REVIEW: DVD Release: Cult Spaghetti Westerns

Film: Cult Spaghetti Westerns
Release date: 21st June 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 300 mins
Director: Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani & Enzo G. Castellari
Starring: Franco Nero, Gian Maria Volonte, Klaus Kinski, Lou Castel, Martine Beswick
Genre: Western/Action/Drama
Studio: Argent
Format: DVD
Country: Italy

Proving that there’s more to the Spaghetti Western than Sergio Leone’s famed and rather marvellous ‘Dollars’ trilogy, Ardent Films’ Cult Spaghetti Westerns box set presents three lesser known offerings: the most famous of the bunch being Django, as well as A Bullet For The General and Keoma; the latter of which is frequently considered to be the sub-genre’s last great opus.

Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966)
A lone, coffin dragging gunslinger by the name of Django (Franco Nero) gets caught up in a private war between two rival outlaw gangs when he saves a woman from torture - and possibly worse - and returns her to the nearby, economically deprived town stuck between the two rival factions: one ran by the bloodthirsty, former military type Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) and the other; a ragtag band of Mexican militia.

When Django wipes out the vast majority of Jackson’s men with relative ease in the name of protecting the woman, Maria (Loredana Nusciak), and the town’s saloon/whorehouse, he is welcomed into the militia ranks led by a former comrade in arms: General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo). Together, they hatch a plan to thieve Jackson’s gold supply from a Mexican army fort; splitting the spoils evenly. For Rodriquez, it means he’ll be able to buy enough firepower to return to Mexico unchallenged by the authorities. For Django, it’s the possible start to a new life…

Django had the honour and distinction of being one of the most violent films ever made back in the mid-60s, leading it to be banned in several countries, including the UK, until 1993. However, that hasn’t deterred imitators to spawn literally dozens of unofficial sequels that, while have little to do with the original, copy the attitude of its eponymous lead character. Many films incorporated the word ‘Django’ in their title simply by way of cashing in including Keoma, which was released in America under the name Django Rides Again.

Indeed, the very mysterious persona of Django is what elevates his namesake from a routine western to a key work of the genre. There’s nothing new and exciting about the premise – a lone, near mythical gunslinger drifts into a one horse town ravaged by bandits and sorts it all out whilst fulfilling his own selfish wealth orientated desires – but the protagonist’s mystique and general magnetism keeps things interesting. Franco Nero plays Django with relative ease and in a similar manner to Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name.” Both men are highly talented, emotionally distant shooters that have no qualm over murdering hordes of dirty bandit types. Both are out for themselves but also exhibit a strange code of honour and sense of justice, which is what usually lands them in trouble to begin with. Django is seemingly invincible, able to gun down numerous assailants in predicament free succession, making it all the more engaging when he is finally caught short and left to the mercy of his enemies.

The film’s other characterisations are fairly cardboard and one-dimensional: the spineless saloon owner; the flirty prostitute; the greasy Mexican ending every other sentence with “gringo”; and the cold-blooded antagonist all make an appearance at some point. Only Django offers any real dynamic, despite being extremely similar to Leone’s nameless anti-hero. His insistence on dragging a coffin everywhere helps flesh things out and makes for irresistible iconography, which has been homaged and copied for decades.

The film has certainly proven to be very influential in this regard. One censor enraging scene where a character’s ear is sliced off with a knife was the inspiration to a similarly infamous sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). Takashi Miike’s Spaghetti Western homage Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) not only makes reference to Django in its title but goes as far as using the original film’s rousing theme song – a paean to the lead’s mysterious past.

Whilst the film lacks the grandiose conviction that Leone was able to achieve in his output– The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966), for instance – director Sergio Corbucci presents a somewhat rawer opus. The violence flows thick and fast; a machinegun totting Django butchers a street full of bad guys is one of the film’s highlights, as well as the aforementioned ear cutting scene, which Corbucci allegedly “forgot” to remove for the censors when it was sent to be classified. All of which is suitably captured by Enzo Barboni’s reliable cinematography, resulting in a solidly entertaining movie experience marred slightly with some lazy characterisation and a functional yet somewhat formulaic plot. Nevertheless, for those who like their spaghetti westerns grisly and violent – not to mention being rather fun – Django is almost about as good as it gets. An archetypal and satisfying western that deserves more exposure beyond the trappings of cultdom.

