Brett Taylor is a Paracinema regular. From his exhaustive look at The Howling films, to his illuminating piece on Robert Downey, Brett consistency delivers quality content. That’s why it broke my heart when issue 15 filled up so quickly that Brett’s article on revenge in Westerns had to be omitted. Thankfully, we have a website that allows us to share it with you now. Thanks, internet.
Folks are always praising the magazine’s slick design, and that’s easy to show through a quick twitpic. Quality writing is something more difficult to show… until now. So I give you “Vengeance in the Saddle,” by Brett Taylor.
Vengeance was not the usual subject of early Western movies, which were by and large escapist. But the ’50s was the age of the Serious Western, with Westerns that examined the country’s shameful history of Native American abuse (Broken Arrow) and Westerns like William Wellman’s Track of the Cat and Anthony Mann’s The Furies, Westerns that were much closer to Eugene O’Neill psychological dramas than anything Roy Rogers or Gene Autry ever did. Dark themes of vengeance and revenge rode in.
John Ford’s much-lauded The Searchers features John Wayne as a very dark sort of hero, one driven more by vengeance and a hatred of Comanches than anything else. Much of the film’s uneven tone, aside from Ford’s usual weakness for broad, inappropriate comedy relief is due to a great ambivalence about this character, which is never resolved and makes the film frustrating at times. The Western would now deal with big themes, but it might be awkward. Me personally, I prefer Ford’s Stagecoach, which is fast paced, straightforward, and unburdened by a need to be big and “mythic.”
Director Henry King Gregory had been entertaining moviegoers since the silent days with works like Tol’able David and Jesse James. He’d make a Serious Western if that was the trend, but he do it his way, with action and with widescreen Deluxe Color photography that captured his usual flair for spectacular outdoor locations. So The Bravados (1958) is a Western in which somber, sometimes dull stretches of talk and piety coexist with fast paced action. Gregory Peck is a mysterious stranger who’s rode 100 miles to see the hanging of the four criminals who raped and killed his wife. When they predictably break out, he tracks them down.
We can tell this is a Serious Western because it includes a lot of praying and choir singing. Here the whole town’s ready to enjoy a good hanging and the local priest has to ruin it for everybody with a somber sermon on forgiveness: “I would remind you that these four men are also creatures of God. Eligible for His mercy… There was also scaffolding at Golgotha. And Christ, bleeding and dying, took time in His agony to turn and pardon a common thief.” Gee, thanks, Colonel Bringdown. Let’s not invite this guy to our next execution, okay? Luckily we can count on King to cut straightaway to an exciting chase. At first the movie seems like it will be a long slog but once it gets going it’s a solid effort.
The Bravados boasts a strange bit of casting in using comic Joe De Rita, later to become known as Curly Joe of the Three Stooges, as a genial hangman who turns out to be on the side of the condemned men. And in retrospect it’s also strange to see Joan Collins, later to be known as a superbitch on TV’s Dynasty as Peck’s saintly former girlfriend. More typical casting is seen with in Lee Van Cleef (who’d go on to play many more cowboy outlaws) and Henry Silva (as a Mexican-he’d go on to many more dubious ethnic roles) as two of the criminals hunted by Peck. Cleef is quite good in a scene when he begs and grovels for Peck’s mercy, only to receive pistol blows to the head in return.
The picture seems to suggest vengeance is okay as long as you make absolutely sure the men you kill are actually guilty. Peck’s late moment of guilt at his act of vigilantism is due largely to his realization that the criminals actually had nothing to do with his wife’s demise, and at any rate he is quickly assured forgiveness by the padre.
It is common for Western enthusiasts to refer to Sam Peckinpah’s poignant Ride the High Country (1962) as western hero Joel McCrea’s last film. This is because they would prefer to forget that he came back eight years later for a cameo role in Cry Blood, Apache. This movie came about because McCrea’s surfer son Jody suddenly decided he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and be a cowboy star. So he recruited some pals, mainly director Jack Starrett, best known, if at all, for the biker film Run, Angel, Run! (he seems to have liked his titles to be commands), scraped together some money and went to Arizona to make a movie. The casting of the two McCreas as the same man in different stages of his life is nice, but while Jody and his lady costar are a wholesome pair, they are bland to carry a whole movie and thus allow the bad guys to take center stage, which they do by raping and killing an Indian woman and then being killed off by her revenge-seeking mate. The villains, with plenty of cretinous dialogue (“Aim for the knee, and ya get ‘em in the guts every time. Ha ha haa haa…”) are the type who served as secondary characters in Peckinpah’s movies, but watching sleazebags fight and argue amongst themselves gets really old after a while, especially when they are played by non-actors without a script, as they are here.
