The Making of the Italian West: Part 10

Zapata Westerns: Politics and Humor

A Fistful of Westerns: The Making of The Italian West. Part X

 

In 1966 revolution was the political zeitgeist around the world in politics as well as the arts and cinema was no exception. The Italian westerns would rapidly gravitate towards radical politics as well. These westerns are often referred to as Zapata Westerns.  Before we jump into the films, a quick post WWII history of Italy.

After the defeat of the fascist regime of Mussolini, the Italian government was run by the right-wing Christian Democracy of Alcide De Gasperi, this upset a lot of communist and socialist intellectuals who fought against the fascists as well. Despite De Gasperi being pro American, joining NATO and bringing  prosperity to Italy and despite leading a coalition government of communist and socialist as well as his Christian Democracy, he wasn’t well liked by a lot of intellectuals.

With that being said, a lot of Italian artists had communist, socialist, and even some anarchist views which would find their ways in the arts, especially cinema but usually not genre cinema. That’s what makes these Spaghetti Westerns interesting as I’m sure the producers were capitalists. I imagine when producers were pitched ideas they probably said somethings like “I don’tta care whatta  your message is just so long as there are’a some boobies and’a explosions every five minutes. Capiche?” So it would be only natural to use The Mexican Revolution as a backdrop for some great action and political commentary.

George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

And now The Mexican Revolution in a nutshell. In 1910 after being fed up with the regime of Porfirio Díaz, who was originally backed by the U.S. and the Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, wealthy intellectuals like Francisco Madero started talking of revolution amongst the poor. Madero was backed up in northern Mexico by the boisterous Pancho Villa and in the south by the dapper Emiliano Zapata. They eventually ousted Díaz and Madero became a weak president and the people who once fought for him were now fighting amongst each other. Madero would be assassinated by his General, Victoriano Huerta. Huerta was supported by US and Rockefeller interests, oil wasn’t yet big in the Middle East, there was German and British interest there as well. All the waring revolutionaries eventually shoved out Huerta and Civil War broke out and another wealthy intellectual Venustiano Carranza took power and defeated constitutionalist Pancho Villa and assassinated Zapata.

This conflict is interesting on so many levels. It was the first war that dynamite and trains played a huge role. The first time the media covered a conflict, since it was so close to the US and Hollywood. At one point cowboy star Tom Mix fought alongside Pancho Villa and actor and future big time director Raoul Walsh would make a film with Villa as well. American Journalist John Reed covered to conflict before covering the Bolshevik movement in Russia and writing the classic book 10 Days That Shook The World and future General, George S.Patton would first make a name for himself in Mexico. I’ve read extensively on the subject researching a screenplay idea a while back, I’ll tell ya, there’s never a dull moment with this conflict and it’s also the reason my grandparents came to the states as the war lasted from 1910-1920 and a lot of people were killed.

A Bullet For The General (1966)

  1. Damiano Damiani
  2. Franco Salinas
  3. Gian Maria Volantè, Lou Castel, Martin Beswick, Klaus Kinski

The first of these “Zapata Westerns” was Damiano Damiani’s Quien Sabé aka Bullet For The General Written by Franco Solinas who wrote the Oscar nominated (Best Screenplay, Best director and Best Foreign Language Film) and controversial picture The Battle of Algiers. Franco Solinas joined the French Resistance during World War Two at the young age of 16 and would remain politically active with the communist party the remainder of his life. He wrote several films and novels before hooking up with director Gillo Pontecorvo on a few films, most important of which was the brilliant pseudo-documentary The Battle of Algiers, a cold hard look at Muslim guerrillas fighting the French Pied-noir in the 1950s Algiers, shot in A Cinema-Verité style using non-actors. Solinas wrote some non political pictures as well, like the 1955 Gina Lollobrigida starer Beautiful But Dangerous, but he’s mostly remembered for his political yarns

 A Bullet For The General takes place during the chaos that was the Mexican Revolution. Gian Maria Volantè, who turned down the role of Tuco in Sergio Leone’s epic The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to play El Chuncho a bandit revolutionary who is stealing guns for the revolution along with his compadre’s, his half brother Santo, a radical catholic monk (played by the brilliantly mad Klaus Kinski), Adalita (the lovely Martine Beswick), her lover Pepito and more. After capturing a military train with weapons they meet up with American Bill Tate (played by Lou Castel) a captured prisoner, at least that’s what he tells them, whom Chuncho affectionately refers to as Niño because of his youth. Niño tags along with them on there way to deliver the weapons to General Elias a Pancho Villa like character who is in hiding in the mountains.

American Bill Tate (played by Lou Castel)

Director Damiano Damiani never saw his picture as a spaghetti western but rather a political film and his approach is much more different than the more stylized approach of Leone’s dollars pictures. Solinas’ screenplay is filled with ideas that could be seen as subversive and Damiani shot and directed these scenes superbly. One scene I particularly like is when a train carrying arms and soldiers is captured, it’s stopped because a captured ruale is crucified, Christ like, on the railroad tracks. The sergeant (dollars actor Aldo Sombrell) who stops the train from hitting him pleads to the Captain to tell him what to do. The crucified Captain tells him “That is something you should decide!”

