“Back off Lawman.”
This after a racially charged slur and threat from a frontier town sheriff towards the “half-breed” Chato as he stands in front of a bar keep looking for a drink. In self defence, Chato leaves the sheriff dead on the floor and rides quickly out of town. The bloodhounds begin to gather as witness and fellow racist, Victor French quickly spreads the word.
So begins this Michael Winner western that was the first film of six to team him with the late bloomer, Charles Bronson. For his part as the title character, Bronson at the age of fifty plus years never looked so physically imposing during his lengthy career. While some might say that a lack of dialogue benefits Bronson, here his few spoken words on screen only add to the characters mystique and inner strength.
Long before Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo led Brian Dennehy and his men into the woods to show them just what warfare really means, Bronson led Jack Palance and a gang of racially charged cowboys into the barren desert and rocky terrain of the Apache to slowly wipe them out on his home turf. Palance plays a southern gent who once commanded forces under Lee for the south who speaks longingly of the glorious war. Here he has a less than noble gang under his command consisting of some first rate actors. Joining the low key Palance on this man hunt are James Whitmore, Richard Basehart, Victor French and starring as a trio of high strung brothers, Simon Oakland, Ralph Waite and Richard Jordan.
All the above names represent a first rate cast for a western circa 1972.
Jerry Fielding supplies the score to this far from glamourous western tale where the hunters slowly become the hunted. Initially Bronson is more than satisfied to just lead the posse astray for a few days in the far reaches of a deserted land. It’s the dry, dusty terrain covered in rock that takes on a life of it’s own as the posse slowly succumb to the land they have no taste for. Palance makes a formidable opponent to the savvy Bronson. He reads and predicts many of Bronson’s moves as they follow him deeper and deeper away from civilization. So much so that they come upon Bronson’s hideaway home where his wife is to be found while he is out herding horses.
Cue the Death Wish comparisons as Winner lets his camera give us a little more than we might wish for. Jordan and Waite brutally rape the woman and leave her tied in the sun naked as bait for her returning Apache warrior.
“You don’t hear’em, you don’t see’em. It’s like an act of God.” says Palance.
Not all the men in the posse have a stomach for just how far the Hooker brothers are willing to take their hatred and a crack begins to surface amongst the white hunters. No matter now as they have raped as well as killed an elderly Apache who stays with Bronson and his family. Now the killing begins and it’s swift and violent.
I’ll leave the final reel to your imagination as Bronson’s wrath is unleashed upon some who deserve what they’ve encouraged while others are caught in the crossfire.
Chato is a role timed to perfection in the career of Charles Bronson. He was emerging from Italy as a star player in the movie making business and taking the lead role in a field of dynamite character actors and leading man of note in Jack Palance tells us Bronson had come far since his days as a member of the gang in films like Riding Shotgun and Vera Cruz. While Bronson has very few lines, Palance doesn’t say much either and though his lines are sparse, they are not wasted.
“That’s to my taste.”
“Whiskey and hot sun don’t mix.”
The film is written by Gerald Wilson who had previously worked with Winner on Lawman that was another “hard” western of the era. Included on the recent Twilight Time blu ray is an appealing interview with him where he goes into the background of the film’s genesis and production as well as his intent in writing it. Vietnam war comparisons are quite welcome. An interesting note is that he pointed out he had contacted Robert Ryan to play the Simon Oakland part. One can easily see Ryan on screen taking charge opposite Palance as the elderly Hooker brother. Ryan apparently returned a letter conveying sadness that he isn’t up to the location shoot as he had cancer but would have taken the role otherwise. Oakland is admittedly solid in the role but still, I’d like to have seen Ryan in here with Palance and Bronson.
Not a great western but a darn good one that reflects the changing westerns of the early seventies. Cruel it may be but the performances and cast all do a solid job from the quiet anti-hero to the racially motivated Oakland, Waite and Jordan. And any movie with James Whitmore is worth seeking out anyway.
So yes I did add the new Twilight Time blu ray release to my shelf before the 3000 copies disappeared on me. It won’t be lonely as I have the original one sheet in the vault here at home.