Among these bad guys, much scenery is chewed by a windy preacher who decries the savagery of the Indians but has no problem with savagery committed by white people. The fact that the actor in this part, with his weak chin and orange hair, is given so much screen time, is no doubt due to the fact that he is played by the director, Starrett. Portraying a preacher in a negative light is not entirely new in this genre (John Ford was no fan of the missionary), but graphically portraying the mistreatment of Indians is in keeping with the preoccupations of the early ’70s. Unfortunately the vengeful Apache of the title is barely given any words to speak and is allowed to function only as a symbol of vengeance. Playing another thug, Don Henley (not the guy from The Eagles, I’m pretty sure), is the only person besides the McCreas who looks like he’d be cast in a real Hollywood movie. There’s also a huge oaf type with spectacles and a bushy beard who looks like wandered in from one of Starrett’s biker films, and probably did.
There is nothing wrong with the images, as desert scenery is pretty hard to screw up, but the fact that the movie has been shot without synch sound and dubbed later makes the whole thing cheap and amateurish and therefore dull to watch, though I’ll wager it’s not as bad as Al Adamson’s similarly scuzzy Five Bloody Graves from the same year.
The Revengers, a Western with a promisingly grim Jacobean title, was released in 1972 by the short-lived Cinema Center Films. Venerable old William Holden stars as an independent minded border rancher, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner no less, “stubborner than a Cavalry mule,” with a clean cut wholesome family, complete with a blond son bound for West Point (James Daughton). But the bucolic setup is quickly destroyed by violence as everybody but Holden is slaughtered by Indians and two white men, comancheros (men who make a living by trading with Indians). Holden’s son is hung up in the barn and drained of blood in the first 11 minutes, which is kind of a relief considering what a bad actor he is. One of the comancheros is captured, but the other escapes, so Holden heads off to a Mexican prison, frees some scuzzy prisoners and heads to the outlaw-infested town of Pueblo Plata to track down the one-eyed bastard.
Director Daniel Mann seems to have been a second-rate Richard Fleischer, a director for all seasons and all genres. I haven’t seen too many of his films, but he has the eternal devotion of film fans for making Matilda, the most powerful movie ever made about a professional boxer who happens to be a kangaroo. An old-fashioned Hollywood director, he is here assigned the task of directing a new-style Hollywood movie, a violent Peckinpah imitation. The obvious Peckinpah elements are there: the salty/profane/macho dialogue (“Mr. Benedict can sling that .45 faster than a whore’s ass on payday”), two of the stars of The Wild Bunch playing basically the same roles—Holden a quietly stern man of action and integrity, Ernest Borgnine a scurrilously comic trickster, full of fake sincerity, plus one Peckinpah reject—Woody Strode, a USC footballer and John Ford star, passed over for a part in Major Dundee in favor of Brock Peters, plays a prideful slave with many lines of dignified manliness: “I ain’t one of nobody but myself,” “I coulda worn them chains all my life, and I wouldn’t have give a damn,” “It was when they sold me to the breeding farm fir slaves, that’s when I said to myself I was a man.”
Mann has the elements of a great Western: a solid cast, apart from Holden’s two sons, who are quite amateur in their small roles, miles of beautiful scenery with many a clear blue sky, and a rousing score by Pino Calvi which is somewhat undercut by a brief but laughable intrusion of rockin’ electric guitar (the Morricone influence I guess). But he doesn’t seem to feel the need to. It’s a pretty good Western, but it could have been great if it didn’t drag in places, and had a better script. In the second half it gets around to having a point as Holden realizes, upon being told, “If your family could see you now they wouldn’t know you,” that his quest for vengeance is making him no better than the man he’s tracking. So the film moves along, after a subplot that features Susan Hayward, in her last movie role, as a philosophical Irish nurse, to a big anticlimax as Holden rides off into the distance without killing the man he’s been tracking—an act of spiritual mercy which seems a little pointless considering how many faceless Indians we’ve seen Holden casually gun down. Realizing what a groan-inducing joke of an ending this is, the filmmakers placate the audience by preceding with the picture’s real climax, a battle between the Indians and the military.
Vengeance is part of the story in The Outlaw Josey Wales, Clint Eastwood’s grand epic western from 1976, but just part. There’s much more to the movie: the Civil War, Indian Wars, a lot of beautiful scenery and low key atmosphere. Still an act of revenge is what the title character lives for. And he gets it, too, running a sword through the redbearded bastard (Bill McKinney) who killed and burned his family. “Dyin’ ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s livin’ that’s hard,” says Josey-Clint, “when all you’ve ever cared about’s been butchered or raped.”
