Nero, Palance, and Corbucci Team Up Again In 1970 For The Zapata Western, Compañeros!

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Franco Nero and machine gun, together again

No one seemed to complain in 2000 when Wong Kar Wai followed up his melancholy tale of unrequited love from three years earlier, Happy Together, with his equally melancholy tale of unrequited love, In The Mood For Love. To be accurate, it actually went beyond not complaining, as Happy Together, though it was critically praised, did not receive one-tenth of the accolades garnered by In The Mood For Love . The latter film, a perfectly sculpted narrative centered around two once-in-a-lifetime performances, ended up on many critics’ lists as the best film of the 2000s. Sadly, WKW should’ve quit while he was ahead as his eagerly awaited follow-up, 2046, was a universally panned, needlessly sentimental, muddled mess.

It is a common practice in film, among even the finest directors, to take an earlier work of their own creation and to refine it to their satisfaction, so even a film that was well received will sometimes get a do over. This process of revisiting and renovation is common with theater directors who will change a production for each year of its run, but I feel that we still look at this retooling in cinema as odd due to the fact that filmmaking is an expensive process that produces a physical medium which can be seen again, making it ripe for scrutiny. So why would Sergio Corbucci, the famed director of the original Django, want to follow up his popular 1968 Zapata western, The Mercenary, complete with its overdone, left-of-center politics, with Compañeros!, which similarly uses the 1913 Mexican revolution as its setting to push Corbucci’s political stance? And, why for main characters, would he have, again, two adversarial protagonists/buddies who hate/love each other? Corbucci even recruited Franco Nero and Jack Palance from The Mercenary for the leads, but I suppose to nuance his earlier film, he made the decision to switch out the slightly terrifying Tony Musante for the even more terrifying Tomas Milian, two actors who possess pairs of the craziest eyes in spaghetti westerns this side of Klaus Kinski. You may think that with all of this hemming and hawing that I don’t like Compañeros!, but that is not the case. It is more action packed than its similarly themed and cast predecessor, and despite losing some steam in the second half, Compañeros!, without giving too much of the plot away, has one of the better endings of any Corbucci western.

Franco Nero plays the well-coiffed, avarice-fueled Swedish (?!) arms dealer, Yodlaf Peterson, who has come to Mexico during the revolution of 1913 to sell his wares to the tyrannical General Mongo (yes, this film was made before Blazing Saddles, and yes, I was giggling a bit when I heard the name). Soon after arriving in town to make his deal with Mongo, Peterson meets Vasco (Milian), the leader of a group of banditos who have assumed power along with Mongo after they have killed the army colonel in command. The pair exchange macho stares, and a mysterious coin gifting occurs between the two before Peterson checks into the only hotel where he finds Lola (German actress Iris Berben), who is leading a group of student counter revolutionaries led by Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey). Xantos has been imprisoned by the United States army after refusing the terms for the money the U.S. government has given him to fund his non-violent revolution against Mongo; the terms being that the U.S.A. wants the rights to all of Mexico’s oil resources. So, where is the money that Xantos got for his revolution? It is in an indestructible safe, and only Xantos knows its combination. As Mongo needs the money to pay for more arms, he sends the dueling pair of Vasco and Peterson to bust Xantos out of the army jail. Standing in their way, besides the U.S. Army guarding the prison of course, is an American named John (Jack Palance), who wants Peterson, his former business partner, extremely dead. Some time ago, the greedy Peterson had left John to die after he was crucified, leaving John’s beloved, a hawk named Marcia, to peck his right hand off to save him. John has a legitimate gripe with Peterson and will go to some extreme methods to get him, including using a gopher as a torture device in one of the film’s more squirm-inducing scenes. The good news is that Peterson is ready for John as our Swedish arms dealer doesn’t only sell weapons, he is good at using them too, so you know that the obligatory Django-esque scenes must occur with Nero utilizing a normally too heavy to lift belt-fed machine gun to kill more bad guys than any six-shooter could ever attempt to accomplish. Yes, long before Rambo, Corbucci’s Django was the king of the one man army.

Now that you have a good idea of the plot, we still have to address the question that I brought up in the beginning and that is…What was left out of The Mercenary that bothered Corbucci enough to basically remake the film two years later? One thought is that, like many of the significant Italian directors who were making westerns in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the western was an excellent vehicle for attacking greed and, more topical for the time, the United States and their allies’ efforts against Communism around the globe, especially in Southeast Asia. After all, when Compañeros! was produced in 1970, the worldwide opinion against foreign military involvement in the war in Vietnam had reached it’s height, and what better struggle to reference American involvement in Vietnam than the 1913 Mexican revolution? But again, that political message was covered with The Mercenary, so what is the new message being delivered in Compañeros!? The character that stands out the most, is that of the non-violence preaching Professor Xantos, who I assume is a stand-in (and this is a stretch, mind you) for Thích Quảng Đức, the Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who famously immolated himself in 1963 to protest the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists. Weeks after Quảng Đức’s suicide, many other monks also committed suicide by fire, which raised awareness of their struggle worldwide, but I cannot imagine that the Thích’s message was in Corbucci’s mind when he created the character of Xantos.

