Jul 302014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


BEST OF THE BAD MEN. RKO Radio Pictures, 1951. Robert Ryan, Claire Trevor, Jack Buetel, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan, Bruce Cabot, John Archer, Lawrence Tierney, Barton MacLane, Tom Tyler. Director: William D. Russell.

   Set primarily in Missouri and the Cimarron Strip (the Oklahoma Panhandle) in the period following the Civil War, Best of the Bad Men benefits from a notably strong cast, a solid story with excellent pacing, and more than enough suspense to keep a viewer watching until the very end.

   The plot follows the conflict between Union officer Jeff Clanton (Robert Ryan) and Matthew Fowler (Robert Preston), a corrupt carpetbagger who has set up a detective agency to guard banks and gold shipments.

   In the film’s opening sequence, Clanton proposes a deal with some men affiliated with Quantrill’s Raiders. Among them are Cole and Bob Younger (Bruce Cabot and Jack Buetel), a fictionalized Jesse James (Lawrence Tierney), and a horse thief by the name of Doc Butcher (Walter Brennan). These tired but determined remnants of Quantrill’s Raiders are given the option of foregoing their illegal activities and swearing an allegiance to the Union. In exchange, charges against them will be dropped. The outlaws, seeing no other realistic option available to them, accept the terms of the deal.

   But as it turns out, Clanton’s commission in the Army had already expired at the time of the deal, rendering it invalid. Also complicating matters is Fowler, who sees a lucrative financial opportunity for his detective agency should he return the outlaws to face justice. Clanton, who has no truck for this carpetbagger scheming, ends up shooting and killing one of Fowler’s men, leading Fowler and his henchman Joad (Barton MacLane) to use their influence to have Clanton arrested.

   This leads to Clanton’s conviction by a kangaroo court. With the assistance of Fowler’s estranged wife, Lily (Claire Trevor), Clanton escapes to Badman’s Territory, the relatively lawless and ungoverned area consisting of what is today the Oklahoman Panhandle. From there, he joins up with the James Gang and the Youngers to wage guerrilla warfare against Fowler and his detective agency. Quantrill’s Raiders ride again!

   When an innocent bank teller is shot, however, Clanton begins to show signs of doubt as to the nature of his actions. He’s not really a criminal, as much as he is an unjustly wronged man who wants retribution.

   Although Best of the Badmen doesn’t concern itself with particularly deep social or philosophical issues, it does have enough of a subversive and an anti-authoritarian subtext that makes it significantly better than similarly plotted films from the same era. The legal authorities depicted in the film are deeply corrupt, bought and paid for by the highest bidder.

   Clanton’s a noble man living in a lawless, unjust and chaotic world. And in contrast to Ryan’s character in Horizons West, which I reviewed here, Clanton (Ryan) has every reason in the world to feel aggrieved. Whether that justifies his teaming up with the James Gang and the Youngers is another story, altogether.

   Best of the Badmen, while no classic, is nevertheless a very good Western. Ryan, in particular, is a very strong lead. Walter Brennan fans might also appreciate this film, with the veteran actor’s character, Doc, playing sidekick to Clanton. Theirs is a more mature friendship than the one between wronged lawman Mark Rowley (Randolph Scott) and sidekick Coyote (George “Gabby” Hayes) in the earlier Badman’s Territory (1946). It makes the film worth a look.

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 Posted by at 12:48 am
Jul 282014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


KANSAS PACIFIC. Allied Artists, 1953. Sterling Hayden, Eve Miller, Barton MacLane, Harry Shannon, Tom Fadden, Reed Hadley. Director: Ray Nazarro.

   Kansas Pacific is a perfectly watchable, albeit altogether unremarkable, Western set in Kansas on the eve of the Civil War. Directed by the prolific Ray Nazarro, whose The Black Dakotas was reviewed here on this blog, the film stars Sterling Hayden as Captain John Nelson, a U.S. Army engineer. His mission: ensure that the Kansas Pacific Railroad, which the U.S. Army plans to utilize for troop movements to the West, is constructed in a safe and timely manner.

