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 /****

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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): ***/****

The Dirty Dozen

One of the all-time great tough guy casts — if not the greatest — in one of my favorite genres. A movie that stands the test of time that is action-packed, darkly funny and amazingly entertaining. It has taken abuse over the years by some because of its shocking ending, but it also has built up a diehard following by those who will defend it to the last (including me). One of my favorite movies ever, and a Memorial Day themed review, 1967’s The Dirty Dozen.

An American army officer with a record a mile long, Major John Reisman (Lee Marvin) has been given a mission that even he doesn’t believe is real. It’s late spring 1944, and as the Allies prepare for the D-Day invasion, the Allied high command (including Ernest Borgnine) delivers his impossible, suicidal mission. Reisman is to take 12 prisoners either sentenced to death or years of imprisonment and hard labor, train them, and then in the days before the D-Day landing, drop them into German-occupied France. Their mission? Attack a German chateau, killing as many high ranking German officers as possible, hopefully wreaking havoc on the high command. Can Reisman get the prisoners to work together before they kill him?

This is a movie that is a perfect storm of timing, casting and story. A story of 12 convicted criminals — rape, murder, robbery — turned commandos who resent any sort of authority given a mission to kill enemy officers in cold blood? Could that story even remotely fly in any time other than late 1960s America? It was a time when America was changing, a darker, more cynical time in our history. Director Robert Aldrich taps into something special there. ‘Dozen’ has a unique look to it, interesting camera angles, a catchy theme for the Dozen — listen HERE — and a general feel of giving the middle finger to any sort of power or authority figure. Could there be a more perfect movie for a 1967 audience?

I could write a whole review discussing the characters and the long list of tough guy actors who play them, but I doubt many people would read 10,000 rambling words about how the cast of The Dirty Dozen is the coolest thing ever. Let’s start with Lee Marvin, an all-around bad-ass who by the mid 1960s had become a major, bankable star. His Major Reisman, a sarcastic, quick-witted, smart-mouthed and brutally effective officer, is probably his most well known role, and he owns this movie. With the cast behind and around him, that’s saying something. Marvin delivers brutally funny one-liners left and right, handles the action scenes flawlessly, and is believable as the cynical leader of this group of crook commandos. With those type of men behind him, you need someone like him to lead.

Richard Jaeckel is a scene-stealer as Sgt. Bowren, the MP assigned to work with Reisman in training and execution of the mission. Along with Borgnine, the High Command and other Allied officers include Robert Webber, George Kennedy and Ralph Meeker. Oh, and Robert Ryan as a stiff-collared officer from the 101st. Enough for you? No?

And then there’s the Dirty Dozen. The group includes Charles Bronson as Wladislaw, the former officer sentenced to hang for killing one of his own men, a medic carrying medical supplies away from battle. There’s former NFL star Jim Brown as Jefferson, an African American soldier who killed in self defense but is sentenced to hang nonetheless. John Cassavetes was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Franko, a Chicago hood who killed a London man for $10 worth of cash. Telly Savalas is Maggot, a psychopathic Southerner convinced God works through him. Clint Walker is Posey, an Apache with rage issues, Donald Sutherland is Pinkley, a dimwitted soldier, and singer Trini Lopez plays Jiminez. Rounding out the Dozen are character actors Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, Stuart Cooper, Colin Maitland, and Al Mancini as Bravos, the smallest of the bunch but with a mean/funny streak. The focus is Bronson, Brown, Cassavetes, Walker, Savalas and Sutherland, none of them disappointing, all of them living up to the hype, all given a chance to shine.

What has helped ‘Dozen’ gain its cult-like following over the years is its humor in looking at and poking some fun at war in general. Sutherland’s dimwitted Pinkley is forced to inspect a crack platoon of Ryan’s Col. Breed in one of the most memorable, truly funny scenes. Watch it HERE. Reisman later arranges for eight London prostitutes to visit the Dozen as their training winds down. The facial expressions exchanged back and forth are priceless. The high point comically — however dark it is — comes in the War Games sequence, the Dozen forced to prove their worth by capturing Col. Breed’s headquarters. They resort to cheating, con jobs, stealing, and all sorts of trickery. After the extended training sequence — which has its fair share of funny moments — the War Games development and the eventual payoff provides some great laughs.