The Dazzling Original 1970 Italian Trailer For Compañeros!

Lastly, if you are thinking that perhaps Corbucci was just trying to cash a check by banking on his most popular film, then why don’t we see Django IV in 1970?  Lord knows, every other spaghetti director did a Django ripoff during that time to varying degrees of commercial success, but Corbucci never did try and capitalize on that film’s immense box office receipts through sequels. Even though I cannot pinpoint the necessity for Corbucci to make a film so similar to The Mercenary, its heart seems to be in the right place, even if the political message is somewhat unclear, but more importantly, Compañeros! is an entirely entertaining western from one of the master directors of the genre, who like Sergio Sollima and Leone could still impress even when they weren’t entirely on point.  The film’s pacing is quite good, a mark above other westerns of that era, as are the over-the-top performances and the lavish, yet playful, score by Ennio Morricone. It was also a treat to see Nero in another film where he uses his own speaking voice. In The Mercenary, Corbucci had Nero play the Polish mercenary, Sergei Kowalski, just so Nero’s Italian accent could be masked, and he could use his own expressive voice. If  Compañeros! was solely invented just to have the popular actor, Franco Nero voice his own character to get the film’s message across to a global audience more genuinely than a potentially bad overdub, then perhaps this not too different take on the Zapata Western was worth the effort for that alone.

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Vikings, Moors, And Explosions Fill Tony Anthony’s Lost 1975 Spaghetti “Get Mean.”

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Tony, are you sure that’s enough dynamite?

Once Asian cinema began to overwhelm the action film landscape in the 1970s, the days of the spaghetti western were numbered and thus the genre had to get crafty or else ride quickly into the sunset. To the rescue comes actor Tony Anthony, an American living in Italy at the time of Leone, who was well known for The Stranger character that first appeared in 1967’s “A Dollar Between The Teeth.” That film was successful, but Anthony was one of the first to see the writing on a wall in realizing that the genre needed some fresh ideas, so a year after that film debuted, Anthony and director Luigi Vanzi took The Stranger way east for “The Silent Stranger” (aka A Stranger In Japan), mixing the western with the samurai film.  Tony wasn’t done yet with the Japanese sword epic, as he teamed up with veteran sword and sandal director Ferdinando Baldi and brought in ex-Beatle Ringo Starr to play the heavy for a spaghetti treatment of the blind swordsman, Zatoichi, in 1971 called “Blindman,” about you guess it, a blind gunfighter. For years“Blindman” was next to impossible to get here in the States, and for that reason, it was pushed into cult film status along side Anthony’s fourth entry into the Stranger series: a bizarre, genre-bending spaghetti from 1975 called “Get Mean.”

For “Get Mean,” Tony Anthony reunited with director Baldi and his co-star from “Blindman,” Lloyd Battista for this fantasy western where The Stranger, shortly after being dragged for a few miles by his dying horse past an ominous Phatasmesque silver orb, is offered fifty grand by a witch to escort a Princess back to Spain where she can regain her throne from the hundreds of Vikings and Moors who are battling it out back home. After a train and ship whisk him off to Spain from America, The Stranger must go to battle with the Vikings and Moors (what year is this?), find a treasure that is being hidden by ghosts, save the princess, and collect his money from the witch who offered him the money in the first place. All of this done with several hundred explosions, wild modes of torture, and a demonic freak out scene by The Stranger that would only be matched by Bruce Campbell as “Ash” from “Army Of Darkness.” Yes, there is much in “Get Mean” that makes you think that a VHS copy of this film made it into the hands of a young Sam Raimi sometime along the way. There are some huge plot holes and moments that leave you scratching your head, but there is almost a post-modernist element to the goings on here. Does it matter that The Stranger saves the princess or finds the treasure? After a while it doesn’t, but you just revel in the messy joy anyway.

Besides the above-mentioned weirdness in plot, what makes “Get Mean” so enjoyable are the performances of our Tony Anthony, whose “Stranger” distinguishes himself from the Franco Neros and Giuliano Gemmas in the way that he is more a wisecracking Brooklyn Bugs Bunny figure than a silent stare Clint Eastwood type, and Lloyd Battista, one of the films many villains, who reminds me of a demented late 1970s Ollie Reed doing Richard the Third with dynamite in hand.

