Chuck Conners Stars in “Acrobatic” Spahgetti Western.
DIRECTED BY ENZO G. CASTELLARI/1968
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 7, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Talk about not having anyone to root for… This late 1960s spaghetti western not only leaves you a bit morally whipped, it also disappoints in the process. Said disappointment is based almost entirely on the fact that our hero, leading a sort of Dirty Half-Dozen, has no heroic inclination, nor charisma to counter that common Italian western trait. It takes us down a dirty if admittedly sometimes picturesque path that, as current events reveal, is tellingly empty at best. If nothing else, it knows how to make you wait for its title.
Chuck Conners (TV’s The Rifleman) as mercenary Clyde MacKay, is in full-on leading man mode, going for a kind of Kirk Douglas but landing as a proto-Marc Singer. It’s almost as though the full-body deep-tan pancake makeup and perpetual beads of sweat sported by the entire cast is only there to make his perfectly white teeth really pop. Conners, wearing a battered, chest-baring tan shirt and wide-brimmed Fedora, prefigures Indiana Jones’s Temple of Doom look by at least fifteen years. He’s no Kirk Douglas, no Harrison Ford, no Clint Eastwood, and not even a Lee Marvin, but Conners himself does ensure continued watching if only to see which trait from Old Hollywood’s Handsome Leading Man Industry he’ll trot out next amid this sunburnt parade of perpetual badassery.
All too often, these films, and their characters, are all about the money. (Or, as audio commentator and important filmmaker in his own right Alex Cox points out, revenge). This is no exception. Directed by Enzo G. Castellari (of the original Inglorious Bastards fame) and said to be “the first acrobatic western”, the film is literally nonstop action. From beginning to end, MacKay’s cadre of professionally violent men (your standard-issue team is all here: there’s the knife guy, the brute, the pole vaulter…) blast, bound, plunge and punch their way through Civil War military camps in the interest of the mission.
Just to contextualize and explain the disappointment the movie initially generated, this review was written in June of 2020, just as the unrest ignited by the police murder of George Floyd had reached the point of toppling Confederate monuments. As this better-late-than-never history corrective proved refreshing and even therapeutic for many, I sat down to catch up with this Blu-ray release. (A fine, fine job from Kino Lorber Studio Classics by the way, housing both the ninety-nine-minute U.S. cut and the 100-minute subtitled Italian cut). The film begins in a fictionalized and financially failing Confederate outpost in the middle of nowhere. MacKay and his team of vicious rogues each stealthily infiltrate it, non-fatally taking out grey-uniformed troops, eventually invading the high command building and capturing the general. Yesss!!!
But then… The whole thing is a damn ruse, a try-out in which MacKay and his goon squad prove their worth in their ability to go do the same thing to the Union army. Only there, they actually kill scores of Blue soldiers. Alex Cox tells us that this is all common in the Italian western’s widespread fascination with the American Civil War, a fascination that held little use nor sympathy for either side. (And eventually, when MacKay’s gang goes after the Grey, equal opportunity havoc erupts… all in pursuit of the one-million-dollar macguffin).
I suppose I should’ve known better, but in this moment in time, the movie let me down. I say this in not only reaffirming that it is most definitely a product of its own time and place. But like the now-targeted Confederate monuments, it’s also fair to openly question the initial moral viewpoint of the work. In this case, perhaps there never was any. But in the course of setting out to make no important statement, important symbols and uniforms are being utilized. That makes the whole thing at least somewhat loaded. How can it not?
Anyhow, Castellari, from this point on, exclusively delivers thoroughly male combat chaos for the sake of chaos, replete with several hundred-foot falls from ubiquitous gun towers. With a noticeable lack of grace or finesse to the mayhem, it all becomes an unfortunately exhausting barrage. Castellari’s skills as an orchestrator of violent adventure is swallowed up by the sheer glut of similar soks n’ pops n’ drops. Even the promising opening sequence dishes out fourteen minutes of this before revealing its twist, complete with an acutely evil dictate to MacKay (delivered by costar Frank Wolff) on the fate of his own men once the mission is complete: Kill Them All and Come Back Alone.
The images and promotional material used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality or content of the Blu-ray.