Cult Spaghetti Westerns

Saturday, 19 June 2010 12:06

Fans of Spaghetti Westerns might think that the genre begins and ends with Clint Eastwood’s famous “Man with no name” trilogy. This new “Cult Spaghetti Westerns” box set is keen to prove otherwise, and packages three genre classics together including “Django” (1966), “A Bullet for the General” (1966) and “Keoma” (1976).

“Django” stars Franco Nero as the titular gunslinger, a character closely resembling Eastwood’s wily, brazen anti-heros. Django sometimes helps the weak and defenceless, but he has no qualms about gunning down everyone else using his lightning reflexes and flawless aim. He carries with him an aura of death, thanks in no small part to the coffin he drags behind him; it holds an unpleasant surprise for those that stand in his way.

Cult Spaghetti Westerns on DVDSergio Corbucci’s influential movie is supremely entertaining, if quite familiar to Western aficionados. The simple plot whips along at a great pace and does not stray from the common tale of a handsome and mysterious stranger wandering into down-trodden town, a place crippled by fear and virtually abandoned because of a long-standing war between two rival gangs.

On one side are the devious Mexican bandits commanded by General Hugo (José Bódalo); on the other are the hugely bigoted troops of General Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo). In the middle sits a small bunch of townsfolk who are trying to brave out a living in the local bar, and Maria (Loredana Nusciak), a spirited and beautiful girl who attracts the attention of both sides and unsuccessfully tries to flee the town.

Needless to say, Django gets caught up in the private war going on, and despite the Civil War having ended, there is plenty more bloodshed to come. Most of the action is fairly tame by today’s standards, but there are one or two scenes that stand out because of their outrageously sadistic nature. One alarming example is when Jackson and some of his soldiers round up some Mexicans and then set them free one at a time whilst taking potshots at them like helpless, hopeless hunted animals.

The gore is not particularly realistic but the Ku Klux Klan-style headwear and behaviour of Jackson’s posse sends shivers down the viewer’s spine. The murderous, morally bankrupt Mexicans seem tame by comparison!

The picture quality of this restored release is generally grain-free if a bit murky at times (not helped by the scenery being predominantly brown), and whilst the English dialogue is quite shoddy by today’s standards, it does increase the charm of the film. The soundtrack by Luis Bacalov is almost a match for Ennio Morricone’s best, especially the wonderful theme tune belted out by Rocky Roberts.

The “Django” DVD includes a couple interesting special features: an interview with Franco Nero and a superb, very enthusiastic introduction by cult movie fan extraordinaire (and director), Alex Cox. There are also some trailers and a reversible sleeve.

Adding some variety to the box set, Damiano Damiani’s “A Bullet for the General” AKA “Quién Sabe?” (“Who Knows?”) is quite a different beast to “Django”. Set during the Mexican Revolution (which took place roughly between 1910-1940), the movie is a study of kinship, honour, friendship and human nature. Gian Maria Volonté (“A Fistful of Dollars”, “For a Few Dollars More”) stars as El Chuncho, a cheeky Mexican bandit leader who reports to General Elías.

The General is one of the top revolutionary commanders, operating out of a secret mountain base. El Chuncho leads his posse across the country, audaciously holding up trains and robbing military forts for weaponry whilst slaughtering hundreds of soldiers in the process. The stash is then sold to the General for a profit whilst the arms help the revolutionary cause.

Into the picture comes Bill Tate (Lou Castel), a well-to-do, smartly suited North American who apparently helps the bandits by stopping one of the trains they attempt to rob. Tate says he is a prisoner with a price on his head, and pleads with El Chuncho to be able to join his gang. Despite a few misgivings, the matter is put to a vote and Tate joins up. A bond quickly develops between Tate and El Chuncho, causing some friction within the group.

Unbeknownst to the Mexicans, Tate is actually a contract killer with a literal golden bullet that has the General’s name on it. Tate must orchestrate events so that El Chuncho trusts him enough to get him within rifle range of the General.

