The western was one of the more prominent genres of American cinema from the 1930s through the 1950s. As it began to decline in the 1960s, the Europeans took up the cause. You could make a movie a lot cheaper over there, and there were enough scraggly outbacks that could substitute for the great American West. You could also add in a lot more violence and sex overseas than in the more prurient American studios. When Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy with Clint Eastwood became a huge, international success, more and more European studios started churning westerns out. This was especially true in Italy which brought us the genre title of “spaghetti western”.
I’ve always liked westerns, though I’ve only recently started digging in past the tried and true classics. Because it was such a popular genre for decades, there are a lot of films to sift through and watch. One of the ways I’ve staved off insanity during the pandemic is to dig through the various streaming services and online movie bins to find little-known or discussed westerns. I’ve found a lot of great stuff.
For years Arrow Video has been bringing fully restored versions of obscure European Westerns, loaded down with extras to the Blu-ray market. The very first disk I ever received (and reviewed) from Arrow was the French western, Cemetery Without Crosses. Now they are releasing an excellent boxed set of four films in a box entitled Vengeance Trails: 4 Classic Westerns. As that title implies, all of them deal with the classic western trope: vengeance. I don’t know that I’d call them truly classic, but they are all quite good and worth the purchase. For fans of European genre cinema, you’ll find lots of familiar names too. There are directors like Lucio Fulci and Massimo Dallamano, and actors Robert Woods, Klaus Kinski, Franco Nero, and George Hilton to name a few.
Though primarily known as a horror director, Lucio Fulcio also helmed a number of comedies, sword and sandal films, and westerns, including Massacre Time (1966), the first film in this set. It stars Franco Nero, perhaps the most famous Spaghetti Western actor outside of Clint Eastwood, who would find breakout success that same year with Django. If that title brings up visions of Quentin Tarantino, there’s a good reason. That film, plus numerous other Italian westerns, had a great influence on Tarantino’s work, including Django Unchained (in which he would give Nero a role). Massacre Time had its own influence including a similar opening scene in which a man is carried into a field in a box, released, and chased down by dogs and some savage men.
As the film properly begins, we find prospector Tom Corbett (Franco Nero) being called back to his hometown. Once there, he finds his mother dead, his brother (George Hilton) a drunk, and the family farm sold to a sadistic man named Mr. Scott (Giuseppe Addobbati) and his even more evil son Jr, (Nino Castelnuovo), who was the guy hunting the man from the opening sequence. Naturally, there will be a showdown between Corbett and the Scotts, but first, there is a lot of nonsense to get through. I’m not a huge fan of Fulci as a director. He may be the “Godfather of Gore” but other than a neat ability to create some terrifically violent effects, I mostly find his films a bit of a bore (there are exceptions, of course, Zombi 2 is terrific and The Beyond certainly has its moments). Massacre Time has a few good sequences, quite a bit of violence (though none of his usual gore), and a lot of rather tiresome sequences. The big showdown is a lot of fun, but the best scene comes in the middle when Jr. gets a whip and goes to town on poor Tom Corbett right in the middle of a fancy dinner party.
The prolific and often unstable German actor Klaus Kinski stars in our next film, And God Said to Cain (1970). He plays Gary Hamilton, a former soldier who has spent the last ten years doing hard labor in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. As the film begins, he’s pardoned and immediately sets out for (what else?) revenge. A man named Acombar (Peter Carston) committed the crime all those years ago and planted evidence against Hamilton. Acombar’s wife (Marcella Michelangeli) held false witness against him. They are held up in a well-fortified mansion on the outskirts of town.
What makes this film stand out is its almost gothic presentation and the almighty presence of Kinski. Hamilton was raised in the town that makes the film’s setting and he knows his way around, especially in the underground Indian burial grounds, which give the film ample opportunity for shadowy lighting and lots of good horror-esque imagery. A great storm howls through town at about the mid-point giving it an extra bit of atmosphere. The first half of the film builds toward that storm with everyone preparing for its arrival (they keep calling it a “tornado” which irritated this Oklahoma boy to no end – you can’t predict a tornado is going to come hours in advance).
Kinski chews the scenery in the way that only he could. Director Antonio Margheriti knows how to shoot a scene and keeps things moving at a quick pace making And God Said To Cain a terrifically fun western to watch.
Typically in westerns of all stripes, the heroes are white and the villains are Indians or Mexican or some other ethnicity. It is always nice to see those tables turned as it is with My Name is Pecos (1967). Here, the hero is Pecos (Robert Woods – a very American actor so I guess we should tamp down that excitement over diversity a little bit. Especially since the makeup department darkened his skin and did something very strange to his eyes). He’s a Mexican gunslinger seeking revenge on a man named Clane (Pier Paolo Capponi) who killed his family. Clane has his own trouble as one member of his gang has stolen the money they just robbed.
This creates some really fun tension as Clane has to both try and find the missing money and keep Pecos from killing him. It has all the requisite gun battles and beatings, but it has some good humor as well. There is an undertaker who enjoys his job a little too much. And I swear someone asks Pecos what his name is at least half a dozen times all so he can say the title of this film with verve.
Having found great success as a cinematographer on Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, Massimo Dallamano took the director’s chair with Bandidos (1967). It is yet another tale of revenge (I don’t know why I’m pounding on that aspect of these films as the boxed set is entitled “Vengeance Trails”, but alas). Sharpshooter Richard Martin (Enrico Maria Salerno) has the bad luck to be on a train that gets robbed by some particularly nasty bandits (or bandidos if you will). They kill every single person on the train save Richard who they let off easy by shooting both of his hands. There is a long tracking shot that moves from one end of the train to the other detailing the slaughter that is as good as anything in any Spaghetti Western ever made.
Unable to hold a gun, he trains Ricky Shot (Terry Jenkins) ostensibly as a new sharpshooter to bring in small audiences as they travel about, but ultimately he’s looking for that revenge. There are more than a few twists and turns to be had, and some really clever backstory to unravel. Dellamano does incredibly well moving from cameraman to director. He went on to direct a couple of classic giallos amongst other genres, but never quite got the acclaim he deserved. Bandidos is a great introduction.
Vengeance Trails: 4 Classic Westerns is a great introduction to Spaghetti Westerns outside of Sergio Leone and the Django series. Arrow Video has done a great job of bringing these fairly obscure films to a wider audience in fully restored packages with lots of special features. Each of these films are presented with new 2K scans from the original negatives. Arrow has done a lot of cleanup and they’ve never looked better. They all come with both English and Italian audio tracks. Extras include audio commentaries for each film, plus multiple interviews with various people involved with the productions, trailers, photos, and several essays are included in the big, full-color booklet.