Even as Eastwood moved past the Leone Westerns that made him famous into more realistic, less mythic, less European territory, others were still imitating the Leone style. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson was one of the top names in black exploitation cinema in the ’70s, but he wanted more. He wanted to be Clint Eastwood. So Williamson brought his badass act to Westerns, though the transition wasn’t entirely smooth. The Black Rider (1976), later retitled Joshua, was his third one, after Adios Amigo, in which the show was stolen by Richard Pryor, and Antonio Margheriti’s Take a Hard Ride, in which he’d been paired with football star Jim Brown and Lee Van Cleef, a big name in Italy thanks to Sergio Leone’s trendsetting Westerns. And yet Williamson still has obvious difficulty dismounting a horse. That never happened to Clint Eastwood. Or if it did, they would have done another take. The Black Rider begins with a largely irrelevant history lesson and a montage of photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Our hero is an ex Union soldier in tight-fitting black leather, who comes home to find that his mother, a matronly maid, has been shot in the back by a band of grubby renegades who’ve also gunned down the earnest frontier family she works for. Will he take revenge in creatively violent ways? Will he be a quiet loner who knows how to throw a knife or trap and set off a dynamite charge with a single well-aimed rifle shot if he has to? If he’s played by a badass like The Hammer, it’s pretty likely he will. “Sometimes a man has to kill in order to have peace,” he explains, and that’s about it for character development.
Williamson wrote the script, and you can tell it, too. The Black Rider is ridiculously simple, with long stretches of emptiness broken by folksy dialogue like “Pass me a little of that rattlesnake juice” and “Y’all come in. I’m gonna teach you the best meal you ever et.” The music mainly consists of two main themes. One, used for the tense moments, is a synthesizer bit, the kind John Carpenter would soon specialize in. The other is a jaunty piano theme with some drumming and a little electronic whistling thrown in. It’s catchy, but it plays every three minutes, which quickly drives you insane. Yet, it’s pretty entertaining, if you like Westerns of the bleak, semi-nihilistic Leone-influenced variety. If anything, Williamson and director Larry Spangler prove how easy it can be to make a diverting Western. Just film a lot of widescreen shots of men riding across the scruffy desert, put some music over it, some occasional sounds of wind for atmosphere, and there you have it, a Western. “To make a movie all you need is a girl and a gun,” Godard once said. Sometimes Westerns don’t even bother with the girl. When The Black Rider does bother, it gives Mexican star Isela Vega a thankless role. She stands there, making little gestures and waiting for deeper direction that never arrives. Williamson’s urban attitude is quite inappropriate, though he does his best to restrain it. In this movie he probably has the least dialogue of any action star ever, making Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson seem like gregarious loudmouths by comparison. The Black Rider is proof that Williamson’s no actor, yet it’s diverting enough to convince me that, as a Western hero, he’s underrated.
Jim Brown apparently realized the limitations of his own acting and allowed himself to play second fiddle to budding teen idol Leif Garrett in Vendetta, later retitled Kid Vengeance, a 1976 effort from Israeli producers Golan and Globus. Garrett, having already bumped off an adult or two in the creepy Peopletoys a.k.a. Devil Times Five, is here required to do enough killing for five psycho kids, hitting one desperado in the back with an arrow, putting a scorpion in the boot of one, lassoing another around the neck and leaving him to hang just after crushing his comrade with boulders, and even disposing of badass Lee Van Cleef with a repeating rifle. The desperadoes are out for gold, but vengeance, even kid vengeance, proves stronger than gold lust. Luckily actual actors are on hand to distract from the sullen, pouty Garrett and the earnest, wooden Brown. Van Cleef at his most gruff, Matt Clark at his most boyish, and oddest of all, The Godfather’s John Marley as a white-haired Mexican.
The Italian style Western, having exhausted its stylistic possibilities, was by this time relying on violence and casual pessimism, so seeing a pubescent in this sort of violent part is uncomfortable enough. At the outset, little Leif is squeamish at the sight of his father clubbing a rabbit to death with a rock, but that’s nothing compared to the grueling experience of watching as his mother is raped. Scenes like these show the rote cynicism which settled into the ’70s Western. Without scenes of rape, without a shot of a helpless rabbit being dragged along by a rope, you would have a harmless programmer. With them, you still have a harmless programmer, but one that’s not always easy to watch, although it would have been a lot less easy without the performances of Van Cleef, strangely reasonable as the bandana-wearing leader of the scuzzballs, Clark, still extremely youthful even a half decade after Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Marley, and Glynnis O’Connor as the unlucky sister, all of them far too solid in acting ability for a minor movie like this, which is burdened with ear-punishing harmonica music. But with the Western having been abandoned by Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone, solid actors didn’t have much of anywhere else to go.