The bulk of the film is Niño manipulating Chuncho and the rest of the group. Actor Lou Castel was a big deal at the moment after having wowed international critics in Marco Bellocchio’s grim Fist’s In Pocket about a family of four siblings all but one suffering from epilepsy and their blind mother. Lou Castel’s character, Alassandro comes up with an idea to kill everyone so that the healthy brother can move on. Grim stuff but a powerful and it’s Castel’sperformance that really sticks to you. In Bullet,  Castel’s character Niño symbolizes American capitalism (Niño in Spanish means young boy or child and America to Italian writers is a young country) through the course of the picture we learn that Niño is a hired assassin using the group to find the General so he can kill him. When we first meet him he cuts in line from the locals to buy a train ticket, a boy asks “Do you not like Mexico?” Niño’s reply is a curt “No!” He’s strictly there for money and dose not care about the people nor their revolution.

Chuncho, like Niño, is out for money but also believes in the revolution which makes his character close to Pancho Villa, who was more of a democratic socialist. His brother Santo on the other hand is a radical Catholic monk who thinks they are stealing the arms and giving them away, he’s closer to a Zapatista. Like most of the fighters in the revolution a Zapata was uneducated and didn’t know of isims but he could be seen as a communist, he wanted to take the land and divide it up equally among the poor, Villa wanted the people to have the opportunity to be land owners and make profits but felt the government should provide  for the people much close to a social democracy. In one of my favorite scenes Chuncho and his gang have raided a strong hold, this scene is exciting and anarchistic. Santo is running around, his costume is a monks robe with bandies crossed his chest, and stumbles across a caged pit filled with peons. He frees them then forces some ruales down there, locks them up and floods them. Afterwards he’s on top of a building shouting “Assassins of Mexico! I challenge you!” He pulls out a few hand grenades and tosses them one at a time “In The name of The Father,” boom! “The Son!” Boom! “And The Holy Ghost!” BOOM! Casting Klaus Kinski in this role was shear genius on Damiani’s part!

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The outstanding score for Bullet For The General is by Louis Bacalov and was supervised by Ennio Morricone. Bacalov brings over a track from his score for Django that actually works better here than in the previous picture. The theme song “Ya Me Voy” is a full on mariachi song that seems like it could’ve been recorded by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan but was composed by Bacalov (The Mexican Revolution was also the birth of Mariachi music) This is another one of my favorite spaghetti tunes and since it’s at the beginning of the picture, it really sets up the flavor of the film nicely. All around it has one of the better SW soundtracks with a couple of tracks that may have been ghost composed by Morricone!

 

An other surprise about the picture is it’s strong female character played by Martine Beswick. Beswick is no stranger to genre fans she was in two Bond Films From Russia With Love and my favorite ThunderBall also Hammer Films One Million BC and Prehistoric Women. Here she plays the tough and beautiful Adalita, puffing away on a cigar as she blows up a whorehouse.

Unlike Leone’s Dollars films( which took a few years to hit our shores) Bullet For The General was released in the US, after a successful Italian run, and did very well critically (also unlike the Dollars trilogy). Damiani always insisted that Bullet was not a western but a political film about The Mexican Revolution, much like Battle of Algiers. I say this about the picture, Bullet is my favorite spaghetti western, I hold up the dollars pictures much like I do the original Star Wars trilogy outside the realm of favorites. If you’re not into political messages, than this picture still works as an action picture, with big action sequences every five minutes and plenty of humor.

Tepepa Lobby Card

Tepepa 1969

  1. Giulio Petroni
  2. Franco Solinas, Ivan Della Mea
  3. Ennio Morricone
  4. Tomas Milian, Orson Welles, john Steiner

Another film from political activist Franco Solinas is Tepepa. This picture has some similarities to the others he’d written, (Bullet For The General, The Mercenary) as this picture also has a mysterious gringo, in this case a British Doctor Henry Price, played by John Steiner. He is in Mexico to rescue revolutionary rebel Jesus Maria Moran aka Tepepa, wonderfully played by Cuban actor Tomás Milian, from being executed by cruel Colonel Cascurro played by a very bored and bloated Orson Welles, sporting brown pancake make-up and a Cantinflas mustache. Why does a British Dr. want to help a Mexican revolutionary? He believes Tepepa was responsible for the death of his wife.

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Tepepa is not the political film that Bullet For The General is. This picture is first and foremost a Spaghetti Western with some moments that reveal where it’s heart is at. In a flashback sequence we learn how Tepepa became a rebel for the revolution, after his father passes getting a letter to Madero (Francisco Madero would become president of Mexico in 1911, so that sets the flashback to around 1910) Tepepa delivers a letter to Pancho Villa and becomes a guerrilla himself. A year later after Madero is president Tepepa meets him again, this time, him and his soldiers must surrender their arms, and this is the heart of the story really, Tepepa tells Madero I took this rifle from the army to fight the army and now I have to give it back to the army, so tell me who won, the revolution or the Army?” “The State! The Army is at the service of the state.”

