Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

two_mules_for_sister_sara_posterFollowing his breakout success in Sergio Leone’s iconic spaghetti western trilogy – the ‘Dollars’ trilogy – Clint Eastwood returned to the states a marketable star. He wanted to distance himself some from the western genre, but still made a couple entries over the coming years. The best? A spaghetti-ish western with director Don Siegel, 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.

It’s the years following the Civil War, and an American mercenary, Hogan (Eastwood), is working with the Juaristas as Mexican forces fight the French government. On the trail, he rescues a woman who is about to be raped by 3 drifters, killing her 3 attackers. Hogan is in for a surprise. The woman is a nun, Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), similarly riding south who is also working with the Juaristas. Knowing Sister Sara is seriously at risk traveling on her own, Hogan says she can travel with him as they ride through French patrols, bandits and Indian attacks.

Nothing too crazy here, just a good western story that leans heavily on its star, MacLaine and Eastwood, to do the heavy lifting. It’s an episodic story – clocking in under 2 hours – without any huge momentum. The focus is on the star duo who are working off a Budd Boetticher story (Boetticher apparently hated the MacLaine casting and the final product as a whole). It was originally intended for Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum (like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) but was reworked and re-cast over the years for this duo instead. Apparently filming was troubled to say the least with some big personalities, but it doesn’t show in the end.

If they didn’t get along off-screen, MacLaine and Eastwood must have been saving their chemistry for filming. Eastwood’s Hogan is a spin on his familiar anti-hero gunfighter. He’s chomping cigars, gunning down bandits and just for good measure, he’s an explosives specialist (favoring dynamite). Thrust into a protector role, Eastwood is a quite scene-stealer to MacLaine’s religious antics. Her Sister Sara often repeats “God will provide…” all the while ignoring the constant dangers that could arise on the trail. They form a heck of a duo in the process.

No other huge supporting parts here to round out the cast. Manolo Fabregas is the most visible as Beltran, the leader of the Mexican revolutionary forces who are working with Hogan to take out a heavily-guarded French garrison. Western fans will recognize a couple faces here and there, but the focus is on MacLaine and Eastwood and their revolutionary adventures.

A lot to like here, especially filming on-location in Mexico. You feel like you’re there in 1860s Mexico on the dusty trails, the adobe-lined streets, the rock-capped mountains, and the ancient ruins. Throw in a memorable score from spaghetti western score extraordinaire Ennio Morricone – listen HERE – and you’ve got some excellent building blocks. It all fits together nicely. I defy you not to whistle the main Sister Sara theme for days after watching this western. Not much in the way of action here, but there are some pretty cool set pieces sprinkled throughout the film. Hogan taking out Sara’s attackers, a subtle but well-done chase with Sara, Hogan and French cavalry, and a later sabotage mission on a train trestle are all nicely handled. The final attack on the French garrison is nicely done and features some surprisingly gory action. And that twist in the last 25 minutes…it’s a gem but no spoilers here.

It was an interesting time in Mexican history as French invaders took over the country and the government. It’s provided some ripe pickings for westerns, including Vera Cruz, Major Dundee, The Undefeated and some others I’m no doubt forgetting. As for ‘Sister Sara,’ it’s well worth a watch.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970): ***/****

Kelly’s Heroes (1970)

Kelly's Heroes

Growing up, I always associated Memorial Day Weekend with the war movie marathons on TV that dotted TNT, AMC and Turner Classic Movies. I ate them up — still do — as I watched as many as I could. They’re still some of my favorite movies, everything from The Dirty Dozen to The Devil’s Brigade and one of my favorites, 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes.

It’s fall 1944 and Allied forces are fighting their way across France, the German army slowly being beaten back. At the forefront of the Allied advance, a recon platoon, including Sgt. Big Joe (Telly Savalas), are worn down after months of fighting. One member of the platoon, Pvt. Kelly (Clint Eastwood), stumbles across an interesting tidbit of information while interrogating a German colonel. There is 14,000 bars of gold — worth $16 million — in a bank just waiting to be plucked. The catch? The bank is 30 miles behind German lines. Joe manages to convince both Big Joe and the platoon to navigate through the lines and get their hands on the gold. With a scrounger/supply sergeant, Crapgame (Don Rickles) and three Sherman tanks commanded by a hippie, Oddball (Donald Sutherland), along for the ride, Kelly and his motley crew of soldiers head out with a chance to net quite the payday.

What an appropriately timed World War II movie. By the late 1960s, the tone of war movies had changed from the big epics to the more cynical/comedic variety, movies like MASH and Catch 22 among others. Enter Kelly’s Heroes, directed by Brian G. Hutton (who also directed Where Eagles Dare), one of the most entertaining war movies I’ve ever seen. Cynical with a dark sense of humor but also some lighter moments — courtesy of Sutherland’s hippie tank commander — with some great action, memorable score, and one of those perfect tough guy casts. There’s a reason it remains a fan favorite 40-plus years later, and much of it because it blends all those things together so effortlessly. Even an odd-sounding theme, Burning Bridges, fits perfectly in an odd way. It is one of my favorite movies and always will be, a classic war flick that I can sit down and watch whenever it pops up on TV.

Can you ask for a better lead quartet than Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland? Yeah, there has been casts with bigger star power, bigger name recognition, but it’s more than that here. This is four tough guys having fun, on-screen chemistry that’s just hard to describe. They all get their chance in the spotlight. Eastwood is Eastwood, the impeccably cool and man of few words hero. Savalas is a subtle scene-stealer as Big Joe, the unofficial commander of the recon platoon (Hal Buckley playing the clueless real commander Capt. Maitland), just trying to get his men through the fighting unscathed and a somewhat unwilling participant in the gold heist. Rickles is an out of left field choice to join the cast, but it works, his Crapgame a smart-ass New Yorker always with an eye for a profit. And then there’s Sutherland as Oddball, the tank commander always talking about positive waves (No Negative Waves, man!), his Zen-like qualities, heading into battle with music blaring and shells filled with paint waiting to be unleashed on the Germans.

As a fan of guy’s guys movies, it’s simply hard to beat those four stars. They make it look downright easy. Much of that chemistry and success comes from the script written by Troy Kennedy-Martin, a script with too many great one-liners to even mention. We see familiar character archetypes, familiar war movie situations — stumbling into a minefield, prepping for battle — but there’s a different energy to the whole thing. It’s that tone that blends the drama, comedy and action so easily that makes it work. Carroll O’Connor too is excellent in a part that lets him ham it up as General Colt, the fiery division commander who’s frustrated with the stagnant front lines, getting a jolt of energy when Kelly’s screwball force unintentionally opens things up all along the front. There’s something to be said for a movie that is non-stop fun.

When the platoon looks back on a field where some of their fallen comrades lay dead in the dirt, there’s no words that need to be said. The looks on the surviving men’s faces says it all. Telling the men to keep moving, Big Joe turns and raises his binoculars to check one last time, that maybe, just maybe, his men are still alive. The dynamic is there from the lead quartet right down to the platoon, a group of recognizable character actors clearly having some fun. The platoon includes Little Joe (Stuart Margolin), Big Joe’s radioman, Cowboy (Jeff Morris) and Willard (Harry Dean Stanton), two drawling best buds, Gutowski (Dick Davalos), the sniper, Petuko (Perry Lopez), the smooth, goofy ladies man, Cpl. Job (Tom Troupe), Joe’s second-in-command close friend, Fisher (Dick Balduzzi), the platoon genius, and Babra not Barbara (Gene Collins). Also, you can’t forget Gavin MacLeod as Moriarty, Oddball’s mechanical genius and constant provider of negative waves.

Also look for Seinfeld’s Uncle Leo, Len Lesser, as Bellamy, an engineer Oddball ropes into helping the cause and Karl-Otto Alberty as a German tank commander who goes up against Kelly’s forces and Oddball’s tank trio.

With a 146-minute running time, we’ve got plenty of chances for guys being guys and plenty of action scenes. We get lots of action — escaping a minefield, a tank attack on a railway station, the platoon racing through a German crossroad under mortar attack — but the best is saved for last as the platoon descends on Clermont, the town where the bank and the gold are waiting. It’s an extended sequence that runs about 35 minutes that doesn’t rush into it. We get almost 10 minutes of the men and the tanks sneaking into town while the German garrison slowly wakes up, composer Lalo Schifrin‘s score driving the action. The entire movie was filmed in Czechoslovakia, the action finale filmed in the village of Vizinada. It’s an extended sequence that is hard to beat.

Just a great movie overall. Great cast, incredibly quotable, lots of action, memorable soundtrack (especially Tiger Tank), and even a nod to Eastwood’s spaghetti western background with a three-way showdown with said tank. One of my all-time favorites and hopefully you’ll enjoy it just as much as I do.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970): ****/****

Big Jake (1971)

big_jake_ver2Over the last decade of his career — the late 1960s and into the 1970s — John Wayne was wary of following along with the Hollywood trend of ultra-violent movies. He even turned down the Dirty Harry role, later doing 2 pretty mediocre cop movies. It’s oddly appropriate then that over the span one of his best movies (and a fan favorite) is one that embraces some bloody violence. Here’s 1971’s Big Jake.

It’s 1909 along the Texas/Mexico border when an outlaw, John Fain (Richard Boone), leads his gang of murderers and cutthroats in a vicious attack on the expansive McCandles Ranch. Ten people are killed, and ranch owner Martha (Maureen O’Hara) sees her grandson kidnapped. Fain demands a ransom of $1 million, leaving a note that says simply “Follow the map.” Knowing her grandson could be killed no matter what she decides, Martha seeks out her estranged husband, Jacob (Wayne), to take the ransom money into Mexico and get his grandson (who he didn’t know) back. With help from his two sons, James (Patrick Wayne) and Michael (Christopher Mitchum), and an old friend, Apache Sam Sharpnose (Bruce Cabot), Jacob agrees, setting off to bring his grandson back alive or his captors dead.

I’ve long been a John Wayne fan, and this 1971 western from director George Sherman (although it is reported Wayne helped direct with an ailing Sherman) has long been a personal favorite. I watched TV edited versions for years, so it’s always fun to pop in the DVD and see the full 110-minute movie! With its surprising violence and even some uses of blood squibs, ‘Jake’ is obviously a departure for Wayne. It’s balanced out though with some odd comedy (mostly works), a familiar, deep cast, and beautiful filming locations in Durango, Mexico — a favorite spot of Wayne to make movies; The War Wagon, Sons of Katie Elder, The Undefeated. This isn’t a western that rewrites the genre and is far from its revisionist peers of the time, but it’s damn entertaining from beginning to end.

By this point in his career, Wayne could have done a part like this with his eyes closed. To his credit, he never did. He brings a certain energy to the part, a rough edge as we learn about his Jacob McCandles and his past. This is easily one of his most quotable parts, the Duke delivering one crackling one-liner after another. It never feels forced, Wayne’s gruff delivery bringing it all together. His chemistry with his supporting cast is impeccable, especially his early (and too short) scenes with frequent co-star Maureen O’Hara. On the tough guy angle, his dialogue scenes with Richard Boone are pppppperfect, especially the build-up to the final showdown. Throw in the estranged father scenes as he reunites with his sons, Patrick Wayne’s James and Mitchum’s Michael, and you’ve got a bunch of positives in an at-times eccentric western.

The cast is far from done there, especially an underused Richard Boone as the calculating, brutal John Fain. Most villains cower in Wayne’s shadow, but not Boone. Watch THIS scene for an example (apologies for the low quality). Fain’s gang includes O’Brien (Glenn Corbett), a half-breed gunslinger, Pop Dawson (an unrecognizable Harry Carey Jr.), Kid Duffy (stuntman Dean Smith), a deadshot with a rifle, John Goodfellow (Gregg Palmer), a machete-wielding psycho, Trooper (Jim Burk), an Army deserter, and Will Fain (Robert Warner), John’s brother who favors a shotgun. Singer Bobby Vinton makes a brief appearance as Jake’s third son. Also look for recognizable western faces John DoucetteJohn AgarJim DavisHank WordenChuck Roberson (Wayne’s stunt double), and Roy Jenson. Wayne’s real-life son, Ethan Wayne, plays the kidnapped Little Jake.

After the opening narration and bloody and bullet-riddled raid, things settle in at a decent pace. Wayne’s introduction off a memorable line from O’Hara is a gem. From there, it’s a story on the trail as Jacob, his sons and Sam, and Jacob’s dog…Dog, trail Fain and the gang into Mexico, finally catching up in a boom town named Escandero. The final shootout and hostage exchange is a gem and the obvious highlight of the movie. It takes place in a walled-off Mexican compound — historically a key location in the Mexican Revolution — in the dead of night. Some great dialogue, a couple genuine twists and plenty of bullets flying.

One of my favorites, and a John Wayne gem. Highly recommended.

Big Jake (1971): ****/****

Rio Lobo (1970)

rio_lobo_1970Late in a career that spanned 6 decades (1920s through 1970s), director Howard Hawks went back to the well for what he knew audiences liked. Well, maybe what he liked too. After directing the classic 1959 western Rio Bravo, Hawks more or less remade the film 8 years later with El Dorado. He tried a third time, but didn’t wait as long for the trifecta with 1970’s Rio Lobo.

Late in the Civil War, a Union officer, Col. Cord McNally (John Wayne), is unable to stop Confederate raiders from stealing gold shipments being used for payrolls. He thinks one of his own men is selling information to the Confederate raiders, including Capt. Pierre Cordona (Jorge Rivero) and Sgt. Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum), but the duo won’t tell him who until after their war. Once the war ends and the men go their separate ways, Cord hears from Cordona that he’s found one of the traitors in Texas. Cord heads for the town of Rio Lobo looking to find his man and get some answers (read = revenge). That’s not all though as Cord, Cordona (and some friends) get caught up in a range war with land and water deeds on the line.

Rio Bravo is untouchable in my mind. El Dorado, it’s pretty good but not quite as good. And Rio Lobo? It’s got more of a B-movie touch, a smaller budget, and is more interested in just being an entertaining western overall. There are good and bad, some obvious flaws, but it is damn entertaining. If you’re comparing the three like-minded movies, ‘Lobo’ borrows from both, but it leans more toward ‘Dorado,’ especially with the range war element. It was filmed on location in Old Tucson — where both previous films were at least partially filmed — with literally the same street being used for 2 different towns. There’s also a memorable if underused score from the always reliable Jerry Goldsmith. If there’s a flaw, it’s what Hawks once said about his films; characters are more important than story. He took that to heart in a big way, apparently rewriting the script during production.

A good counter to that? By 1970, John Wayne could have done a role like this in his sleep. Thankfully, he didn’t. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with a character with a twist. Not many Duke characters were looking for revenge! 63 years old at the time, Wayne even pokes some fun at himself, passing the love interest off to Rivero’s Pierre Cordona. The running joke becomes that old man Wayne is “comfortable” with men. In other words, he’s safe and won’t make a move on them. Rivero’s accent is a little much at times, but he has decent chemistry with Wayne. Mitchum is underused as the second banana, but he’s a likable on-screen presence, much like he was a year later when he paired with Wayne again in Big Jake.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss. A sex symbol of the 1970s, Jennifer O’Neill plays Shasta Delaney, a young woman with a checkered past searching for revenge. This is not a good performance to the point it is actually painful at times. The script does no favor for any of the female characters — Sherry Lansing and Susana Dosamantes — who aren’t given much to do and tend to overact/overdo it anyways. Still, for a lack of a better description, the babe factor is increased for a John Wayne western! The always welcome Jack Elam doesn’t show up until the second hour but hams it up as the shotgun-wielding Mr. Phillips. The villains — Victor French, Mike Henry, Robert Donner — make virtually no impression. Also look for David Huddleston, stuntman Dean Smith, Jim Davis, Edward Faulkner and Hank Worden in smaller parts.

A little slow at times and without much action, ‘Lobo’ doesn’t have much of a sense of urgency. The highlight is the first 35 minutes, a train heist with a unique twist unlike anything I’ve seen in a heist movie. The story goes the more traditional route after the first half-hour or so. It’s a touch disjointed blending the two and then adding another storyline, but it’s never dull. A bit of a guilty pleasure overall, but a worthwhile western just the same. Especially worthwhile for the Duke delivering a fun, even comedic part at times that balances out with the more action-heavy Duke. Also, see how many times you can spot Wayne stuntman Chuck Roberson in different roles!

Rio Lobo (1970): ***/****

 

There Was a Crooked Man (1970)

crooked_man

Kirk Douglas just turned 101 this past December. Douglas hasn’t worked in film in years, but pick a film of his and sit back and enjoy. He could play a noble, heroic character and then turn around and play a roguish villain, or often times somewhere in between. In a movie that bizarrely works in spite of some odd style choices, Douglas steals the show as a charming criminal in 1970’s There Was a Crooked Man.

After a successful robbery nets him more than $500,000, outlaw Paris Pitman Jr. (Douglas) is caught not too long after the robbery in a whorehouse. He’s only caught after hiding his massive haul though, but he refuses to give it up. Paris receives a 10-year sentence and is sent off to the territorial prison isolated in the middle of the desert. Figuring out the lay of the land (along with meeting his fellow inmates), Paris begins to plot his escape. The catch? Just about everyone knows he’s trying to bust out to get his money. A new warden, Lopeman (Henry Fonda), sees Paris in a different way. Looking to rehab prisoners rather than punish them, Lopeman thinks Paris can help the cause. Who blinks first?

What a weird western. As westerns tried to figure out what they were as a genre, ‘Crooked’ came along and chose just to go for it. First off, it is director Joseph Mankiewicz‘s only career western. Quite a departure from his usual films. Next, it tries to be equal parts folksy, comedic, dark and slapstick. There are sex jokes, plenty of nudity (male and female, including Douglas), odd slapstick scenes during a prison riot, poorly timed jokes, and a pretty awful theme song from Trini Lopez (listen HERE) that tries to play like a dark western fairy tale. Seems like a gimme, right? Aaaaaaaaand…..twist! It’s really odd and weird and very good!

The weirdness is held together by a cast that is clearly having a lot of fun, embracing all that weirdness! It starts at the top with Kirk Douglas, perfecting that roguish bad guy who can’t help but disarm everyone around him with that too perfect smile. Favoring some bright red hair and a pair of spectacles, Douglas’ Paris is able to manipulate anyone and everyone around him to get what he needs. As bad as he is, you can’t help but like him (at least a little bit). His scenes with Fonda are excellent, Fonda a new-age warden who wants the best for his prisoners. It sure takes him a while though to see through Paris’ scheming facade. Put 2 Hollywood legends together, and let them do their thing. They co-starred in 1965’s In Harm’s Way, but it’s cool to see them share some more screentime here.

‘Crooked’ boasts a pretty impressive supporting cast from top-to-bottom. Paris’ cellmates include Dudley (Hume Cronyn) and Cyrus (John Randolph), two older gay con men, Floyd Moon (Warren Oates), an antisocial outlaw, the Missouri Kid (Burgess Meredith), an aging bank robber who’s become used to prison life, Coy (Michael Blodgett), a naive youngster sentenced to hang for murder, and Ah-Ping (Olympic decathlete C.K. Yang), a Chinaman who murdered his boss on the rail gang. Cronyn and Randolph are a scream together, the duo stealing scenes right and left. Meredith does the same, a smaller part but a worthwhile one. And Oates is excellent, underplaying his part as gunfighter Floyd Moon who believes he’s found a friend in Paris. An eclectic, quirky group to back up Paris.

Also look for Alan Hale Jr., Victor French, Arthur O’Connell, Lee Grant, Bert Freed and Gene Evans in smaller supporting parts. Throw in a goofy, similarly quirky musical score for some extra oddness. The filming location of the isolated, high-walled rocky prison is a gem. Most of the movie takes place within the walls, the territorial prison becoming an additional character in this oddball western.

What sets ‘Crooked’ apart through the odd tonal shifts and general goofiness is where it ends up. The last half hour of the 123-minute movie has some major surprises in store. Then, when you think the twists are all finished, the final scenes hold a huge twist. It’s not often you watch a western with some worthwhile twists, so take advantage of this one. For all its faults, it’s worth it. ‘Crooked’ is a generally forgotten western, but it is definitely worth a watch, especially with Kirk Douglas and Henry Fonda leading the way. No trailer below (for a change) because there’s some really stupid revelations about where the movie ends up, and you don’t need that in your life.

There Was a Crooked Man (1970): ***/****

 

The Killer Elite (1975)

killer_elite_movie_posterWith 1969’s The Wild Bunch, director Sam Peckinpah helmed his masterpiece, a classic film, one of the best westerns ever made, and one of the most influential movies ever made in general. The problem? Though he directed some gems after ‘Bunch,’ he often got trapped by the legend of The Wild Bunch, often trying to live up to the reputation. Here’s 1975’s The Killer Elite, an uneven but entertaining Peckinpah flick.

Working together for a security firm affiliated with the CIA, Mike Locken (James Caan) and George Hansen (Robert Duvall) are good friends who have worked together as partners for years. Protecting an important defector, Hansen betrays Locken, shooting him in the knee and elbow before killing the defector. The horrifically crippling wounds force Locken to undergo serious surgeries and intense rehab, some of it through karate that he picks up quickly. Walking with a cane and a slight limp, Locken is brought back out of retirement to protect an important Asian politician on the run from an assassination squad. Leading the squad? Of course, it’s Hansen.

When I first really dove into Peckinpah’s filmography – an impressive, schizophrenic 14 movies – this 1975 action thriller was one of the last I was able to track down. The cast, the story, the potential Peckinpah chaos, it sounded like a winner. It’s a mixed bag in the end. Good but not great, wandering story and odd humor, and the cast is wasted at times. The potential is there, especially with a story ahead of its time foreshadowing government corruption (it was the 1970s) and its portrayal of bottom-dollar mercenaries. It’s a mess at 122 minutes, but there’s enough that works in the end.

James Caan and Robert Duvall together? It’s Sonny and Hagen back together again! Well, sorta. One betrays the other, filling him with thoughts of murderous revenge. The early scenes introduce the partnership/friendship, 2 guys with a history with a language and rhythm all to themselves. Unfortunately Duvall disappears for about an hour and then briefly comes back. Badly underused. Caan is solid, the revenge-seeking, stoic mercenary who must crawl back up from his lowest point. Caan could do a part like this in his sleep, but it’s pretty cool seeing him go all-out in the fight and karate scenes, using his cane as an accessory.

In the supporting cast, Arthur Hill and Gig Young are the firm’s supervisors, tasking their agents with one dangerous mission after another. Putting together a team to work with, Caan’s Locken chooses Mac (muttering Burt Young), a retired wheelman, and Miller (Bo Hopkins), a slightly off weapons expert. Mako plays Yuen Chung, the Asian politician looking to get back to Asia with some divisive plans. Not much backstory for anyone here, but Young and Hopkins (a Peckinpah regular) are having a lot of fun. The movie is at its best when it focuses on the agents, the mercenaries, even when they’re on opposite sides going toe-to-toe.

Mixed in with all this potential is an odd, out of left field choice to use ninjas as a villain. Not martial arts fighters….literally ninjas wearing black outfits and masks and using swords and throwing stars. It plays at times like a spoof, but it isn’t. The Locken karate subplot is one thing, but come on. It tries to be philosophical, thoughtful, questioning, but really, we just want ‘Elite’ to be fun. It is in its quicker moments, but too often goes back to that disjointed feeling of a story filled with potential that never quite figures out where it wants to go. At one point in the finale, all the action stops for a mano-a-mano fight as Caan and Young make fun of the fighters. It doesn’t play well.

You figure with a Peckinpah flick, you’re getting some good action. Eh, kinda. The final showdown is very cool, filmed on a mothball fleet of retired US Navy ships. But then the ninjas attack (poorly) and the slow motion takes over. It’s cool, but you can’t help but notice how cheesy it plays out, how disjointed it feels with all the twists and turns and betrayals. One last thing, the San Francisco filming locations are always nice to look at, and the score from Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding is excellent.

 The Killer Elite (1975): ** ½ /****

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)

a-reason-to-live-a-reason-to-die-posterIf a formula ain’t broke…don’t fix it! Nowhere is that more applicable than with movies. If a movie succeeds, tweek it, twist it, spin it and do your thing. Released in 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a gem, an American army major tasked with leading 12 convicts sentenced to death or hard labor on a suicide mission. A classic! In its wake, countless war and western flicks followed the formula, like 1972’s A Reason to Live, a Recent to Die.

It’s early in the Civil War in the Southwest territory as Union and Confederate forces battle back and forth. A disgraced Union colonel, Pembroke (James Coburn), is seeking some revenge but his plan is suicidal (at best). The former commander of the impregnable Fort Holman, Pembroke surrendered the fort to the Rebs without a shot fired. Now, he’s approaching his former commanders with a way to take back the mountaintop fort. His men? Eight men rescued from the gallows at the last second, including an amiable drifter, Eli (Bud Spencer). All the while, Fort Holman and its psychotic commander, Major Ward (Telly Savalas), awaits. Pembroke can’t wait to exact his revenge, if he can keep his death squad in check.

As is so often the case with spaghetti westerns, it can be difficult to track down the full versions of so many of these movies. The genre itself was hugely popular in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, especially in Europe and plenty of third-world countries around the world. The versions that made it to America at times? Heavily cut, heavily edited, and often times a shell of what the original, intended version really was. The version I’ve seen is the heavily-edited 92-minute version. The full version — about 111 minutes — is available at Amazon for $90 if anyone wants to split it with me and just share the DVD…

What remains is a fun, entertaining but somewhat disjointed western from director Tonino Valerii (also directed My Name is Nobody, Day of Anger, and The Price of Power). An introduction to Coburn and Spencer was cut entirely, now we actually are spoiled by the ending in the opening minutes unfortunately. Then, it’s a quick flashback to where the mission all started (sorta). What follows a little barebones. Little time for exposition, quick, aggressive cuts that leave scenes jumping from one to another without much in the way of a transition. It’s all built around getting the story to the attack on the fort with no interest in characters, story or background. So if you’re patient for some action…

All that said, it’s hard not to be excited for a western starring Coburn, Spencer and Savalas, right? The backstory — however rushed — between Coburn and Savalas does provide a good twist in the film’s last half, explaining why Pembroke surrendered the fort without a shot. Coburn is the leader tasked with an impossible mission, leading his death squad without the squad actually killing him! His manipulation continually holds his men at bay. Spencer gives the movie a lighter touch as Eli, a drifter who sides with Pembroke during the mission. Savalas’ part amounts to an extended cameo, a script that doesn’t give him much to do, especially considering his backstory and how crazy we’re told he is. Eh, story is overrated!

The star power is in our lead trio. As for Pembroke’s death squad, spaghetti western fans will enjoy seeing some familiar faces, but it’s not big stars by any means. The wild west convict commandos include Sgt. Brent (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the questioning NCO — who potentially killed Pembroke’s wife? I don’t know…cut scene! –, MacIvers (Guy Mairesse), the murdering deserter, Wendel (Ugo Fangareggi), the horse thief, Pickett (Benito Stefanelli), a murderer and rapist, Fernandez (Adolfo Lastretti), a black market seller who’s latest deal killed 30 Union troops and Turam Quibo as a half-breed Apache. Quibo is also in Adios, Sabata and miscredited here in the ‘Reason’ casting listing. Not a likable group by any means, but an interesting mix for sure.

If you’ve made it this far, it must be because of the action. Using the same awesome filming set as 1970’s El Condor, the Fort Holman location is awesome, providing an incredible backdrop for an impressive attack that runs about 25 minutes. Explosions, dynamite, Gatling guns, twists and turns, a crazy body count, and who can make it out from our death squad? A whole lotta fun in a beautifully choreographed final action sequence.

Flawed though it is, ‘Reason’ is pretty fun, and I’ve watched it 3 different times over the last 6 or 7 years. Familiar locations from El Condor, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Deserter and plenty others, and a cool — if somewhat out of place — score (listen HERE) helps make for a fun if flawed final product. In the vein of ‘Deserter’ and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. A mess but an entertaining mess!

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972): ** 1/2 /****

The Wrath of God (1972)

wogposSimply 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 /****

The Deadly Trackers (1973)

the_deadly_trackersTwo actors who were stars but never quite superstars, Richard Harris and Rod Taylor are two of my favorites. Both did a wide variety of films, but they always seemed most at home in good, old-fashioned guy’s guys movies, westerns, war movies, science fiction stories. A pairing of the duo has to be worthwhile, right? Let’s see with 1973’s The Deadly Trackers.

As the sheriff of the border town of Santa Rosa, Sean Kilpatrick (Harris) goes about his job in unique fashion. Never wearing a gun, he insists on bringing prisoners in for justice, not just shooting them on the spot. That strategy works when a gang led by murdering outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor) tries to rob the bank only to get cornered by the townspeople. Brand desperately threatens to kill a little boy, Kilpatrick’s son. In the ensuing chaos, both the boy and Kilpatrick’s wife are killed as Brand his gang escape. Vowing revenge on the men, Kilpatrick pursues the gang into Mexico, ignoring his beliefs of law and order. Always close behind Brand and his men, the revenge-seeking sheriff keeps running across a Mexican federale, Gutierrez (Al Letierri), who insists on bringing Brand in the right way, the lawful way. Kilpatrick obviously has other plans…

This little-known western was apparently beset by an avalanche of production issues. Based off a short story from Samuel Fuller, it originally had Fuller as a director with Harris and Bo Hopkins co-starring. Production started but was quickly halted to revamp…well, everything. The studio basically half-assed it from there, even borrowing portions of the musical score from 1969’s The Wild Bunch. To show you how bizarre things got, the opening credits are still frames with voiceover narration, but they look like the camera shot through a thick blanket. What happened to the footage? Apparently there was a mishap sometime after filming but before editing. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Ultimately, the production issues aren’t deal-breakers. Instead, it’s just the general tone of ‘Trackers’ that provides its undoing. Far from a bad movie, this is just too morbidly, cynically brutal and dark. Like so many revisionist westerns of the 1970’s, ‘Trackers’ is interested in a more honest look at the wild west. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty and death never seems far away. There are no sympathetic characters, and it is only a matter of time before our cast of characters starts getting knocked off in gruesome fashion — scalping, trampled by horses, shot in the face, quicksand, gunned down by a flurry of shots, both blasts of a shotgun, stabbing…you get the idea — in this blood-soaked revenge western. It’s a movie in the vein of The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, Lawman (actually pretty good), Ulzana’s Raid (also very good) and Chato’s Land but a little too uneven to be considered genuinely good.

The two leads deliver interesting performances, easily the highlight of the movie. Harris’ Kilpatrick has quite the character arc from law-and-order lawman to revenge-seeking, unhinged killer. It’s a physical performance, an intimidating performance. Not a ton of lines, just a man obsessed with the thought of brutally bringing his family’s killers to justice. Taylor plays against type in a big way — easily his most villainous, disturbing part — as Frank Brand, an outlaw and murderer who doesn’t think twice before shooting someone. Similarly unhinged, he’s an ex-Confederate soldier and a racist to boot! A villain you definitely love to hate.

In a supporting part, Lettieri gives one of his best performances, a subdued part as Gutierrez, a law-abiding peace officer who stands by his convictions through thick and thin. His conversations with Harris to provide some of the movie’s best-written scenes. As for Brand’s gang, look for Neville Brand as Choo-Choo, a bandit with part of a railroad rail for a hand (it’s kinda explained), Paul Benjamin as Jacob, a soft-spoken, educated gambler, and William Smith as Schoolboy, a mentally challenged killer with the mind of a child. Also look for Isela Vega as Brand’s former lover, Pedro Armendariz Jr. as a well-meaning blacksmith and William Bryant as one of Kilpatrick’s deputies.

Revenge stories are a staple of the western genre. A couple of those revisionist westerns I listed above are based solely on the revenge factor. Though I loved the cast here, I didn’t fall hard for the movie. You’re rooting more to see who gets killed and in what gruesome fashion. There’s not a ton of energy in the process in a rather slow-moving 110-minute movie. It’s never a good sign when horrific amounts of violence — oh, look! He’s getting scalped! — breaks up the relative monotony.

One of the most redeeming qualities in ‘Trackers’ is the filming locations in Mexico. Any western fans will see some familiar sites, including locations you would have seen in Major Dundee, The Wrath of God, Vera Cruz and (I think) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some of the ruins, the dusty villages, the rocky vistas, it all adds a very cool feeling of realism and authenticity. You believe the sweat you see pop up on foreheads. A mixed bag in the end. Worth a watch but keep expectations measured. The cast alone is enough to bring many viewers in.

The Deadly Trackers (1973): ** 1/2 /****

Force 10 from Navarone (1978)

force_10_from_navarone_movieReleased in 1962, The Guns of Navarone was a huge hit with audiences, made a ton of money at the box office and impacted countless WWII and espionage movies in the years to come. It was so popular author Alistair MacLean was approached about writing a sequel in novel form that could also be a film sequel. Well, it took some time, and there was plenty of drama, but here’s 1978’s Force 10 from Navarone.

It’s 1943 some months after the successful raid on the island of Navarone, but Major Keith Mallory (Robert Shaw) and explosives expert Corporal Miller (Edward Fox) have been brought together for another impossible mission. They’re being attached to Force 10, a team of agents commanded by Colonel Barnsby (Harrison Ford) being dropped into Yugoslavia to help aid the partisan army battling the Germans. Mallory and Miller have a different mission though. A German agent who blew their cover on Navarone is now believed to be an officer among the partisans. Can they find him and kill him before he does more damage? Will Barnsby and his team pull off their seemingly suicidal job? The odds sure aren’t in their favor.

I re-read both MacLean novels about the Navarone team this May. They were favorites as a young reader. I liked them, the stories are fun and exciting with some great characters, but the twists, turns, coincidences and pure luck get to be a little much at times. Convoluted and confusing come to mind! The movies are the rare efforts better than the source novels. ‘Force 10’ probably would have been better suited as its own stand-alone movie. No cast members return and the connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best. Still, the ingredients are there for a fun espionage story with one of the coolest casts ever.

From director Guy Hamilton, ‘Force 10’ had a smaller budget — which is reflected in some of the special effects and borrowing footage from other movies — and does have a disjointed feel at times. Different versions were released, one 118-minutes and the other 126-minutes, with some scenes transitioning in rough fashion as if there were more cuts with an even longer story. Hamilton’s sequel was filmed on location in Yugoslavia, and it looks great, like we’re really isolated up in the mountains with the partisans battling the Germans. Composer Ron Goodwin (Where Eagles Dare) turns in a whistle-worthy score as well to aid the espionage action.

Replacing Gregory Peck and David Niven is no easy task — I imagine — so Shaw and Fox make an interesting choice. The duo puts a different, lighter spin on Mallory and Miller. There’s a more comedic touch, some more laughs, as the two unassuming agents save the day again and again with their know-how and savvy in the field. A year after the somewhat successful Star Wars, Harrison Ford is solid as Barnsby, an experienced young agent who doesn’t think his two older tag-alongs are worth the risk….until he learns otherwise. The trio has an excellent chemistry among the crazy mission, even more so when an escaped prisoner, Sgt. Weaver (Carl Weathers), a medic, stows away on the mission. An eclectic, oddball mix of agents, but a good one!

Plenty more names worth mentioning though! The always-welcome Franco Nero plays Lescobar, a partisan officer working with Force 10 to accomplish the mission. Barbara Bach plays a double-agent seemingly working for both sides (but she’s got some secrets to reveal along the way, and a nude scene FWIW). James Bond villain Jaws, Richard Kiel, has a fun part as Drazak, a bear of a man and a dangerous, brutal knife fighter. Also look for Alan Badel as a partisan commander, Michael Byrne (Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) as a sinister German officer, Angus MacInnes as Reynolds, a member of Force 10, and Petar Buntic as Marko, a key resistance fighter.

A bit of a slow start in the 126-minute version, but once things get going, the momentum picks up in a big way. ‘Force 10’ really hits its groove in the last 60-70 minutes as the missions really come to light with some good twists and turns along the way. Fox’s Miller especially has a doozy to reveal in the closing scenes. A lot of fun though with Shaw’s Mallory delivering a great final line before the credits roll.

One more thing. The connection to the original ‘Guns’ is forced at best, making me think ‘Force 10’ may have been better suited to just be its own movie without the connection. It’s too goofy for its own good, but the resolution makes it worthwhile with a good reveal. All complaints aside, I’ve always enjoyed this WWII espionage adventure. It’s a movie with Quint, Han Solo/Indiana Jones, Apollo Creed, the always-welcome Edward Fox, a Bond girl, a Bond villain, and plenty of familiar faces. Not a great flick, but a highly enjoyable one.

Force 10 from Navarone (1978): ***/****