The portion of the movie though that tends to drive people away is the attack on the chateau. SPOILERS AHEAD SPOILERS STOP READING Here’s the plan, courtesy of Reisman, which you can watch HERE. It of course, doesn’t go as planned, Reisman, Bowren and the Dozen forced to improvise. Their solution is simple; throw grenades and gasoline down air chutes and burn (think napalm) the German officers to death. Heroic? No, I would say not. It’s a movie though. These guys aren’t portrayed as heroes. These are prototypical 1960s anti-heroes! What does work? The entire finale sequence (around 45 minutes long) is dripping with tension, and once the adrenaline starts pumping, it doesn’t stop. The Dozen start to get picked off — including two legitimate shockers — as the bullets start flying. I’ve seen this movie 50 times and still root for two characters especially to make it, knowing all the while they won’t. The means are brutal, but as far as an entertaining action sequence goes, it is one of the best.

I’m not sure what this says about me, but I grew up watching this movie a lot. Introduced to it via Memorial Day war movie marathons, it will be always be one of my favorites. I love its cynical, dark look at war. I love the ridiculously strong cast from top to bottom. It is funny, entertaining, action-packed, and a true example of ‘They don’t make them like that anymore.’ A classic.

The Dirty Dozen <—trailer (1967): ****/****

The Scalphunters

the_scalphunters_posterIn a legendary career that spanned parts of 6 different decades, Burt Lancaster was always at home in the western genre. There are more than a few classics in the bunch — The Professionals, Vera Cruz, Ulzana’s Raid — but one that always seems to slip through the cracks is 1968’s The Scalphunters. Not a classic but a highly entertaining venture with a fun cast.

After a busy season trapping and with a pack horse full of pelts and furs, fur trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) is heading to the nearest town to sell his haul. Well, that’s the plan anyways. He’s stopped by a Kiowa war party who “trade” him for the furs, giving him a captured slave, Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), for his season’s work. Joseph Lee had previously been a captive of Comanches. Now, Joe Bass is on the trail to get his furs back, but there are more problems. The Kiowas are attacked by a gang of scalphunters led by outlaw Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who in the process also captures Joseph Lee. Howie’s gang is on the run and heading for Mexico, now with Joseph Lee in tow. Trailing not too far behind is Bass, just waiting for his chance to strike.

The first of three efforts Lancaster and director Sydney Pollack did together, ‘Scalphunters’ is an interesting western. Reading the plot synopsis, you wouldn’t think it had some heavy comedic — even slapstick — undertones. They are there though, giving the final product a kind of helter-skelter feel. Oh, Bass and Lee comedically beating the crap out of each other? Ah, a massacre of Indians! The tonal shifts provide some odd moments for sure, but the movie is still entertaining. When everything about westerns was changing in the late 1960’s, Pollack’s western seems like a bit of a throwback…that still’s trying to be violent and dark and unsettling at times.

What holds things together despite the oddness? I’d give you two guesses, but you’ll only need one. Lancaster, Davis, Savalas and Shelley Winters. There are other speaking parts, but this movie rides (or derails) on the shoulders of this quartet. It is definitely an ensemble too with each cast member given their chance to star. Lancaster is off-screen for large stretches of the 102-minute running time. When he’s on-screen, he’s a scene-stealer. It’s a bigger, showier performance but he doesn’t chew the scenery like several of his most iconic parts.

Sometimes chemistry is just spot-on, and that’s the case with Lancaster’s Bass and Davis’ Lee. Bass is the grizzled fur trapper, uneducated but not dumb, able to survive in the wilderness while quoting the Bible. Lee is an educated, intelligent slave who can talk his way in and out of plenty of uncomfortable situations. Throw them together, and you’ve got some great dialogue and a great back and forth dynamic. The story pulls the duo apart, but what’s there is excellent. Savalas gets to ham it up a bit as outlaw Jim Howie with Winters playing Kate, a prostitute and Jim’s woman who’s apparently also on the run for some past misdeeds.

As for the gang of scalphunters, look for Dabney Coleman, Paul Picerni, Nick Cravat, Dan Vadis and Chuck Roberson (John Wayne’s stunt double and a familiar face). Armando Silvestre plays Two Crows, a Kiowa chief who gets along with Joe Bass but always seems to come out with the upper hand.

Nothing groundbreaking here, but an enjoyable western. ‘Scalphunters’ was filmed on location in Durango, Mexico in similar locales as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, The Sons of Katie Elder and others, but it’s definitely a good-looking western. Composer Elmer Bernstein is on-hand to provide the score, and even if it’s not a hugely memorable score, a Bernstein score isn’t something to shake your head at. A good western with some excellent lead performances, especially Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.

The Scalphunters (1968): ***/****