14 June 2010 | Squonkamatic
Grim, Brutal, Mean Spirited Euro Western Oddity
Not quite sure yet about A TOWN CALLED BASTARD as the widescreen version from Greece I saw was titled. It sure is something else, one of the most brutal, vicious, mean spirited films to come out of the Spaghetti Western years. A British and Spanish co-production, the film took the form of the languid, surrealist Italo Western and corrupted it into something else. The only film I can equate it with would be THE DESERTER, a similar British-Spanish co-production from the early 1970s that likewise is one of the most vicious and bloodthirsty Westerns ever made.
I quickly lost track of the story: Telly Savalas plays some sort of crazed Cossack Mexican officer who drifts into a small border town, takes it hostage and proceeds to kill just about everyone, usually by hanging. They don't just hang the people however, first they are adequately (and often perversely humorously) humiliated, then swung out on a rope overhead from a massive scaffold that would have been right at home in a Hammer Horror Frankenstein movie. The hangings aren't just dramatic, they are staged with a flourish that is beyond theatrical to the point of absurdity. The chilling, disturbing crowd reactions of the captives below forced to watch become far more potent after a while.
And speaking of horror movies the film has a decidedly strange, gloomy bent to it that has far more in common with a Spanish horror tragedy than any comic book Spaghetti Western with guys shooting their hats off. The film specializes in the Quick Cold Killing, where both supporting and lead cast members are dispatched with sudden cruelty and often without a seeming purpose. Other than piling the bodies up, which at the end of the film stretch across the screen with smashed rubble, burning debris and the survivors wandering around in a daze.
There's some decent talent involved however. Robert Shaw steals every scene he's in as a principled gun runner turned priest, Martin Landau as a conflicted Mexican officer who's zeal for killing is a fragile mask of sanity, Stella Stevens as the woman with the past to whom they are all connected, and the great 70s character actor Al Lettieri, buried under makeup to the point that I wasn't quite sure what part he was playing. Plus a smattering of the great Euro genre film actors: Aldo Sambrell, Georges Rigaud, Charley Bravo, Chris Huerta, and Waldo de los Ríos provides the bizarre musical score that manages to incorporate Johnny Horton singing "Battle Of New Orleans" which likely resulted in a soundtrack rights issue that has kept the film more or less out of print in North America. But its a great song and the film's sole light hearted moment.
And that's the thing. As the guy who I watched it with summed things up best, what would have been the audience for this film? Which is a question I also asked myself after suffering through THE DESERTER. Here is a film that is simply too vicious and cruel to be enjoyed as a time killer shoot-em-up, let alone watched by a general audience. It has more in common with the adults oriented cynical disillusioned 1970s American westerns like SOLDIER BLUE, who's commercial success likely inspired the producers to decide on making a sick, ultra-violent Western with a body count in the thousands.
Something was lost at the production stage, however, and the film's story is too oblique to resonate beyond the on screen carnage. There might be a pretty interesting Zapata style Mexican Revolution Spaghetti here at its core, with lots of requisition flashbacks + larger than life grudges held by larger than life characters. The film also serves as an interesting counterpoint to the "Trinity" inspired comedy Spaghetti Westerns that dominated the industry after 1970. Its well made, has a perverse sense of macabre humor, and its always great to see Martin Landau & Robert Shaw, two of my favorite actors. Plus nobody ever said a Western had to be a fun, uplifting party movie. Its just that sometimes it helps.