   Nelson arrives in Kansas to assist Cal Bruce (Barton MacLane) in building the railroad. Bruce’s daughter, Barbara (Eve Miller) is suspicious of Nelson’s encroaching on her father’s turf. She also wants her father to quit his work and go back East. Naturally, there’s tension between Capt. Nelson (Sterling) and Barbara Bruce (Miller), which eventually culminates in love.

   Opposing the two men are the Confederate sympathizer, William Quantrill (Reed Hadley), and his gang of generic thugs. Among them is a guy by the name of Stone, portrayed by Clayton Moore of The Lone Ranger fame. The Confederates aren’t presented as anything other than violent men determined to stop the construction of the railroad. There’s not much nuance here.

   Hayden’s character comes across as both gruff and sentimental. He wants very much to earn Barbara Bruce’s respect. On the other hand, he’s a man on a mission and determined to get the railroad built, even if it causes friction between the two of them.

   There’s not much in the way of memorable dialogue in Kansas Pacific, but no one watches this type of film for snappy banter. There is, however, a good bit of action, some of it quite explosive. There’s a well-choreographed fight scene, replete with artillery, at the end. There’s also a fairly tense scene in which Capt. Nelson and Quantrill face off in a saloon.

   Kansas Pacific is a decent, average Western with about average performances from Hayden and MacLane. The historical context, rather than the acting, may be the most intriguing aspect to the film. Kansas prior to the Civil War is a rich area for writers and filmmakers, and it’s a bit different from the overused Western narrative of a Confederate soldier returning home from the war.

   In conclusion, the film’s not bad. It’s just not nearly as interesting as it could have been.

 Posted by at 8:03 pm
Jul 262014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


FURY AT GUNSIGHT PASS. Columbia, 1956. David Brian, Neville Brand, Richard Long, Lisa Davis, Percy Helton, Morris Ankrum, Wally Vernon. Written by David Lang. Directed by Fred F. Sears.

   Whence this film?

   A stylish, well-paced and intelligent western, written and directed by talents whose careers could be charitably described as “undistinguished.” Writer David Lang was responsible for a long, long list of forgettable B-movies followed by work on every low-budget television series known to man; and as for director Fred F. Sears, well, he started out acting in “Durango Kid” movies, moved on to directing them, then continued directing, sort of. The same year as this film he made probably his best-remembered movie, Earth vs. Flying Saucers, and the next year followed it up with The Giant Claw — a film equally memorable for all the wrong reasons.

   Perhaps we’ll never know what burst of creative inspiration produced Fury at Gunsight Pass, but it’s a film well worth catching, filled with smoothly tracking and complex camerawork, vigorous shoot-outs, complex characters and a story that stubbornly refuses to settle into any familiar pattern.

   David Brian (looking unsettlingly like William Boyd in his western garb) and Neville Brand are co-leaders of an outlaw gang planning to rob a bank in the small town of Gunsight Pass. Of the other outlaws, the only actor you might recognize is perennial side-kick Wally Vernon, but they do a fine job of looking nasty, even when just sitting around, and when they go into action they more than fill the requisite boots. Turns out the local undertaker (the indefatigable Percy Helton) is inside man on the job, and it further develops that Brian plans to double-cross Brand and take off with the loot.

   Well, he’s not the only one with a hidden agenda, as things fall apart in spectacular fashion, the loot walks off, the townspeople capture the bad guys, then the bad guys capture the townspeople, and the whole thing gets resolved amid a furious and very cinematic dust storm.