“The same Army we fought against?” Standing next to Madero is someone that looks just like General Victoriano Huerta, who would later lead a coup against Madero and have him assassinated. All this flashback sequence is told through a letter and he continues to recount another event, during the revolution, the haciendas were confiscated and given to the people and after the revolution they were given back and one in particular belonged to Colonel Cascurro (Orson Welles) and he had most of Tepepa’s people killed. So Tepepa is now at war with Madero. The doctor is writing this letter for Tepepa to be delivered to Madero. He now asks the Doctor if he still wants to kill him.

Tepepa  has lots of twists and turns and over all is very good mainly due to Milian’s charismatic performance. Tepepa has been a difficult film to see as it’s usually re-edited so there are a lot of different versions. The one I’ve seen, I believe to be a complete version since it’s a little over two hours but a lot of sequences were in Italian and was unsubtitled. As usual Tepepa  is blessed with another outstanding score by Ennio Morricone.

Run, Man, Run aka Corri, Uomo, Corri 1968

  1. Sergio Sollima
  2. Sergio Sollima, Pompeo De Angelis
  3. Tomás Milian, Donald O’Brian, Linda Veras, Chelo Alonso

Sergio Sollima’s Run, Man, Run is more of a regular Spaghetti Western than the previous ones mentioned in this article and it was a sequel to The Big Gundown, also directed by Sollima. The Big Gundown is often considered one of the best Spaghetti Westerns and was the first picture Lee Van Cleef stared in after the success of For A Few Dollars More. I’ll write more on The Big Gundown in the future but here I want to discuss its sequel Run, Man, Run.

Run, Man, Man is a lovable rogue story about another gold quest with The Mexican Revolution as a backdrop. Cuban actor Tomás Milian returns as the lovable peone Manuel “Chuchillo” Sánchez;  chuchillo is Spanish for knife, which he carry’s abundantly all over his body and he’s deadly accurate with them hence his nick name.

After a great opening title sequence that is made up of ink drawings of The Revolution that are reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s painted frescos and presented over Bruno Nicholi’s catchy theme music, we see Chuchillo on horseback riding into his home village. He trots past a dead ruale who has been crucified with a sign around his neck that reads  “I am a soldier of Díaz” which sets this film up at around 1909 or 1910.

“Shoot!”

In a humorous moment that sets up his character and tone of the film, he walks into an adobe building and grabs some bread and leaves out another entrance only to walk right into a firing squad. He runs away, hops on his horse and high tails it out of there.

He makes it to his destination where he meets up with his long suffering girlfriend Dolores, played by scene stealing Chelo Alonso, most remembered as playing Stevens fainting wife in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. After a scene at a cockfight where Chuchillo makes some money off a stolen peso and saves the life of Cassidy (Doctor Butcher M.D.’s Donald O’Brian) he’s thrown in jail where he meets revolutionary poet Ramirez and we get a plot. Ramirez while fight for Juarez had gotten a hold of  3 million in gold and hid it in Texas, while he was hiding out there, with the intent of giving it back to the people of Mexico. He tells Chuchillo if he helps free him and takes him to Texas he’ll give him 100 dollars, yes, a hundred dollars, Chuchillo agrees. Cassidy and several others know of this gold but don’t know the whereabouts. This leads to a series of episodes as they try to get the information from Chuchillo. Ramirez is killed by a revolutionary bandit who also goes after the gold.

Salvation Army sergeant, Penny Bannington, played by the model actress Linda Veras

Chunchillo meets a beautiful American, Christian, Salvation Army sergeant, Penny Bannington, played by the model/actress Linda Veras, who turns out to be greedy after learning about the gold.

Behind the scenes

Run, Man, Run is often ignored mainly because of its better predecessor, The Big Gundown, but I’ve always liked this one and would’ve loved to see more Chuchillo  adventures. There are some nice surreal moments in the film like when Chuchillo is strapped to a blade on a windmill that’s spinning around. It’s the only structure out in that desert landscape, and it just stuck me as Quixotic.

Humor is even seen in the lobby card

The Humor in the film is brought out through character rather than situations, which is what I find fun in the film. The whole reason for the film according to director Sollima, was the huge popularity of Chuchillo in The Big Gundown. Chuchillo is a commoner, a Mexican peone or as I mentioned earlier, The Lovable Rogue, and this type of character rarely is the lead, let alone in a western, where it’s about posturing and machismo and Milian really relishes as the character, he makes him both funny and dangerous, one could compare him to Eli Wallach’s Tuco, but Tuco had a goal and was cunning and bright in his own way, whereas Chuchillo is more of a lackadaisical reluctant hero.

Despite its humor it still has its political message, which comes out during a scene where Chuchillo is now working for Penny Bannington whose spreading the word of the Lord to the peasants. He beats a drum to accentuate each of her messages, which grows dimmer after each one he doesn’t agree with; like not lusting after beautiful women. Afterwards she says she has food for every one and to form a line. Chuchillo screams “Wait! What do you think you are beggars or something? The bread, it belongs to everyone, so take what is yours. It is not a sin to eat when you are hungry!”

 

 Next: The Big Gundown, Compañeros and Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker!

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