If westerns are my favorite genre (they are), then spaghetti westerns would have to be my favorite sub-genre. Director Sergio Leone often gets credit for starting the spaghetti western craze, and he did…but his movies weren’t the first movies in the genre. Leone just put them on a worldwide level. The first spaghetti western (of sorts)? That’d be 1962’s The Savage Guns.
It’s 1870 in Sonora, Mexico along the U.S./Mexico border. A land baron, Ortega (Jose Nieto), is terrorizing the area and all its smaller ranchers, including an American, Mike Summers (Don Taylor). Ortega sends his right-hand man, Danny (Alex Nicol), and his gang to systematically rob the ranchers of all their money – calling it protection money – and then shooting them if they don’t comply. There seems to be no solution, until an infamous gunslinger, Steve Fallon (Richard Basehart), drifts into town. Will Fallon stand with the smaller ranchers or will he move along to the next town?
Well, a little mix-up here. The recent airing on Turner Classic Movies listed this western from 1973, not 1962. Whoops! ‘Savage’ was backed by British and Spanish producers, directed by Michael Carreras, and was the first western to be shot on-location in Almeria, Spain, specifically the same spot as the Caulder ranch in 1971’s Hannie Caulder. All the familiar touches that would become synonymous with the spaghetti western genre are there, from the locations to the big, booming musical — listen here —–> — score (composer Anton Garcia Abril) to the cynicism and violence evident throughout the story. It’s rough at times, a little disjointed and slightly odd, but its influence on countless westerns to come over the next 10-plus years is evident with each passing scene.
One of the biggest influences the spaghetti western had was reviving the careers of American actors who had lost their star power, or catapulting young actors into stardom and the spotlight. ‘Savage’ leans more toward the reviving department. Never a huge star but a reliable character actor, Basehart is a little miscast as Fallon, the deadly gunfighter with quite a reputation. He looks to be having some fun but doesn’t bring a ton of energy to the part. In his last starring role before turning to the director’s chair, Taylor is solid as Summers, an ex-Confederate officer who has vowed to never use a gun again. Nicols does what he does best, hamming it up as the sneering Danny Pose (quite an intimidating name, huh?).
Here’s the weird thing I’m trying to wrap my head around. This isn’t an especially good movie. In some parts, it’s downright dumb, even bad, but I was entertained. Partially, it’s the casting. No big names, just recognizable faces. It’s hard to describe though. ‘Savage’ plays out like a blueprint, a rough draft for what’s to come, especially its depiction of on-screen violence, and one particularly brutal wound for a main character. The spaghetti westerns especially took that to heart, wounding, crippling, maiming and torturing countless anti-heroes to come!
While American stars often filled out the lead roles, Spanish, Italian and actors from all over Europe played the supporting parts. Nieto is the villain, Ortega, who’s generally pretty weak and isn’t given much background. Paquita Rico plays Franchea, Sommers’ wife (not given much to do other than look worried). The lovely Maria Granada (listed incorrectly as Manolita Barroso on IMDB) plays Juana, the love interest for Fallon. The age difference between Barroso and Basehart sure makes those love scenes look…odd? Uncomfortable? Forced? Yeah, all of that. Spaghetti regular Fernando Rey is Don Hernan, an exiled rancher of sorts. Some other familiar faces pop up in supporting parts as bandits, farmers and soldiers.
All my criticisms aside, I genuinely liked this first spaghetti western, in spite of its flaws. The silent anti-hero, the over-the-top villain, the beautiful locations, the whistle-worthy musical scores, the mustachioed bandits, the brutal violence, it’s all there. It’s fun, and sometimes that’s all you need. Western fans should definitely get a kick out of this one. Keep an eye out for a re-airing on TCM, the print was gorgeous even if the audio was sketchy at times.
The Savage Guns (1962): ** ½ /****