On June 8th at The Silent Film Theater/Cinefamily I had the honor of seeing a restored version (courtesy of Blue Underground) with Anthony, Battista, and executive producer Ronald Schneider in attendance that included one of the liveliest Q&A sessions I have been to in some time.  In this clip that I shot from that evening, Lloyd Battista expresses his opinion on the excellent producer work of Tony Anthony. Seen on the video from left to right is Tony Anthony, Lloyd Battista, Ronald Schneider, and the moderator, Rob Word:

If you thought that the description of the film was beyond logical, for the predominance of the evening, Anthony, Battista, and Schneider made it abundantly clear as to the almost surrealistic efforts that were needed to be made in order to secure the funding to finish “Get Mean,” as well as the shortcuts that were made in order to get most out of the short money that they had to work with for the time in which they had to shoot. As Battista states in the interview I posted above, “every penny that Tony came up with, ended up on the screen.” For example, in an early scene in which The Moors are about to battle the Vikings, director Baldi had to shoot his extras dressed as The Moors in one shot, and because he did not have enough money to get more extras, Baldi then made the extras put on the Vikings costumes in a different shot on the opposite end of the battlefield to make the scene look more epic. Once the Vikings and Moors begin to clash, Baldi redressed some of his Vikings as Moors and relied on close-ups so that the scene looked like two large armies battling. “More work” Battista said, but it came out looking real. There were also stories of weird financial transactions that kept Anthony on location while everyone else bailed in fear of retribution from investors, or the story of twelve thousand dollars that came just in time to feed his enormous cast before things “got ugly.”

Despite all of the tribulations, forty years later this film was restored to its nutty brilliance and I am glad to have been there to see one of its first public screenings since the restoration. As someone who adores the spaghetti western mostly for its admiration but irreverent take on the American western, I have to applaud “Get Mean,” for the genre rarely gets more irreverent and downright deranged than this.

The Last Great Spaghetti Western: Enzo Castellari’s Elegiac “Keoma”

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1976 Lobby Card for “Keoma”

 

By 1976, the mania surrounding the spaghetti western had all but died out. Due to the success of the Godfather films, Italian crime dramas were all the rage and the few westerns that were being produced in Europe fell more into the comedic realm than the dramatic one due to the success of the Terence Hill/Bud Spencer films that became extremely popular in the early part of the decade. Even veteran directors like Enzo Castellari, who had directed several superb spaghetti westerns, including “Johnny Hamlet,” had moved on to Italian crime dramas, as did the genre’s biggest star, Franco Nero, of “Django” fame. Gone was Nero’s cowboy hat in favor of his Borsalino; that is until “Keoma.”

There is a real reverence for all westerns in “Keoma,” which was written and directed by Castellari and released in 1976. I say “all westerns” because the film is packed with many of the standard motifs of fellow Italian western directors, Corbucci and Leone but also Sam Peckinpah and even John Ford. I guess if this was to be Castellari’s last western, he was going to put all of it out on the table.

Playing Keoma (the word means “far away” in Cherokee) is Franco Nero, and he is again the quiet ex-soldier who comes to a town in trouble and who must now fight valiantly to save everyone. There is a plague in the town that is killing everyone, but evil landlord Caldwell is keeping medicine and supplies away from townspeople and is sending the infected to a camp to die. Keoma is half-Native American and was adopted by William Shannon (William Berger), who already had three sons of his own who are now part of Caldwell’s gang. The brothers were brutal to Keoma when he was a child, detesting that their father would raise a half-breed, which is seen during one of the many flashbacks (another key motif in many spaghetti westerns) in the film. After Keoma rescues a pregnant woman who is about to be sent to camp, he draws the ire of Caldwell’s men, setting up the conflict of the film. The dour and almost hopeless tone of these scenes rival Sergio Corbucci’s, “The Great Silence,” the 1968 film that set the standard for surrealistically depressing westerns for years to come.

Many of the gunfights that ensue are those of the Peckinpah variety, with long slow motion shots of diving shooters and the over pronounced sounds of ricochets, but as so many spaghetti westerns have taken their cues from Peckinpah, this is not a surprise. What is a surprise influence in the film is Ingmar Bergman, whose inspiration takes form in a witch (Gabriella Giacobbe) who speaks to our ex-solider Keoma in the same way about the purpose of it all as the Grim Reaper would speak with Antonious in “The Seventh Seal.” Our witch is asking Keoma why he would put the effort in to save a town that is beyond saving; however, Keoma is there to not only to save the people of his town but to correct the wrongs that had been done to him as a boy.

Trailer for “Keoma” 

Nero is great in the titular role, as is the cast, which was comprised of many spaghetti western regulars doing some of their finest work. What sadly hurts “Keoma,” though not fatally, is the ear-piercing folksy soundtrack. It has been written that during filming, Castellari had been enamored of the music that Leonard Cohen had done for Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and wanted something that worked in the same way to propel the narrative. Unfortunately, the virtually shrieking vocals from the soundtrack composed by the De Angelis brothers and sung by Sybill and Guy bombard many scenes in the film and do not give the same kind of earthy goodness that Cohen’s tracks give Altman’s revisionist masterpiece.

The soundtrack is an otherwise small mistake in a film that provides a somber yet triumphant elegy to the spaghetti western. Like previous films in the spaghetti western genre, “Keona” uses every cliché available to tell it’s grim story, but this isn’t a cheaply made lark thrown together to try and cash in on a trend. No, it is an elegantly composed farewell by Castellari and Nero to a kind of film that clearly meant so very much to them and all of those who still loved the raw storytelling of the spaghetti western.