   David Brian was never the most electrifying of actors, but he puts in a nice turn here, the wheels of deceit clicking very audibly on his face, and Neville Brand is as engagingly unpleasant as ever. David Long (you may remember him from the “Ma & Pa Kettle” flicks, or as the leading man in House on Haunted Hill, or even from Nanny and the Professor) is too pretty to take seriously at first, but he manages a very creditable Hero part stacked against long odds. The other actors, including Morris Ankrum, that grand old man of Sci-Fi movies, lend what is generally known as Solid Support.

   But it’s the tricky plot and assured direction that carry the day here, keeping the movie constantly on the move, twisting and turning where and when one least expects it, and finally ending up with a very satisfying and unpretentious bit of film-making where you might not expect to find it.

 Posted by at 10:12 pm
Jul 222014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


HORIZONS WEST. Universal International, 1952. Robert Ryan, Julie Adams, Rock Hudson, Judith Braun, John McIntire, Raymond Burr, James Arness, Dennis Weaver, Frances Bavier, Tom Powers. Director: Budd Boetticher.

   Horizons West is a very good, albeit uneven, 1952 Universal Studios production directed by Budd Boetticher. Set in and around Austin, Texas, after the Civil War and during Reconstruction, this Western tragedy stars Robert Ryan and Rock Hudson as the brothers, Dan and Neil Hammond.

   As the film progresses, Dan (Ryan) and Neil (Hudson) find themselves on opposite sides of the law, with the latter tasked with bringing in his criminal older brother back to town for trial, culminating in a final interfamilial showdown in a small Mexican town. Dan starts off as a seemingly good guy, but by the end, the man’s done gone bad, irredeemably so.

   The movie benefits from its strong coterie of extremely talented actors. Aside from Ryan and Hudson, the film also stars Raymond Burr, who brilliantly portrays Cole Hardin, a sleazily villainous gambler. There’s something about Burr’s character that’s so devious that one wishes that he weren’t killed off so abruptly.

   And then there’s the lovely Julia Adams (Creature of the Black Lagoon), who portrays Hardin’s wife. She inevitably falls in love with the increasingly arrogant and power-mad Dan Hammond, causing friction between Dan and Cole. Veteran character actor John McIntire portrays the stoic Ira Hammond, owner of the family ranch who watches with alarm as his son, Dan (Ryan) returns home from the war a defeated, but proud Confederate officer, only to morph into to a ruthless and corrupt Texas power player.

   Aside from the skillful acting, Horizons West makes excellent use of vivid and symbolic use of colors (Technicolor works extraordinarily well here) and numerous well-constructed lush interiors. Look for the scene in front of an Austin hotel when Dan Hammond is wearing a red tie and Mrs. Hardin is wearing also wearing red in her attire. It just works perfectly.

   In many ways, the plot is standard, almost cliché Western fare, replete with a soldiers returning home from the Civil War, a good guy gone bad, brothers in conflict, a corrupt and flamboyant Mexican general, cattle rustling, and a lynch mob.

   One can, however, view Horizons West less as a standard Western, and more as a quasi-Greek tragedy set in the American West, similar to Saddle The Wind, which I reviewed here.

   Similarly, one can interpret it as contemporaneous social criticism about how big money can corrupt otherwise good men. Indeed, by the time that the movie ends, the two overtly greedy lead characters, Dan Hammond (Ryan) and Cole Hardin (Burr), have both been killed by gunfire.

   In contrast, in the final moments, the film’s most humble and hardworking characters are prospering in the bounty of the westward movement of people and cattle, hence the seemingly optimistic title of the film. But to the extent that Horizons West is about the rise and tragic fall of Dan Hammond, the film’s French title, Le Traitre du Texas (The Texas Traitor), is more accurate in conveying the film’s classically tragic overtones.

   The film’s greatest flaw is in the fact that we never really get a full sense of what drives Dan Hammond to self-destruction, why he goes power mad. There’s almost no indication that something terrible happened during the war that explains his descent into villainy.

