Joseph Cotten is Hellbent on South Doing it Again in Post-Civil War Spahgetti Western Classic.



Old man Joseph Cotten, once a respectable key member of Orson Welles’s Mercury Players, must now ride a horse through the desert, fire guns, drag a heavy wooden coffin up a bumpy hill, and then tumble back down said rocky and dusty hill.  He must do it all while sporting a grey wool uniform of the Confederate States of America, and antiquated garb even in the context of this engaging if fairly ludicrous spaghetti Western.  Italian productions if the 1960s, enjoying a moment of global popularity, had long prior made a habit of casting aging American stars in an effort to generate greater overseas attention.  But watching a talent as formidable and longstanding as Cotton be put through this series of paces is particularly head-turning.

Cotten earns his top billing in the role of Colonel Jonas, a calloused and bitter Southern patriot with a chip on his shoulder and an agenda up his sleeve.  The actor’s imposing stature and vividly game gravitas make him ideal in playing a character as vile and as purely evil as this one.  (This is something Alfred Hitchcock understood going all the way back to 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt).  His plan, which he spends the film carrying out with the close assistance of his three grown sons, will culminate in nothing less than the rebirth of the Confederacy.  

To make this happen, he and his sons steal a stagecoach chock full of spent Union cash, worn bills on their way to the government shredder to be replaced with fresh ones.  From there, they transfer the cash into a wooden coffin to assure that sanctity for the dead will prevent inspectors along the way (of which there are several) from peering inside to verify the forged document of transfer.  Jonas and his boys, in the film’s most violent sequence, massacre the entire initial Confederate garrison, leaving a mess of bloody corpses and dead horses by the riverside.  The Hellbenders have struck.

Though harrowing, this brutality is a several steps down for filmmaker Sergio Corbucci.  Corbucci, one of the founding creatives of the entire “pasta Western” subset (if not THE founding creative), had scored a major hit the previous year with 1966’s Django.  That film, in its calculated effort to take the already cemented heightened violence of the popular Sergio Leone “Man with No Name” and others, truly shocked audiences of the time and shoved the sub-genre into an even bloodier and darker place than before.  While The Hellbenders (I crudely, aka The Cruel Ones) stops well short of that sensibility, Corbucci is nevertheless in high form, as the film maintains a pace and verve that is easily strong enough to hold an audience’s attention away from the scrappy preposterousness of the plot.  (Could four guys and a cartload of stolen cash reignite the freshly defeated Southern revolution?  In this heightened world of Spanish dunes doubling for Texas, that’s not up for debate). 

Alex Cox, a greatly accomplished filmmaker in his own right, contributes a feature-length audio commentary to this KL Studio Classics Blu-ray release.  Though a scholar of Italian Westerns in his own right, having authored a book on them and even directed an effectively warped spoof of sorts with the all but unclassifiable Straight to Hell, this track exudes the vibe of a very devoted enthusiast.  As Cox speaks in his trademark cadence of measured near-whispers, one can almost envision him sitting in a rocking chair, his eyes fixed wide as he gladly shares his informed thoughts on this film we’re watching together.  It’s a very good track to be sure, though one would be forgiven for stopping short of labeling it academically viable.  Yet, the lack of read-off actor filmographies and pet-topic tangents are welcome.  In the place however, we get dead air.

A fine packaging of a crackling film by one of the foremost directors of the spaghetti western ilk, Kino Lorber’s The Hellbenders is an acquisition worth tracking down.