in a Morgan Freeman sort of way... no, it's like he's reading a book while sipping on a cup of hot chocolate by a warm fire. Merely telling us what we can clearly see transpiring onscreen, this does nothing to progress the story in any way.

There are some nice things on display, though. The director captures some awe-inspiring shots that serve the gloomy atmosphere very well. Sadly, these are few and far between; this is even more unfortunate since the director shot his picture in 70mm--a novel choice if only Tarantino had opted to take advantage of the process. Take THE ALAMO (1960), for instance. John Wayne's sprawling epic was that and more with the wider angle lens fitting the action like a glove. Tarantino, on the other hand, wants to give his audience an epic but settles for a stage play/sitcom style scenario where the setting is a single location. Why even bother? What's the point of having more room to play with if you're confining yourself to one room--two if you count the 40 minute slog inside a stagecoach.

The acting is mostly top-notch, which, considering the cast, is to be expected. Unfortunately, the director's penchant for doing everything over the top ruins any serious attempt at the material. For example, there's another tiresome running gag, this one about Samuel L. Jackson having a letter from Abraham Lincoln that opens the door for Tarantino to utilize his favorite epithet for comedy relief as opposed to further defining the villains--as there's no hero(es) here at all. Two times back to back we hear this line from a shocked Tim Roth and Walter Goggins, "The nigger in the stable... has a letter from Abraham Lincoln?!" Later as they sit at a table eating hot stew, the Lincoln letter comes up for the third time; and again, Tarantino indulges his repetitive nature.

In interviews the director said he infused his film with social relevance; yet there is little of it. Tarantino turns post-Civil War racial tension into a blood-drenched comedy routine. The two most unlikely of friends end up joining forces not because they've set aside, or even solved their differences, but out of a need for survival. The film wastes three hours exploring nothing of substance.

In all fairness there are a few strong moments that punctuate a scene or two, but the effect is mostly obliterated by a reliance on camp. The best of these suspense moments is the exchange between Samuel L. and Bruce Dern--two former enemies on the battlefield who still harbor a great deal of hatred between them. The scene in question has Major Warren (Jackson) feigning a desire to, metaphorically speaking, lay down arms a second time. It's a very well done sequence in terms of the editing; although Tarantino messes up the flow with a flashback--which is odd considering the sheer number of bland convos he gives the audience without any visualization at all. Unfortunately he mucks up the sequence with an awkward fellatio infused climax (haha).

Elsewhere, the KNB FX are as splattery as ever; even if they feel out of place in a movie that has people talking for hours uttering worthless dialog. There's no denying the director is a good writer, but narcissism has been the man's guiding force for at least seven years now; since as far back as his exploitation movie without any exploitation, the car wreck that was DEATH PROOF--one half of the failed 70s throwback, GRINDHOUSE (2009).

Most movies just get on with it. This one wants to take its shoes off and sit a spell. Tarantino continues to outdo himself; whether that's a good or bad thing depends on your opinion of the director's works. Fans of QT will lap it up while others will enjoy a three hour nap. It's a shame THE HATEFUL EIGHT is such a turgid experience; there's a fine story buried beneath three hours of pompous pandering by a director writing the longest love letter ever... to himself.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Culpepper Cattle Company (1972) review


Gary Grimes (Ben Mockridge), Billy Green Bush (Frank Culpepper), Luke Askew (Luke), Bo Hopkins (Dixie Brick), Geoffrey Lewis (Russ), Wayne Sutherlin (Missoula), John McLiam (Thornton Pierce), Matt Clark (Pete), Raymond Guth (Cook), Anthony James (Nathaniel), Hal Needham (Burgess), Royal Dano (Cattle Rustler), Gregory Sierra (One-eyed Horse Thief)

Directed by Dick Richards

"Cover him, kid.... if he moves, kill him."

The Short Version: One of the best of the cynic westerns is this coming of age story about a boy's rite of passage to manhood in becoming a cowpuncher--only to discover prairie life isn't all it's cracked up to be. Another bleak, yet provocative, defeatist western of the 1970s, this one's an oater road movie that trespasses onto territory owned by THE WILD BUNCH (1969) for the finale. Preachy and violent in equal doses, the film may not be palatable for those accustomed to, or expecting, a more linear sagebrush saga. Well acted by a fantastic cast of familiar faces and masterfully filmed by the director and his crew, you will feel the dirt, sweat and funk in this tale of hard life and true grit.