   There are, however, a couple of brief moments that may shed at least some light on the matter. Soon after Dan returns home from the war with his adopted brother, Neil (Hudson) and their family’s ranch hand, Tiny McGilligan (James Arness), he tells his parents that he finds Texas to be too quiet and refers to all the noise he heard during the Civil War.

   But that’s about the last he mentions of this. We never see Dan struggle with his wartime experiences, nor do we ever hear him explain to another character what drives him to cheat and to steal. The other instance is when Dan discusses finances with Ira, his father who still hasn’t paid off the debt on the ranch, something that Dan Hammond seems to find embarrassing. But again, it’s a brief exchange and one that isn’t much referred to later on.

   Still, Horizons West remains a better than average Western. Ryan, Hudson, and Burr are all great actors and it shows. The film’s strongest point is its extraordinary use of color. There are many scenes in which color, rather than dialogue, is the focal point. It’s a movie that explores one man’s descent into greed and violence, but nonetheless remains truly beautiful to behold.

 Posted by at 12:40 am
Jul 112014
 
REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:         


HELL’S HEROES. Universal Pictures, 1929. Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton, Fred Kohler, Fritzi Ridgeway. Based on the story “The Three Godfathers” by Peter B. Kyne. Director: William Wyler.

   I recently saw William Wyler’s Hell’s Heroes, the first sound version of Three Godfathers, the one with Charles Bickford, Raymond Hatton and Fred Kohler.

   Interesting how this film changed over the years. John Ford’s 1948 version is a gentle, sentimental film about three likable cowboys who happen to rob a bank, rescue a kid and become heroes. Richard Boleslawski’s 1936 version is a melancholy, cynical affair, with Chester Morris, Lewis Stone and Waiter Brennan. All three are out & out bad guys and killers, but the older two soften quickly, and the trek to New Jerusalem becomes a process of redemption for Morris.

   Wyler’s take is more earthy (Bickford spends his time with the local whore, and when they come on the dying woman, the three argue over who will enjoy her first) and he makes a very forceful point about the physical changes wrought by prolonged extreme heat; by the time Bickford carries the baby into New Jerusalem, he’s barely human.

   The ’36 version is still my favorite, and I’ll always love the Ford film, but this one’s interesting. Someday I’ll have to catch the Silent.

 Posted by at 8:20 pm
Jul 062014
 

  THREE VIOLENT PEOPLE. Paramount Pictures, 1956. Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Gilbert Roland, Tom Tryon, Forrest Tucker, Bruce Bennett, Elaine Stritch, Barton MacLane, Peter Hansen, John Harmon, Ross Bagdasarian, Robert Blake, Jamie Farr. Screenplay: James Edward Grant. Director: Rudolph Maté.

   When Captain Colt Saunders (Charlton Heston) comes home to Texas after the Civil War (he was on the losing side), he finds that carpetbaggers have infested the state and they have eyes on his old family ranch, all he has left in the world. But before he makes his way home, he somehow manages to find himself a wife, Lorna Hunter (Anne Baxter).

   It turns out, although he does not know it, that Ms Hunter has something a bit more than a shady past, but she is willing to take the gamble that no one will recognize her on the Bar-S Ranch and miles away from the rest of the world.

   It also turns out that Captain Saunders, a most righteous man, has a brother (Tom Tryon), who has only one arm, his left, and who is bitter about it. The local tax commissioner and his deputy, Northerners both (Bruce Bennett and Forrest Tucker) have their eyes on the ranch, and are far from scrupulous in their attempt to follow through on their ambitions.

   Running the ranch in the captain’s absence has been Innocencio Ortega (a most elegant Gilbert Roland, even in working clothes) and his five sons, three of whom are played by young actors who went on to even more fame later in their careers (see the tail end of the credits above).

   These are all the important threads of the story, and of course one of the tactics the crooked land-grabbers have at their disposal is using the fact that they know of Lorna’s past, and they are not at all reticent in revealing the secret to the tough but stubbornly aristocratic Captain Saunders.

