Dir: Sergio Corbucci
Sergio Corbucci was always something of an enigmatic director. Lauded and sanctified as one the holy trinity 'three Sergios' on the basis of his masterpieces he was also guilty of almost unforgiveable sloppiness at times and has as many bad films to his name as good. Films such as Django, The Great Silence and The Mercenary became seminal texts in the Spaghetti Western genre; innovative, extreme and stylish while Massacre at Grand Canyon, Johnny Oro and The White, The Yellow and the Black were almost equally memorable for their uninspired direction, patchiness or plain bad taste. The Hellbenders, a film from the middle of Corbucci's affair with the western, falls somewhere in the middle; an overall solid film which sometimes exhibits the director's best attributes, while other times not seeming like a Corbucci film at all.
Colonel Jonas (Joseph Cotton) assisted by his three sons and an alcoholic prostitute attacks an army convoy transporting a million dollars in bank notes. Leaving all the guards dead the gang then set off for home across the border, the whore, Kitty (Maria Martin) posing as a grieving widow and the money stashed away in a coffin in a regimental coach. Jonas plans to use the money to reignite the Confederacy and start the war all over again. But despite the initial success of their robbery things start to become more and more difficult for the group as they make their way slowly across country. To begin with Kitty, never reliable in the first place, attempts to run off and is killed by one of the sons. Then, after tricking another woman into filling the fake widow's boots (and mourning dress) they are faced with a continual stream of obstacles; an army troop, a posse, Mexican bandits, even some townsfolk who turn out to have known the soldier whose dead body they are pretending to transport, and eventually, inevitably, all comes to a head just as they come into sight of the Hondo River; the final barrier between them and freedom.
In many ways The Hellbenders resembles an American western as much as an Italian one and I can't help but wonder if this is as a result of the input of producer Albert Band; an Italian American whose real name was Alfredo Antonini but whose films were always geared to be more attractive to the U.S market. Aside from a couple of Steve Reeves Peplums Band produced five westerns in europe. All starred American lead actors and in some cases the supporting parts too were carried by names from across the Atlantic. Presumably this tactic gave his westerns a more 'authentic' look in Europe and a more palatable taste in the States. Whatever the reasons, for the most part Band's westerns maintained a pretty decent standard. In fact, arguably his weakest effort was the one he made previously with Corbucci, Massacre at Grande Canyon. It is also said that Band's technique as producer was particularly 'hands on' (he sometimes directed his own films in fact) and that Corbucci struggled in both collaborations to put his own stamp on either film. The truth is probably impossible to know but The Hellbenders is certainly an unlikely example of the director's work coming as it does close after his ground breaking Django and just before two of his greatest efforts, The Great Silence and The Mercenary; none of which resemble this film very much.
That is not to say that The Hellbenders is a poor film. On the contrary, it is a good story well told and featuring some excellent elements. It just doesn't obviously fit with the above titles. It is also not to say that the film has nothing about it which suggests Corbucci's influence because, in parts, it clearly does. The strong female role of Claire, excellently played by the impressive Brazilian actress Norma Bengell, is just what you might expect from the director. His films often feature such a character and this has always stood out in a genre that is overtly male dominated. But there is a distinct lack of brutality on show and at this time in his career it was Corbucci who was pushing boundaries in that area. There is also, for large parts of the film, a distinct lack of action and this is possibly the least Corbucci like element in the whole film. The second Sergio's films were far from being clones of each other but you could usually bank on a fair dose of running around and shooting when sitting down in front of any of them. The Hellbenders, in stark contrast, is positively sedate and although there is action in key scenes the real focus of the film is the slowly unfolding journey taken by its protagonists and the constantly building tension as the family get ever closer to the border while their chances of success get increasingly tenuous.
At the centre of this dramatic tension is the dysfunctional family unit led blindly by Jonas towards a goal that only he really believes in. His sons, each personifying a different vice (greed and lust in the case of Jeff and Nat, jealousy in the case of both of them) are lost both to him and his cause but he is too proud and arrogant to see it. This part is perfect for and perfectly portrayed by Joseph Cotton in his best Spaghetti appearance. His straight back and constantly pained expression convey beautifully the repressed anguish of a man sensing the collapse of an edifice he has built his life around but not wishing to acknowledge the fact and this characterisation is one of the lasting strengths of the film. As is Ennio Morricone's haunting Death of the South theme played mournfully on the trumpet; a theme so effective it was subsequently reused in other westerns in an attempt to add gravitas to lesser products.
The Hellbenders is a good film. It is easily downgraded because of some of the other work produced by its celebrated director but to be fair to it, in comparrison to its companions in the genre as a whole it is certainly deserving of a place in the upper tier. It is well constructed, has some nice set pieces spaced throughout its length and delivers a satisfying, while still somewhat ambiguous ending. That makes it a film to be recommended in my book and one which I tend to enjoy more with every viewing.
The DVD I most recently watched of this was the Region 1 Anchor Bay release which was a stark improvement on the previous fullscreen Mill Creek copy I had. The film, like most others, benefits greatly from its proper widescreen aspect ratio and allows its 'bigger canvas' to become more evident.