Youngin' Ben Mockridge wants to be a cowboy somethin' fierce so he gets a job on Frank Culpepper's cattle drive headin' out from Texas to Fort Lewis in Colorado. The kid wants to see the world and become a man; only the world ain't quite what he's expectin' after runnin' into cattle rustlers, trappers, horse thieves, and Thornton Pierce--a snivelin', connivin' land baron--a right mean bastard if ever was one. After makin' a stand for a passel o' religious folk, the kid learns a lot about life on a trail paved in a whole lotta blood, violence n' death.

The dust and dirt of the Wild West comes filthily to life in this drab in color, but luminously thematic post-Civil War action-drama about a kid who wants to leave small town life behind and experience what he thinks will be a flashier existence as a cowboy; a career that, as described by the Culpepper Cattle Company's cook, "somethin' you do when you can't do nothin' else". Buying himself a $4 dollar pistol, Ben Mockridge (played with just the right amount of innocence and naivety by Gary Grimes), the kid, has grown up romanticizing the cowboy lifestyle; it's only when he actually experiences it does he grow into a man and learn a lot about life... and death. 

As the movie progresses the kid picks up little attributes of the men around him and occasionally riles up the very man who took him on as a cowboy-in-training. There's no father-son relationship here, it's strictly 'carry your own weight or get carried out... or buried'. At one point, stern trail boss Culpepper, as much an individualist as he is a businessman, has had enough of the kid after their horses are stolen due to another of the kid's screw-ups. He makes up for it a short time later when he identifies the men responsible for the equine thievery (leading to one of the picture's most suspenseful moments) in a cramped saloon. The kid makes his first kill in this scene, too. There's no elaboration on how this affects him--at least not till the end after a fateful crossing of paths with a bunch of Mormons led by Nathaniel (played by the always welcome character actor Anthony James). Refusing to leave after a death threat from the guy who owns the property, one Thornton Pierce, the film becomes THE WILD BUNCH (1969) for a bloody finish that's both powerful and poignant.

Directed by former photographer Dick Richards, he shows a meticulous eye for detail in virtually every frame. Everything looks weathered and lived in as does all the characters. Even with a lack of characterization in some cases, everyone, despite their chosen profession, shows signs of having survived some form of adversity by all the dirt and funk that marks their bodies. The director and his DP's show a striking sense of camera placement, capturing imagery of the actors that looks like it could be a glossy snapshot taken in the 1800s. 

Even the sound design has been carefully handled. The bullet sounds, for example, have an echo in certain shots that make them sound even more powerful heightening the sense of realism.

This was the highly successful Jerry Bruckheimer's first producer credit, and the first of four team-ups with Dick Richards.

Episodic in structure, the script is successful in building several characters the audience grows to care about whether they be good, bad, or ugly. Basically a series of vignettes strung together, all of which involve the kid in some way whether intentionally or inadvertently. It's when the kid is sent on a mini-adventure to bring back gunfighters (including WILD BUNCHer Bo Hopkins and bad guy fave Luke Askew), particularly one named Russ Caldwell (Geoffrey Lewis in his first movie role of substance), that the picture adds an even grittier aura to the remainder of the 92 minute celluloid cattle drive. 

Oddly enough, the cowboy life isn't glamorized, but the outlaw lifestyle is. They might be a quartet of cut-throats, but we come to like Russ and his three-man band with Luke (Luke Askew), Dixie Brick (Bo Hopkins), and Missoula (Wayne Sutherlin). They're a rowdy bunch who kill men with impunity and talk of robbing banks while the others tell tall tales of saloon whore exploits. They are the anti-heroes of the film. The closest to a good guy we get is reformed gunslinger, Frank Culpepper.

Played by Billy Green Bush (ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE [1973]), Frank is all business now. Caring only about his cows, he takes a lot of shit on the trail, but keeps moving towards his destination. Putting his gunslinger past behind him, on two occasions those around him remark, "there are some things in life more important than cattle". Things come to a head after two embarrassing run-ins with a hard ass bully of a land baron, the aforementioned Thornton Pierce; a late-arriving villain, and a catalyst for the transformation of the anti-heroes to unlikely heroes.