   He does not take the news well. Nor does he take kindly to his brother turning against him. Charlton Heston is a good actor, but he can turn hammy at times, and here is one of those times. He also plays Captain Saunders as rather slow when it comes to the thinking department — a man whose mind is rather dim, to put it bluntly — and it does seem to fit the character.

   I think that Heston and Tryon do resemble each other enough to be brothers, as was not the case in Saddle the Wind, which Jon reviewed here a while ago, in which Robert Taylor and John Cassevetes were also supposed to be brothers, and not succeeding very well at it.

   The color photography in Three Violent People is wonderful — I leave to you to decide who the three people are; I still haven’t figured that out — but while all of the ingredients are there, with several very tense scenes leading up to the finale, the ending simply isn’t up to the job. It’s forced and it’s overly moralistic, and it didn’t have to be either one.

   It’s a case of being almost a great western, but it ends up barely holding onto its status as a very good one.

 Posted by at 5:05 am
Jun 292014
 

THE UTAH KID. Tiffany Productions, 1930. Rex Lease, Dorothy Sebastian, Tom Santschi, Mary Carr, Walter Miller, Lafe McKee, Boris Karloff. Director: Richard Thorpe.

   The movie begins with a sheriff’s posse hard on the trail of a single man on horseback. He’s young and clean-cut, a good looking fellow with a smart horse, so how could he be an outlaw? The young fellow is Cal Reynolds (Rex Lease), and looks to the contrary, he’s definitely on the wrong side of the law, since as it turns out, the safe haven he’s heading for is a place called Robbers’ Roost.

   Thanks to the overall dull minds of the posse after him, he makes it safely. Now Robbers’ Roost is exactly the kind of place you’d expect it to be, given the name, and the fellow in charge is called Butch (Tom Santschi) and the one who appears to be the second-in-command is Baxter (Boris Karloff, and the only reason this old western movie is in any kind of demand today; rumor has it that there may be only one surviving print).

   Also on hand is Parson Joe (Lafe McKee), an elderly gentleman who is not allowed to leave, else he may reveal the outlaws’ hideout to the authorities, so he has decided to stay on willingly. Where else could he find so many sinners whose souls he might save? Found by Baxter wandering around the vicinity (no other explanation given) is a young girl named Jennie Lee (Dorothy Sebastian). To save her from being killed, or worse, young Cal claims that she is his fiancée, and (gulp) is forced to marry her on the spot, thanks to the presence of Pastor Joe.

   What young Cal does not know is that Jennie is engaged to the local sheriff (Walter Miller), which puts him in quite a predicament – and she as well, as it is clear that she is falling for young Cal, and hence the rationale for quite an entertaining western, believe it or not. There are no singing cowboys, no stupid sidekicks, only a small but incisive love story that probably needn’t have taken place in the West, only this one did.

   As for Boris Karloff, although his role is brief, he is a joy to watch and listen to. His voice is as mellifluous as you’d expect it to be, even in this very early talkie, and his body language is certainly more expressive than it needed to be, in this otherwise undemanding role of the second in command of a fourth rate gang of robbers and thieves.

   He was an actor with a future (second sight is wonderful), while Rex Lease, as it turned out, as young and handsome as he was, ended up with far less of a career than Mr. Karloff’s.

 Posted by at 7:52 am
Jun 282014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


THE BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN. United Artists, 1956. Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, Pascual García Peña, Eduardo Noriega, Julio Villarreal, Lupe Carriles. Directors: Edward Nassour & Ismael Rodríguez.

   Imagine you’re watching an average B-Western about a goodhearted rancher from Texas in both a business and romantic rivalry with a mean-spirited rancher from Mexico. The movie is in color; the acting by Guy Madison and Patricia Medina isn’t all that bad; and the foreboding Mexican landscape is well integrated into the storyline.