A Bullet For The General (Damiano, Damiani, 1966)
Set during the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, a group of Mexican bandits led by El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) rob a train carrying weapons for the Mexican army. They are assisted by an American passenger, Bill Tate (Lou Castel), who stops the train in exchange for him being allowed to join the group.

Chuncho accepts and together they orchestrate a string of armed robberies in order to accumulate enough firearms to then sell on to General Elias and his revolutionaries. However, as the humble El Chuncho starts to become torn between getting rich and doing what’s right, it is slowly revealed that Tate – claiming to be a fugitive from the law – is not what he seems…

Damiano Damiani’s first attempt at helming a western, A Bullet For The General is an enjoyable action romp that is also politically charged, bringing issues of ideology and trust to the fore instead of opting for the usual western catalysts of revenge and injustice. The result is a surprisingly unstereotypical spaghetti western that has all the hallmarks for a potential genre classic.

While performances all round are pretty good – dodgy dubbing not withstanding – this is clearly Volonté’s film – he is extremely warm and likeable. Here he is given the chance to play against type - his previous work in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) and For A Few Dollars More (1965) largely confining him to the role of generic dirty Mexican, thus presenting an interesting role reversal. Volonté’s bandit is the hero to Castel’s laconic stranger villain, making this spaghetti western very much against the grain, which may dissuade some viewers. Regular Werner Herzog collaborator Klaus Kinski also makes a memorable appearance as Volonté’s brother; a bandit with a religious bent – offering his foes damnation in hell from the good book in one hand whilst hurling dynamite from the other.

Having said that, the action in A Bullet For The General is somewhat muted compared to its brethren, giving it an air of believability. An introductory voiceover explicitly frames the proceedings within the Mexican Revolution, giving events historical context – the film’s opening salvo sees a group of young men being put to a public firing squad, immediately setting the slightly more serious than usual tone. The iconography of the lone gunslinger overcoming ridiculous odds a la Eastwood’s “man with no name” or Nero’s Django does not exist here.

Not that A Bullet For The General is without its epic spaghetti western set pieces - the first one being a large scale train robbery in which the two leads meet. However, fancy gunplay is mostly ditched in favour of a more realist execution; complimenting the film’s somewhat more mature themes. Tate strives for personal monetary gain, paying little attention to disposable pleasures such as drinking, smoking and women. El Chuncho, however, is caught between wanting to do better for himself and his followers and wanting to perpetuate the cause, driving an ideological wedge between the two partners in crime. By the film’s end, El Chuncho has an important decision to make that defines his very character: to be a humble peasant or a rich jerk.

Antonio Secchi’s cinematography is suitably wide and sparse, highlighting the expansive wastelands and dusty forts in which the narrative unfolds. Production design is also commendable; El Chuncho looks like he was born wearing his now weathered militia garb, whilst Tate exhibits an unspeakable cool and collectedness that no doubt influences Chuncho’s decision making abilities. This all plays out within the inconspicuous yet assured directorship of Damiani and rounded out with a decent soundtrack by Bruno Nicolai, whilst being overseen by spaghetti western score supreme maestro Ennio Morricone.

Whilst A Bullet For The General is not as fun as say Django, it could be argued that it is a superior film - wonderful central performances under quietly confident direction attest to that. A spaghetti western that’s not afraid to get its hands dirty with a dose of social commentary – highlighting the morally dubious nature that the sub-genre and its characters consistently revel in – A Bullet For The General, whilst not perfect, is a solid entry nonetheless with enough compelling characterisation (certainly more compelling than Django, save for that film’s titular antihero), drama and action to tick most boxes.