Forced off a piece of property being occupied by a group of pitiful Mormons, the kid decides to leave Mr. Culpepper and stay behind to help the passive settlers; assuring martyrdom once Thornton returns, fulfilling his promise to kill'em all. Having left both their guns and their dignity behind, Russ can't handle two insults back to back so he and his Wild Bunch have one of those "Awwww, shit" moments, and ride back to make a stand with the kid. It's in this last "episode" where the film, in showing its Peckinpah influence, paints the wagons red.

Beginning on an upbeat note, the film ends on an expected downbeat one that is familiar to the defeatist western paradigm. Nowhere is this more profound than at the beginning seeing the kid's glow at holding a gun, putting it on and practicing his not-so-quick-draw. By the time the movie finishes, the kid, disillusioned with the whole cowboy life, throws down the gun he was so enamored with, presumably to return home. The trail life failed him as did the Mormons he and the four gunslingers put their lives on the line for.

The Jerry Goldsmith and Tom Scott score is a notable combination of folksy, upbeat cues and somber religious tunes. The use of 'Amazing Grace' is especially poignant. It's a fine selection and both composers would go on to prosperous careers. 

Shot in the sweltering heat of Mexico for around ten weeks in 1971, Dick Richards wrangled an impressive first theatrical feature. Afterward, he was being pitched to direct ROOSTER COGBURN (1975) starring John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn, but didn't find the script to his liking. He then lost out on JAWS (1975). His insistence on changing Benchley's Great White shark to a whale ensured he didn't get the job. Instead he followed up with another road movie in RAFFERTY AND THE GOLD DUST TWINS (1975) and the crime drama FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975). He helmed a fairly lame slasher movie titled DEATH VALLEY in 1982.

An unconventional western even by downer western standards, THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO. is an engrossing, at times exciting, story of a boy who undergoes a grueling rite of passage from adolescence to manhood. Exceedingly polished in its depiction of true grit and a lack of cleanliness, Culpepper and his cowpunchers take the viewer on a journey worth experiencing.

This review is representative of the Fox DVD. Specs and Extras: anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1 Side B/Fullscreen Side A; Extras: Production Stills Gallery; Behind the Scenes Gallery; Theatrical Trailer; running time:1:32:28

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The McMasters (1970) review


Burl Ives (Neal McMasters), Brock Peters (Benjie), David Carradine (White Feather), Nancy Kwan (Robin Lightfoot), Jack Palance (Kolby), John Carradine (Preacher), L.Q. Jones (Russel), R.G. Armstrong (Watson), Dane Clark (Spencer), Alan Vint (Hank)

Directed by Alf Kjellin

The Short Version: Middling, melodrama-heavy bigot western has a great cast and an unusually complex main protagonist but fumbles when trying to fuse exposition with exploitation. Director Kjellin repeatedly pulls back the reigns, rarely letting his cinematic mare roam the range. A Swedish filmmaker mostly resigned to television work in the US, THE McMASTERS feels like a rougher version of an episode of THE WALTONS (of which Kjellin directed 10). In the 70s these types of westerns thrived on gratuitous violence and Kjellin focuses more on the threat of brutality or its aftermath instead of actually showing it. Other than the language and a rape scene, the tone is so light, one expects to hear Burl Ives whip out his banjo and sing a folks song or make a gallon of Luzianne Iced Tea. Jack Palance and L.Q. Jones are appropriately despicable, uttering the obligatory epithets with conviction; yet their comeuppance is another area where the director denies his audience a satisfyingly emotional payoff. Not terrible, but not terribly memorable either; in the end, THE MCMASTERS is little more than McMediocre.