   So you keep watching. Somewhat entertained, somewhat bored, and now and again remembering the film was billed as a creature feature. Then nearly an hour into the film, a giant, deeply angry stop-motion T-Rex (a fairly impressive special effects achievement considering the film is from 1956) makes its way out of the local swamp and wreaks all sorts of havoc on cows and humans alike.

   That’s The Beast of Hollow Mountain for you. Based on a story idea by King Kong special effects innovator, Willis O’Brien, it’s all good fun. While not a particularly great film, the mid-fifties movie is actually quite entertaining provided you go into it with the right mindset.

   The last twenty minutes or so, when the T. Rex finally emerges from its mountain hideaway, make up for the fact that you had to wait an entire hour to see the creature. This too long a delay really does make the film significantly less compelling than it could have been.

   But getting back to the dinosaur. What a creature! The giant feet making an impression in the mud, the giant teeth and red tongue, and eyes that convey anger. It’s a far more impressive movie dinosaur than the one that appeared in The Giant Behemoth, which I reviewed here. That said, at least in that particular film, we actually got an impressive political backstory as to why the dinosaur decided to stomp all over London. In The Beast of Hollow Mountain, all we really know is that local legend held that there is a – you guessed it, a monster – in the mountain.

   There are some fairly harrowing moments, such as when the dinosaur claws at — and peers into — the roof of a shack where two would-be victims are cowering, and when protagonist Jimmy Ryan (Madison) swings back and forth on a rope hanging from a limb of a tree, luring the dim-witted dinosaur to its swampy doom. And listen for the birdsongs. Whether they were deliberately recorded or whether they were merely picked up during filming doesn’t much matter. They really help establish an atmospheric setting for the world’s first, and dare I say, preeminent, dinosaur western film.

 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Jun 222014
 
Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:         


ALBUQUERQUE. Paramount Pictures, 1948. Randolph Scott, Barbara Britton, George “Gabby” Hayes, Lon Chaney, Russell Hayden, Catherine Craig, George Cleveland. Based on the novel Dead Freight for Piute, by Luke Short. Director: Ray Enright.

   Albuquerque is an eminently watchable Western film starring Randolph Scott. Adapted to the big screen from a novel by Luke Short, Dead Freight for Piute, the film is compelling, albeit not particularly sophisticated, story about a family feud, mining, and freighting in pre-statehood New Mexico.

   There’s just enough of everything one would expect from a late 1940s Western: a hero in Scott, a goofy sidekick in George “Gabby” Hayes, and a villainess-turned-heroine in the beautiful Barbara Britton. Add in a semi-realistic setting, a budding romance or two, and a memorable, well-choreographed and surprisingly brutal fist fight between Scott and Lon Chaney Jr.’s character and you’ve got yourself a significantly better than average Western.

   The plot revolves around Scott in his portrayal of Cole Armin, who relocates to Albuquerque from Texas to work for his uncle, John Armin (a rather unforgettable villain as portrayed by George Cleveland), in the family freighting business. Turns out Cole’s uncle is crooked and is working to put the local competition, run by brother and sister, Ted and Celia Wallace, out of business. Did I mention the local lawman is on the take as well?

   Cole’s a good guy and he’s got a good sidekick in Juke (Hayes), so naturally he tells his uncle off and goes to work for the Wallaces in their fledgling freighting business.

   As one might suspect, this turn of events doesn’t please John Armin all that much, so he has his henchman, Steve Murkil, portrayed by an exceptionally well cast, black-hatted, Lon Chaney Jr., cigarette constantly dangling from his mouth, and a recent hire, Letty Tyler (Britton) to plot and to scheme against Cole and the Wallaces.

   All of this culminates in the aforementioned fight between Cole Armin and Steve Murkil, a harrowing horse and wagon ride down a mountaintop, and an abbreviated final showdown on the streets of Albuquerque. The good guys win, of course. This was a 1948 Western, not a 1968 one, so there’s really no surprises here.

