This week I thought I'd take a cue from one of my favorite websites, The Spaghetti Western Database. If you're even remotely interested in Italian westerns made between the mid-1960s and the late-1970s, this is the place to go for information. There are no comparable English-language publications. Without this website, I'd have no way of even identifying the films I really want to see, because most spaghettis have at least six different titles. SWD helps me sort through the shelves at Eddie Brandt's prolific video store, as well as through the titles on ultra-cheap public domain collections -- such as the one I'm tackling this week.
Mill Creek Entertainment's 20-film collection features the following titles:
APACHE BLOOD (1975)
BETWEEN GOD, THE DEVIL AND A WINCHESTER (1968)
BEYOND THE LAW (1968)
CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978)
DEATH RIDES A HORSE (1968)
THE FIGHTING FISTS OF SHANGHAI JOE (1972)
FIND A PLACE TO DIE (1968)
FISTFUL OF LEAD (1970)
GOD'S GUN (1975)
GRAND DUEL (1974)
GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS (1964)
IT CAN BE DONE AMIGO (1973)
JOHNNY YUMA (1966)
MAN FROM NOWHERE (1966)
MINNESOTA CLAY (1965)
SUNDANCE AND THE KID (1969)
THIS MAN CAN'T DIE (1967)
TRINITY AND SARTANA (1972)
TWICE A JUDAS (1969)
WHITE COMANCHE (1968)
I've already seen DEATH RIDES A HORSE and BEYOND THE LAW, with Lee Van Cleef, as well as MINNESOTA CLAY, one of Sergio Corbucci's earliest efforts... which narrows the list a little bit. I figure I can tackle two movies a day (everybody loves a good double feature) and get through ten more titles by the end of week. As for the rest... Well, let's take this thing one day at a time and see how it goes.
#1. GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS (1964)
I'm starting here because this is the oldest film in the set -- made before Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) kick-started a genre. At the time, the Italian film industry was suffering from a Hercules hangover, following several years worth of cheap sword-and-sandal pictures. Everyone was looking for a new, exploitable genre. GUNFIGHT failed to open the floodgates for Euro-westerns, not because it's a bad movie but because it's not especially innovative. Watching the first few minutes of the film, I couldn't help thinking that it could have been any other American TV western shot at Iverson Ranch in the San Fernando Valley. I guess maybe that was the goal. In the early days, the Italian filmmakers even gave themselves Anglo-sounding pseudonyms in the hopes that American audiences might confuse the films for domestic products.
Perhaps the biggest name on the credit of GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS is "Dan Salvo," better known as Ennio Morricone. I don't think I need to say much of anything about Ennio Morricone... If you don't know his work, shame on you. His name is synonymous with spaghetti westerns -- he scored all of the most famous examples of the genre, putting his mark on more classics than any single director or actor. He's also had an extremely impressive career in Hollywood, contributing unforgettable scores to films like THE MISSION (1986) and John Carpenter's THE THING (1982). Last year, my parents sent me a birthday card that played Morricone's theme to THE GOOD, THE BAD AND UGLY when I opened it. That's how indelibly this guy has made his mark on American pop culture.
Most of the music in GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS isn't particularly memorable. (According to legend, when Sergio Leone hired Morricone to score A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, he told the composer that he hated the GUNFIGHT score and wanted something completely different.) The exception is this jaunty theme song:
This chorus tells you everything you need to know about GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS. On the surface this is lighthearted Saturday matinee stuff, but it carries a very cynical message: "Don't trust anyone -- especially an American." Americans, in the world of spaghetti westerns, tend to be immoral... mostly greedy, rarely idealistic. They're usually on the wrong side of the Mexican Revolution, which represents the timeless struggle between fascism and socialism, capitalism and humanism. In this film, the American villain is a deceitful sheriff who hates "greasers." The hero is also American, but he was raised by Mexicans and so has a better sense of justice.
GUNFIGHT starts out as a pretty traditional revenge story. After the hero's father is murdered, he goes looking for the killers. Things get more complicated when the killers - men with plenty of money and political influence - try to turn an entire town against him, simply based on the color of his skin. I'm going to give the credit for the story's most interesting nuances to co-screenwriter Albert Band, because he also wrote and produced two other spaghetti westerns that explore the ugliness of racism with remarkable intensity (see THE TRAMPLERS and THE HELLBENDERS, both featuring Joseph Cotten in the lead).
Naturally, the whole thing culminates with a face-off on a dusty street... shot and edited in the style that would become standard in spaghetti westerns: lots of closeups and quick cuts. I was genuinely surprised at how effective it was. In general, I'd recommend this film to any western fan, though you might want to track down a better copy. This DVD is made from a VERY poor quality print, and the picture is cropped.
#2: WHITE COMANCHE
I decided to watch this one next because Joseph Cotten is in it. Unfortunately, he doesn't have much to do here. His performance as the sheriff of Rio Hondo is relatively dignified, but not very interesting. The real draw is William Shatner, playing BOTH the hero and the villain of the piece. As Shatner himself says, "Leave the sheriff out of what's between me and myself."
As a laconic cowboy, Shatner fares pretty well. As a wild Indian (the "white Comanche" of the title), not so much. I laughed out loud the first time he appeared onscreen, shirtless, his face bearing a few casual streaks of warpaint, his surfer-blond hair held back by a thin bandanna. I laughed even harder when he issued his first Indian "battle cry." Seriously, the whole movie is worth watching just for this sublime comic moment.
We soon learn that Shatner #2 is supposed to be the Jim Jones or Charlie Manson of the Comanches. The problem is that he's not particularly fearsome OR charismatic. For an angry war chief, he laughs and smiles way too much. I can only assume he's eaten too much peyote. (At one point, when the two brothers come face to face for the first time, the dour-faced cowboy Shatner out-draws the proto-hippie Indian Shatner, and mocks him: "Next time, don't eat the peyote - maybe then you'll be quick enough.")
This face-to-face routine is entertaining enough to make the film worth watching right up to the finale, when Shatner and Shatner face of against each other in a horseback jousting match. In the cutaways, it's difficult to tell which one is the "good" Shatner and which one is the "bad" Shatner because they both have their shirts off. I think maybe the editor simply reversed the same shot a few times... then added that hilarious battle cry to the sound track. If so, God bless him.
I don't know what else I can say about this one. If you like to watch the star mugging for the camera, WHITE COMANCHE will be hard to pass up. It is to the Shatner fan what DOUBLE IMPACT is to the Jean Claude Van Damme fan.
Tomorrow's double feature: Giuliano "Ringo" Gemma in MAN FROM NOWHERE (1966) and SUNDANCE AND THE KID (1969)