In 1865, Benjie "Benjamin" McMasters, a soldier in the Union Army, returns to the southern town of his former owner and adoptive father, Neal McMasters. Naturally, nobody expected him to come back after a 4 year sojourn, nor is everybody happy to see Benjie, especially while wearing a Union Army uniform. Shortly after his arrival he receives a less than friendly reception from Kolby, a one-armed Reb who is never without a mouth full of chewing tobacco. Much to Benjie's surprise, Neal offers him a contract giving him half of everything he owns. Enraged that Neal has given a black man ownership of property, Kolby and his crew ensure Neal will have no help working the land. Solving the problem upon finding Indian cattle thieves on his property, Benjie gives them jobs and they give him a Squaw as a gift. Meanwhile, Kolby and his gang sabotage the McMaster homestead, plot to find and destroy Benjie's contract, and kill off the McMasters clan once and for all.

Shot in Santa Fe, New Mexico this American western financed by a British company is a strange brew of traditional and defeatist westerns featuring Brock Peters as an unlikely hero battling bigots in a Collum County Civil War. Director Kjellin, a Swedish filmmaker who worked primarily in television during his US career, made an efficient, if unmemorable movie. Linear in execution and bland when it needs to have some flavor, the filmmakers tease the audience with a surprising nude scene, racially charged language and some moderate, bloodless violence (during the last half). Bearing a PG rating (still GP at the time), the exploitation crowd will likely be disappointed if expecting something excessively trashy.... and THE McMASTERS has great potential for it.

The biggest coup for the Dimitri de Grunewald production is Brock Peters (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD [1962]), a fine actor headlining a movie specifically tailored for him. At first glance, he would seem an odd choice for a picture like this since the film's promotional materials gives the impression of sleazier prospects than what you actually get. More of an acting showcase than an action movie (think John Ford's SERGEANT RUTLEDGE [1960] starring Woody Strode), it would be a couple more years before Fred Williamson would come along and turn out the first black action western with THE LEGEND OF NIGGER CHARLEY in 1972. 

Often lumped in with the blaxploitation genre, THE McMASTERS (1970) doesn't technically fit the criteria of those movies. Brock is the sole black actor in a film with no lingering exploitation; and essaying a performance that is more John Wayne than Jim Brown. There's plenty of exploitable elements, but the director just skims the surface of them. Harold Jacob Smith's talky script foreshadows a lot but delivers very little. Even the action is restrained. The finale, for instance, is unique in that the cavalry that comes to the rescue is a Redskin militia--only the shootout is extremely brief. Again, this is more of a drama than anything else. In that area it works even if it gets a little too stagy at times.

Benjie (Peters) is a complicated character; at times stoic and others a guy with issues in dealing with the opposite sex. The war is over and he comes back to a home nobody expected him to return to. A southern town. A town where both his blue uniform and black skin is a detriment to some. Apparently Benjie didn't see too many women during his military tenure. Upon meeting Robin Lightfoot (played by Nancy Kwan), White Feather's sister, Benjie is smitten. White Feather, out of courtesy, simply gives her to him; and like any budding romance, Benjie takes her off into a field, throws her down and rapes her. It's okay, though, because he's conflicted afterward. She doesn't seem to mind, and the two slowly evolve from a master/slave relationship to marriage.

The complexity of the Benjie character lies mainly in his interactions with Robin... the rape scene in particular. I read this in two ways--either he's consumed by his libido from a years long lack of a woman; or the casualness by which she is handed over simply overwhelms him to the point that he is now in the position of the slavemaster as opposed to the slave. Benjie, formerly a slave, but raised like a son by Neal, feels immediate regret over the way he took her. Robin treats it like she has went through the ordeal before (and she will go through it again later on), returns with Benjie to his home, and takes on the role of servant and sperm dispenser--later to marry and open up an entirely new can of worms with Kolby and company.

Going back to the rape scene, it's shot from a distance with only the audible brush of the wind and intercut with closeups of Nancy Kwan being violated; the most powerful sequence in the picture in terms of editing and photography. After this, everything is the usual routine with little else standing out from a technical standpoint. However, Brock Peters, as operatic as he is at times, isn't the only thespian bright spot in an otherwise meandering movie....

Like Vesuvius, Jack Palance heats and stews till finally erupting in a magma flow of overacting that consumes the last half of the film--giving a clear vision as to the sort of sleaze-lovin' patronage THE McMASTERS could (and maybe should) have catered to. Palance's tobacco-chewin', epithet spewin' Kolby is the scene-stealer here; it's just too bad it takes him till the last 30 minutes to really start upstaging everybody with his brand of honey glazed ham. He had just burned up the screen as a Quantrill-like psychopath in what is possibly his most unhinged acting ever in the brutalist western, THE DESPERADOS (1969); and he channels that manic acting style here as well.