   It is clear from watching Albuquerque is that Scott was beginning to outgrow films like these. No surprise, then, then within a decade, he’d be working with directors such as André de Toth and Budd Boetticher in more, shall we say, serious and engaging Western films.

   Still, Albuquerque is not without its charms. Cleveland and Chaney make a good pair of villains that you’re happy to both watch to see what they’ll do next and to root against. Still, when it’s all said and done, sometimes it’s still nice to see the good guy win the fight and save the day. That’s Albuquerque for you.

Editorial Comment:   For my own take on this film, check out this post from about three years ago.

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Jun 162014
 
Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:         


KEOMA. 1976. Also released as Django Rides Again and The Violent Breed. Franco Nero, Woody Strode, Olga Karlatos, Donald O’Brien, William Berger, Gabriella Giacobbe. Directed by Enzo G. Castallari.

   An arty and allegorical Spaghetti Western with half a brain and good direction and cinematography, Keoma turns out to ultimately be more entertaining than annoying, and better acted than it has any right to be with an existentialist message at the end right out of Sartre.

   Keoma: “He won’t die, he’s free. And a free man can never die.”

   Okay, if he says so, but for all that, this proves to be a really good western of its type, with first class performances by Franco Nero and Woody Strode, and one stunningly beautiful pregnant woman (Olga Karlatos) named Lisa who bears the burden of most of the allegory about life, death, birth, existence, sacrifice, suffering, freedom, and hope (well, she is very pregnant).

   Admittedly that’s a lot for a western– even an Italian-made western shot in Spain — to bear, but this one manages better than most. It makes for some pretentious fun. It’s no where near as good as High Plains Drifter, but it’s nowhere near as bad as Pale Rider, as pretentious westerns go.

   Nero is the gray eyed long-haired (how those braids survive holding the mess back got a bit distracting I have to grant) half-breed Keoma, who returns home after the Civil War.

   “Which side were you on?”

   “It just happened I was on the winning side.”

   There he finds a spooky old Indian witch (Gabriella Giacobbe) who wanders in and out of the film like a silent Greek chorus as Keoma’s conscience and a sort of early warning signal of impending trouble. She warns him he should not have returned, but like any western hero in any western ever made anywhere, common sense isn’t his long suit, so he rides right into a group of ex-Confederate cackling coyote-mean escapees from Deliverance (are there any other kind?), taking prisoners with the plague to the mines to isolation and death.

   Among them is one pregnant woman, Lisa, the stunningly beautiful Karlatos, with eyes every bit as spooky as the wolf eyed Nero. Pregnant, with straggly hair, and in extremely unflattering clothes, she is still one of the most beautiful women you will ever see in any film.

   Typically he makes enemies fast, kills one of the ex-Rebs, and takes the woman to town, where no one wants her, and he promptly has to kill again and further annoy an ex-Confederate rancher and power mad criminal named Caldwell (Donald O’Brien, the film’s weakest link) who caused the plague with poisoned wells, and now holds the town hostage refusing to allow anyone to bring in medicine or help. No one ever explains just how this helps him since he has already grabbed all the land. I guess he’s just mean.

   In addition Keoma finds his childhood friend and mentor George (Woody Strode) a broken old drunk waiting to die in the streets.

   Keoma: “But you’re free now.”

   George: “I found out what freedom means.”

   Like heavy, man (well, it was the seventies).

   Keoma it turns out was a half-breed child rescued by a fast gun, William Shannon (William Berger), with three sons of his own. Of course they are no damn good — they tortured and beat Keoma — and as ex-Confederates themselves, they ride with Caldwell and their once proud and deadly father is old, afraid to die, and fears having to kill his own sons. But he’s glad to have Keoma back.

   Shannon: “We stopped slaughtering and butchering the Indians long enough to free the black man and now we are back to finish with the Indians.”