The main narrative tensions within this epic story stem from El Chuncho’s inner conflict between greed and love of the wayward bandit lifestyle on the one hand, and his sense of honour and desire to help defend the local town of San Miguel on the other, and also the friendship between him and Tate. As El Chuncho appears to lose his interest in the life of a rogue and reveals his better side, we wonder whether Tate will be diverted from his original mercenary goal. He witnesses some of the good work the revolutionaries are doing in terms of re-dispersing the wealth from rich to poor.

There is a strong political dimension to the film, and the question of whether the bandits’ bloody means justify the ends constantly bubbles to the surface.

The acting is very engaging. The two leads form an unusual but believable alliance. Volonté is bursting with unkempt, roguish charisma, whilst Castel is much more guarded and straight, albeit with occasional displays of disarming charm. Other roles worthy of mention include Klaus Kinski (“Nosferatu: Phantum der Nacht”, “Android”) as El Santo, a bandit priest with a crazy glint in his eyes who also happens to be El Chuncho’s more honorable brother, and Martine Beswick (“Thunderball”, “One Million Years B.C.”) as the foxy Adelita, a headstrong woman who is the object of desire of several of the bandits, including Tate.

The movie is visually and aurally very rich. Like “Django”, it features a robust score from Luis Bacalov, and the Mexican setting injects plenty of colour through folk celebrations, partly in counterpoint to the often drained palette of the scenery. Having said that, the expansive, rocky landscapes are topographically very interesting. The epic feel of the piece is also in part thanks to this being a long cut of the movie (113 minutes).

The special features are similar to those on “Django” – an interview with the director, another great introduction by Alex Cox and some trailers.

“Keoma”, the final film in this excellent box set, was directed in 1976 by Enzo G. Castellari (the original “The Inglorious Bastards”, “Bronx Warriors”), at what critics consider to be the end of the golden age of the Spaghetti Western genre. It does have a slightly more trashy, Seventies vibe to it, but that is not to say it is inferior to the other two films. It is certainly action-packed and quite varied in the feel of its set pieces. Some are very suspenseful, whilst others depict full-blown shootouts, all guns blazing.

Franco Nero returns as the star, though this time he is the eponymous Keoma, a disheveled and bohemian-looking gunfighter who returns to his home town to find it at the mercy of Caldwell (Donald O’Brien), a villainous gang boss. Keoma’s three half-brothers have joined up with Caldwell, and it is not long before the four brothers are at loggerheads over the fate of the town. Caldwell’s men blockade it, stemming the flow of aid and medicine for the poor and the sick, thereby keeping them weak and submissive.

The brothers’ father (William Berger) is caught in the middle of the feud, determined to not take sides. Another key character is George (Woody Strode – “Spartacus”, “The Quick and the Dead”, “Scream”), once the family’s black slave and now free. He is drunk and depressed, struggling to cope with the gang members’ unabated racism, but is glad to see Keoma. Despite the overwhelming odds against our hero, there is always the possibility that others will come to his aid if he takes a stand and proves that Caldwell can be challenged.

Castellari’s directorial style is typically creative. We often spy characters from behind wonky fences or from unusual angles. One very memorable moment is when Keoma threatens four of Caldwell’s men, blotting them out for the audience with a close-up of four of his fingers that he then bends down one at a time to reveal the men, as though he is going through the motions of gunning them down.

A second moment is when we can hear Keoma and his pa talking, but only see a black wooden shape directly in front of the camera. As father and son take practice shots at the wood, bullet holes start to appear, letting in light and gradually revealing the scene beyond. Castellari loves shooting gun fights in slow-mo, too, so we get scoundrels acrobatically tumbling off buildings into the dirt and splashing into muddy pools.

The familial friction drives the heart of the movie, and there is a certain element of inevitable Shakespearian tragedy to it. Despite this fact, the ending is dramatic, poignant and affecting, which is truly a testament to Castellari’s skill and some decent acting.

Once again, the extras include more genre enlightenment from Alex Cox, a nice interview with the director and some trailers.

“Cult Spaghetti Westerns” is out now, courtesy of Argent Films, and really is a must for all discerning Western fans or those who would like an introduction to some of the best the genre has to offer. The combined running time of the three features is 300 minutes approx, the box set contains three discs, is certificate ‘15’ and retails for £24.99 or less from www.culttvstore.com

 

 

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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