Much like Benjie who, for a time, wears his Union uniform, the one-armed Kolby is never seen out of his Confederate outfit. Palance strikes a memorable chord even if he doesn't get to do a lot till the end except spit nasty tobacco, sneer nastily at Peters, and grab at his stump as if it had been a buffalo soldier (the Union Army's negro cavalry as they were referred) that took it.

Burl Ives gets top billing but it's Brock Peters' movie all the way. It's odd seeing the banjo-playing Sam the Snowman from the classic 1964 Rankin-Bass special RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER in a western; even more odd is knowing he played Robert Ryan's nemesis in the 1959 snow western classic, DAY OF THE OUTLAW. The 70s-80s spokesman for Luzianne Tea is on the right side of the law this time out and, compared to some of his co-stars, is reserved in the acting department. An award winning actor and singer with many hits under his belt, Burl Ives is a totem for family-friendly entertainment--sucking any lowbrow elements out of the picture whenever he's onscreen.

Eurasian Nancy Kwan is an odd casting choice as the metaphorical doormat, Robin Lightfoot. She has little to say and do but be used and abused and bear her bottom and front in a tastefully done, but awkward nude scene. Raped twice--first by Benjie and again by four assailants including perennial western star L.Q. Jones and Alan Vint (MACON COUNTY LINE [1974]). Kwan was a sex symbol back in the 60s with such films as THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG (1960) and FLOWER DRUM SONG (1961). She had an action role in the Bruce Lee choreographed THE WRECKING CREW (1969) with Dean Martin and Sharon Tate. If you grew up in the 1980s you will most likely remember Nancy Kwan as the spokeswoman for Pearl Cream ("Have you ever wondered why it's so hard to tell how old most Oriental women are?").

The strange casting continues with David Carradine as White Feather, the thievin' Injun who is befriended by Benjie. Consistently referring to Benjie as a "white man" because he desires ownership of things, his thinking is contradictory since he gifts his sister to Benjie as some sort of trade for giving him a job. Ostensibly a slave, they later get married; which only riles the Rebs even more. Carradine's portrayal of White Feather is about as convincing an Indian as Nancy Kwan is. Two years later Carradine would go from living in Teepees to Shaolin as Caine in KUNG FU (1972-1975). 

THE McMASTERS marks the second time David Carradine featured in a movie with his father, John Carradine--who plays the Collum County preacher. Father and son don't share a scene together, however.

Black composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson (THOMASINE AND BUSHROD [1974]) performed his first theatrical score with THE McMASTERS (1970). It's not a great score, but some of the cues reach sonic heights that you wish the film did elsewhere and with more frequency. 

The budget was reported to be in the 2 million range; which is surprising considering all the interior sets are extremely cramped or mostly seen from the same angle. DP Lester Shorr, a veteran of numerous western programs, counters the claustrophobic settings with some evocative, wide open expanse of the New Mexico locales. These shots are one area where the film shows kinship with the traditional western; those films often displayed the majesty of nature's beauty in stark contrast to the dusty, filthy, apocalyptic landscape of the defeatist west where life was cheap, women were raped and murdered instead of rescued, and gunmen had facial hair down to their kneecaps.

According to sources of the time, THE McMASTERS was released in two versions in some territories--one approved by the star, the writer and the producer; and another version disowned by them with the blessing of the distributor. The latter was said to have upwards of eight minutes removed including Robin's rape by Benjie. The version on this French DVD appears to be the complete release--or at least the one approved by cast and crew members.

An average western at best, THE McMASTERS (1970) is yet another sagebrush saga with an intriguing premise half-heartedly realized. Brock Peters, Jack Palance and L.Q. are its greatest strengths and yet they, like everything else, are hindered in some way. Yet to be available in a legit digital format in America, the star power alone warrants a wider audience. There are better 70s westerns, but few with as peculiar a premise, bungled as it is, than THE McMASTERS.

This review is representative of the French Zylo R2 PAL DVD. Specs and Extras: anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1. No extras. running time: 1:25:49 (PAL speed).

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