   That comes a bit out of left field, since other than the knowledge that Keoma’s village was slaughtered by white men and Keoma the only survivor, and all the bad guys, brothers included, go on about him being half-Indian, Indians have almost nothing to do with the plot except as shorthand for oppressed and exploited people, and that old Indian woman (great face) who keeps wandering in and out at key points often back lit by lightning and sunlight.

   This is a beautifully shot film. Visually it is great to look at and the print I saw was off an original 35mm letterboxed master in one of those collections of twelve films, this one including One Eyed Jacks, another pretentious western, but not as good as this one despite the cast and stunning cinematography.

   Keoma is about as much Tarzan or Conan here as a western hero, a sort of force of nature, the ultimate existentialist hero who worships only one thing, freedom at any price — no matter who he gets killed in winning it for them.

   It’s a very physical role for Nero, mindful of the kind of action film Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas often made full of running, leaping, fighting, and defying gravity, and in the stunts that are obviously Nero, he looks and performs the physical side more than adequately. Of course he was an old hand at this and even makes a sly cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s paean to the form, Django Unleashed (for anyone who didn’t get the joke Nero — among others — this was also released as Django Rides).

   You have to give the director and multiple screenwriters credit too, because this could easily have devolved into maudlin flashbacks of Keoma’s troubled childhood, but instead they chose a form of virtual Latin American Magic Realism where the characters in the here and now are physically in the flashback scenes with their younger selves. Once you get past the initial shock it is very effective and in some ways presages the famous ending of Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart.

   You can guess how the plot works out: there’s the good doctor who regains his nerve; George regains his manhood; Shannon stands by his good adopted son, Keoma; Shannon and George take on the entire Caldwell army in a well shot orgy of gunfighting and violence; and Keoma ends up crucified in the rain on a wagon wheel in the middle of town only to be rescued by Lisa, the dying pregnant woman.

   The final shootout in an old abandoned fort where the film opened, with Keoma battling his three adopted brothers is well staged with the screams of the woman in labor and the cries of her newborn muffling the gun fire (I warned you it was arty) and the old witch looking on.

   But don’t shoot me, it isn’t my fault that Keoma, having done everything but backflips to see the child is born, then deserts him with the old Indian woman with than nonsense about a free man can’t die. See how much milk and how many diapers existentialist philosophy will buy you; carrying existentialism a shade too far as far as I’m concerned.

   The major problem for me was the damn musical soundtrack, really lame senseless ballads I could barely understand that sounded like the mewling of the cattle from Red River done to music or the male part like a coyote with a sore throat trying to spit phlegm up (and that is being kind — “Do not forsake me oh my darlin’” it’s not), the woman singing alone had a vibrato on high notes that must be how Madame Castafiore sounds to Captain Haddock in Tintin. You will be amazed how many vowels she manages to squeeze into the name Keoma. She sounds like the love child of Joan Baez and Slim Whitman.

   That said, the dubbing was first class with Nero and Strode at least doing their own voices.

   But messy as it is at times, I more than recommend this one. It mostly succeeds at what it is obviously trying to do, there is some strong and effective imagery, plus stunts, good use of lighting and staging, and more often than not, it rises to what it seems to want to be. Granted the main villain is a bit lame, but he’s only an afterthought to the conflict between the brothers and Keoma.

   And if any of you have seen it and remember, maybe you can clear up whether Keoma was just rescued by Shannon, or Shannon’s son by his Indian mother. At one point that seems to be the implication, and then later I wasn’t so sure. I guess that happens when a small army writes the screenplay. They never clear up if the people at the mine dying of plague are saved either. Guess it wasn’t worth the bother.

   I enjoyed this one much more than I expected. If there is another half this good on the set then I won’t feel I wasted $5. This is one of the better thought of and appreciated later Spaghetti westerns, and it isn’t hard to see why.

   Still, I can’t help but wonder if Tonto — Keoma — would have fared better here with the help of the Lone Ranger.

   Just asking.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm