The Savage Guns (1962)

tierrabrutal22If 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 /****

Land Raiders (1969)

landraidposBefore he became instantly recognizable as TV detective Kojak, Telly Savalas was a staple in tough guy movies in the late 1960’s and through much of the 1970’s. While many American stars went to Europe during this time to star in the spaghetti western flicks, Savalas sorta did that, heading to Europe for a trio of American-backed westerns that are quasi-spaghettis. The look, the feel…it’s almost there. The list includes 1972’s Pancho Villa, 1971’s A Town Called Hell and today’s review, 1969’s Land Raiders.

In the Forge River Valley in the Arizona territory in the 1870’s, rancher Vince Carden (Savalas) is king. With his immense cattle ranch, Carden keeps scooping up land as other smaller ranchers simply can’t keep up, both with him and raiding Apaches. One day, Carden’s younger brother, Paul (George Maharis), rides back into town after several years away from the family’s ranch. The reason? A tragic incident from their past, Paul forced to ride away. He’s drifted back home now, but his timing couldn’t have been worse. Vince continues to try to sweep away the raiding Apaches nearby, but efforts are being made to broker a peace treaty. Vince though…he may have ulterior motives. Right in the middle, Paul returning and simply looking for some answers.

I caught this western a couple times as a kid when it aired in the afternoon on TBS (oh, those were the days). From director Nathan Juran, ‘Raiders’ is a pretty good example of a wave of spaghetti western knockoffs that American studios released trying to duplicate the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. None reached those levels, but they’re almost uniformly entertaining. The filming locations here are familiar (in a good way) and frequent Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai turns in an excellent score that’s fairly reminiscent of the iconic Dollars scores (also in a good way). Give it a listen HERE. It doesn’t rewrite the genre, but I’m always entertained here.

My favorite Savalas role is in 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes, the rare role where he isn’t the villain. Man, he was so good at playing that dastardly, bastardly, bloodthirsty bad guy. That’s the case here in ‘Raiders,’ his Vince — actually Vincente Cardenas — is as greedy as they come, and he doesn’t care how many bodies he has to climb over to get to the top. Maharis is solid as Paul — actually Pablo Cardenas — who returns to deal with his past, a former love who died under suspicious circumstances. Not quite a heroic good guy, he nonetheless is far better than his brother. A cool dynamic between the Carden/Cardenas brothers.

Not much star power on display here in ‘Raiders’ other than our lead duo. Arlene Dahl plays Vince’s wife, oblivious to her husband’s actions, Janet Landgard as Kate, the sheriff’s daughter returning to town at the wrong time, Guy Rolfe as Major Tanner, the cavalry commander with an English accent (?), and Phil Brown as Sheriff Mayfield, torn between his boss (Vince) and his morals. Also, in some bizarre casting, Paul Picerni plays two different roles, one as Vince’s henchman and another as Arturo, an old friend of Paul’s. Are we not supposed to notice? Also look for John Clark as Ace, another Vince henchman, and familiar face Fernando Rey as a priest who makes a lightning-quick appearance.

I’ll give ‘Raiders’ credit. It deals with familiar territory — Indians vs. settlers/ranchers — but manages to make it interesting and unique. Some foggy, stylish flashbacks help illuminate the Carden/Cardenas history, revealing a twist that’s not so twisty in the end. It clocks in at 101 minutes, fleshed out with some footage from a 1950’s American western I can’t place. Much of the budget seems to have been saved for an action-packed finale as the Apaches finally attack a forted-up town defended by the townspeople and the cavalry. Pretty dark ending all-around.

A classic? Nope, but pretty entertaining, and decidedly different. Worth a watch.

Land Raiders (1969): ***/****