Friday, May 28, 2010

Spaghetti Western Week, Day 5

Here's a rarity: a spaghetti western that focuses on the love story. Monte Hellman's CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 (1978) is sometimes referred to as "the last spaghetti western." It was shot in the Almeria region in Spain with an Italian crew, but it actually has a lot more in common with the American revisionist westerns of the 1970s than with the earlier spaghettis.

Hellman was no stranger to westerns. In 1966, he made two westerns back-to-back for producer Roger Corman: THE SHOOTING and RIDE THE WHIRLWIND, both starring a young Jack Nicholson. While bigger Hollywood westerns were mostly floundering at that point, these two films showed where the genre was headed: toward an ultra-realism that would eventually undercut the genre's myth-making agenda.

CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 begins with a mini-homage to Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969). The first image is a closeup of a group of kids playing in the sand on a playground. Since THE WILD BUNCH began with closeups of children destroying an anthill, I can't help thinking that the absence of ants in Hellman's film is an illustration that his West is far different from Peckinpah's world of cruel violence; Hellman's West is a place of crushing loneliness and mostly reluctant violence.

The loneliest character in the film is a frontier wife played by Jenny Agutter (who horror geeks like me will remember from her role as the hot nurse in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON). She lives in the middle of nowhere with her emotionally distant husband, played by Peckinpah regular Warren Oates. When a soft-hearted gunslinger (Fabio Testi) comes along, she's tempted to run away with him. The result is a simple love triangle -- but whereas most westerns would emphasize sex and revenge, this one emphasizes genuine affection and humanity on all sides. These three characters don't want to destroy each other, but they can't help themselves... Theirs is a story about human tragedy, rather than good versus evil. I'm of the opinion that the best westerns of any era have a lot in common with the classic tragedies, whether they be Greek or Elizabethan. Usually, the characters don't recognize their own tragedy until the end of the film. CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37, however, begins with that recognition and asks, Where do we go from here?

Even when the film seems to be losing its story focus, Hellman maintains the tragic tone of the piece. There's a scene involving a group of circus midgets and a bottle of liquid cocaine that doesn't initially seem to have anything to do with anything... but, by the end, it becomes a strangely poignant moment for Testi and Agutter: a realization that they live in a strange and unpredictable world. Later, there's a scene in which Sam Peckinpah makes a cameo as a dime store novelist who wants to turn the gunslinger's story into fiction for people back east. These are "lies they need," he explains. To me, this seems like Hellman and Peckinpah's eulogy for the dying genre they love.

Testi and Agutter, and even Oates, are struggling to leave wanton violence behind, and show respect for the sanctity of human life. For a later western, and particularly a spaghetti western, CHINA 9 is surprisingly optimistic about human nature, and still completely realistic about the fate of the Wild West. As Oates says to Testi's character: "You ain't gonna last long, son. There ain't no soft-hearted gunfighters." I can't imagine a better note to end on.

Final thought: While I highly recommend this film, a quick search tells me that the version I have, as well as all other DVD release copies, is edited by about ten minutes. If you want to see the full version (and hopefully with better sound quality), a file sharing site may be the way to go.

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