Simply put, but…Robert Mitchum was cooler than you. He’s cooler than everybody. A Hollywood legend, Mitchum was one of the first true bad boys. He didn’t care. He did things his way, and his laid-back but memorable acting style produced plenty of classic movies and performances. One of my favorites? A brutally underrated, truly odd western that’s all but forgotten, 1972’s The Wrath of God.
It’s the 1920s in an unidentified Central American country and three unique individuals have been brought together — blackmailed — to perform a suicide mission. The unholy trinity includes Van Horne (Mitchum), a machine-gun toting, bank-robbing priest, Keogh (Ken Hutchison), an IRA gunman on the run, and Jennings (Victor Buono), a cashiered British army officer now with his hand in anything and everything illegal, including gun-running. Their mission? Kill a rogue army officer, Tomas de la Plata (Frank Langella), who causes constant trouble for the army and government. Their work is cut out for them as de la Plata lives up in the mountains surrounded by a small army of gunmen and a heavily fortified hacienda. Can the trio pull off the job, clear their names and get out alive?
I first caught this on TCM back in the early 2000s, then couldn’t find it, then finally tracked it down a few years later. It’s been a favorite ever since. Based off a novel by Jack Higgins (as James Graham), ‘Wrath’ is an oddity, a unique western that is unlike just about any other western I can think of. It’s so odd at times that a fair share of reviewers think it’s actually a spoof. My thought? It ain’t. Simple as that. From director Ralph Nelson, ‘Wrath’ is a western that while influenced by spaghetti westerns and the changing times for the American western, stands alone. It’s a funny, cynical, violent and for me, highly memorable flick. A gem, one I can go back and re-watch time and time again.
My best description is that ‘Wrath’ has style. Filmed on-location in Mexico, it feels authentic, like we’re watching the story take place where it did happen. Gorgeous looking flick with familiar locations you’ll have seen in other westerns, like Vera Cruz and The War Wagon. The final shootout at the de la Plata hacienda was shot in the same location as the finale to Vera Cruz, a ridiculously cool extended sequence. Composer Lalo Schifrin turns in a great score too — listen HERE and HERE — that’s jazzy and flamboyant at times, but also reminiscent of a spaghetti western score in other instances. An underrated score, especially driving the action scenes.
But back to that Mitchum guy. Underplaying his part but clearly having a ball, he adds a third “priest” part to his filmography, joining The Night of the Hunter and 5 Card Stud. His Father Van Horne has some secrets — explained late — but it’s such a fun part from the word go. When he makes his big reveal, taking out a Thompson sub-machine gun and mowing down a saloon full of bandits, it’s a genuine laugh out loud moment. It never lets up as Mitchum delivers a surprisingly layered part as Van Horne. What drives this quasi-priest? Is it greed or something else? Well worth finding out.
Rounding out the unholy trinity, Hutchison and Buono aren’t big stars, but they’re perfectly cast. The chemistry among the three actors is impeccable. Any big reason? A script that crackles with great dialogue and one memorable line after another. Jennings’ oft-repeated “We’ll get along famously!” is a favorite, as is Van Horne’s “All is not what it seems.” Check out IMDB’s Memorable Quotes (I added those quotes years ago. You’re welcome!) for a good sample of the quality of dialogue. One of my favorite — if unlikely — men-on-a-mission teams. Hard to beat a machine-gun toting priest, an IRA gunman and an overweight, hard-drinking gun-runner. Hutchisons’ Emmet also gets the love interest, a beautiful Indian girl, Chela (Paula Pritchett), who’s mute.
Mitchum, Hutchison and Buono dominate the screen, which is odd considering how low Emmet and Jennings are in the cast listing. The reasoning? The bigger names playing smaller parts, almost cameos. Langella hams it up as the unhinged Tomas, always seemingly on the brink of losing it. Oh, and he loathes priests (ALL priests) with a passion. In her last film, Rita Hayworth plays Tomas’ tortured mother, trying to hold it all together. Struggling with Alzheimer’s during filming, she apparently had trouble reciting/remembering lines. Also, John Colicos makes the most of a one-scene appearance as Colonel Santilla, the messenger of death and commander of the region who sends the trio on their suicide mission.
Also, look for familiar western faces in Gregory Sierra, Frank Ramirez, Enrique Lucero, Aurora Clavel, Chano Urueta and Jorge Russek in supporting parts. Sierra is especially good as Jurado, Tomas’ brutal, bullish enforcer.
Not a huge action movie, ‘Wrath’ saves its firepower for the last 30 minutes when Van Horne and Co. make their play against de la Plata. A bullet-riddled shootout in a village square packs a whallop, but the finale at the de la Plata hacienda is the best, most memorable part. Some twists, some awesome moments — Buono driving a Mercedes as a battering ram with one hand, blasting away with a machine gun with the other stands out — and plenty of action. Mitchum saves the best for last in a classic final line. A classic movie overall? No, not by a long shot, but one of my favorites and a hilariously entertaining western. A must for western fans, and well worth tracking down.
The Wrath of God (1972): *** 1/2 /****