Keoma (Enzo G. Castellari, 1976)
Keoma (Franco Nero), a half-Indian half-Caucasian civil war veteran returns to his homeland to find it in squalor and disrepair at the hands of gang leader and presiding landlord Caldwell (Donald O’Brien) and his enforcers; keeping the inhabitants in poverty and cureless from the plague that’s going around. Those who do circum are rounded up and dumped at the old mine on the outskirts. It is here that a passing Keoma saves a pregnant woman (Olga Karlatos) – wrongly assumed to be infected – from imminent murder.

While in the area, Keoma returns to the family ranch where his father (William Berger) is annoyed by the state things have fallen into; partly caused by Keoma’s three half-brothers who serve under Caldwell. He also has a run in with the family’s former slave George (woody Strode); now a free man and a drunk. Together, the three men plan to save the town from Caldwell’s greed and corruption…

By the mid-70s, the western was starting to dwindle in popularity, becoming a rarity of sorts; not resurfacing proper until the early-90s with revisionist pieces such as Dances With Wolves (1990) and the highly acclaimed Unforgiven (1992). In this regard, Keoma is often seen to be one of the last great westerns before the genre’s decline, and while the film has its flaws, it certainly doesn’t disappoint.

Nero’s typical lone wolf gunman is given some much needed fleshing out in the form of several tastefully executed flashback sequences on his growing up with a loving father and three half-brothers frustrated and angry over the latter’s open acceptance of having a ‘half-breed’ in the family. Keoma was taken in by the man after his village was burned to the ground in a senseless massacre; portrayed in another hard-hitting and well played flashback within the first few minutes that seamlessly materialises mid-pan from a character credited as The Witch (Gabriella Giacobbe), who may or may not exist solely within Keoma’s psyche. Another interesting moment takes shape as Keoma watches his young self being bullied in a barn by his brothers before his father calls them in for supper, which is then match cut to the present.

The usual themes inevitably surface. Injustice manifests itself two-fold, within the situation that Keoma’s hometown is placed in and the personal animosity between the brothers based on Keoma’s race. This is reinforced by the presence of Keoma’s former salve and kindred spirit George – a man singled out and abused because of the colour of his skin – thus creating another obstacle for the hero to overcome. Nero plays Keoma with a grizzled world weariness that’s a far cry from his career making turn as the eponymous Django ten years prior, but some similarities do remain. Both films start in a similar fashion – Nero’s gunslinger saves an innocent woman from death and brings her into the town’s saloon for her to rest after the whole ordeal. The script (co written by the film’s director Enzo G. Castellari) even goes as far to have the same scene in which Nero demands a room key from one of the saloon’s users for the woman’s convenience which, again, acts as the catalyst for the bloodshed that’s to follow.

As hinted in the use of flashbacks to serve as exposition, Keoma revels in a highly stylised approach to storytelling that’s achieved through the film’s interesting use of camera and slow-motion photography to give its action sequences extra impact. One scene sees Keoma raise all four fingers of his hand to denote how many shots he would need to dispatch a gang of four men standing in front of him. As he counts the number of shots he lowers a finger, revealing that bullet’s target in the background. The slow motion ramps up when Keoma’s victims bite the dust; a technique that would be later used by Hollywood director Walter Hill in The Warriors (1979) and his subsequent western The Long Riders (1980).

Keoma is a solid, gripping and mythical western that is incredibly stylish and not entirely without substance either. The only major flaw is the film’s overly-insistent and frequently agitating score in the form of a warbling diva and throaty male vocalist taking it in turns to sing what is happening in the film as it happens with some very on-the-nose lyrics: “Now I’m here in front of these men/Gun in hand, I’m waiting for what will be…” and; “There’s my father and my brothers and me/Tell me now father, why they hate me so.” The instrumental sections fair a lot better providing some effectively cathartic moments.

For anyone wanting to explore the spaghetti western genre beyond that of Sergio Leone’s famous outings with Clint Eastwood, the Cult Spaghetti Westerns box set presents three entries that, while not without their flaws, are very commendable and highly watchable pieces; each displaying a differing style. Django’s archetypical lone gunman makes an interesting contrast with the more realistic and ideology conscious A Bullet For The General, which in turn is vastly different form the flashy ultra-violence of Keoma. Recommended. MP

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