Cemetery Without Crosses Blu-ray Review: An Obscure French Western Gets Its Day

About the time the western genre was growing stale in America, European filmmakers picked it right back up.  More than 600 different Westerns were made in Europe between 1960 and 1980.  While they were made in just about every country on that continent, the majority came from Italians.  The most famous and arguably best examples of European Westerns come from the Italian Sergio Leone and his Dollars trilogy.  

While the Spaghetti Western may have ruled they day, a great many other European countries got into the western game as well. Cemetery Without Crosses is one such film.  Made in 1969 by the French (call it a Baguette Western if you will), it did decent business in its native land (over a million tickets were sold in France) but has since drifted into obscurity.  You’ll hardly find it mentioned at all in any critical analysis of film history or the Western Genre and its been rated by a paltry 801 users on IMDB.

Arrow Video would like to remedy that so they’ve just released a new 2K restoration of the film on Blu-ray with a very nice presentation and some interesting extras.  Unfortunately even with that, I can’t say I believe it will ever rise very far in the ranks of movie buffs.  Outside of film historians, and western aficionados, I can’t imagine Cemetery Without Crosses ever being anything more than obscure.

Made at the same time Sergio Leone was making Once Upon A Time in The West, Cemetery Without Crosses has several things in common with that film.  Its star, Robert Hossein (who also co-wrote and directed the film), was originally slated to be in that classic Leone film, but contractual problems kept him out of it. As a sort of apology, Leone wound up directing one scene in Crosses (the dining room scene, in which we find the film’s only bit of levity).  Crosses also maintains the sort of bleak outlook we find in many of Leone’s films.

Hossein stars as Manuel, a Clint Eastwood sort of character who comes to visit his friend’s house only to find the husband to have been lynched and hanged by a rival family. He promises the widow he’ll seek revenge.  Killing another rival gang who set up our villains for a fall, Manuel finds himself in the good graces of the people he’s looking to seek revenge upon.  A few gun battles, a brutal rape, plus lots of random violence later and our hero returns to the widow as victorious as anyone who goes revenging ever is.

Crosses is a really well-made, artfully shot, often beautiful film.  It’s rather a shame it’s so painfully dull.  Shot in the Andalusia Province of Southern Spain, the landscape is both familiar and strangely alien.  Hossein finds multiple reasons to show our hero riding out across these beautiful desert mountains, making the film a joy to look at.  Each scene is carefully crafted and you can tell the director has an artist’s eye.

The story is pretty standard fare for the genre, but it doesn’t feel terribly trite or cliched.  The actors all do their roles fairly well, so it’s not that either.  I think I blame the editing.  There are long moments when the camera stays just a little too long, hovering over a scene or a character’s face.  There is an artfulness to it, and in a better film, I might be willing to find meaning in it, but here it just feels like a drag.  Perhaps that’s because I never really cared for the characters.  I never really connected to the widow and never got her connection to Manuel, which makes the whole business of the revenge a bit underwhelming.  The film is frequently punctuated by violence, but here it’s edited together so quickly, our heroes take out the bad guys so fast that I found myself missing exactly what had happened.

It’s an odd film in that I can respect the craft that went into making it.  Hossein is a talented director who clearly knows how to shoot a scene and paint beautiful, interesting pictures.  But the screenplay (which was also co-written by famed Italian horror director Dario Argento) drags and the editing is a bit off in places.  Still, for those interested in Westerns, particularly those of the European variety, this is a nice side-trip.

Arrow Video’s release of Cemetery Without Crosses is pretty spectacular.  The video transfer looks quite good, all things considered.  Those things to consider are that it is a 45-year-old, really rather obscure, small-budgeted French-Italian western.  There is noticeable grain throughout, and some pretty nasty splotches to be seen, especially in the beginning.  But a lot of the damage has been cleaned, and once I got into the groove, I really didn’t notice the flaws.  Sound quality likewise is good, once you again consider those things.  The score is one of those classic Spaghetti Western deals that’s really quite a bit better than the film itself.  It comes in boisterously, but never overwhelms the dialog.

The Blu-ray is packaged quite beautifully and comes with a  big book featuring essays on the film, the director, and stars.  There is also a new interview with Robert Hossein made especially for this release, and a vintage interview with him as well as footage from a French television program about the making of the film. 

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Mat Brewster

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