Monday 28 July 2008


Dir: Giulio Petroni


The Revolutionary Westerns that became almost a sub genre during the italian western cycle produced some of the most interesting films of the era. A Bullet for the General, Companeros and The Mercenary are good examples of how the Mexican revolution provided a rich backdrop for the creative talents of the italian commercial cinema's best writers and directors. The tragic political and personal stories which the setting offered led to a more intellectual approach and an end result which was more thoughtful and thought provoking than the average shoot 'em up action flick. Tepepa is possibly the most thought provoking of them all.

Ostensibly this is a story of a Zapata-like revolutionary figure struggling to continue the revolution after Madero has become president but not fulfilled his election promises. Pursued by the army and police as a renegade Tepepa is under threat from all sides. Even the English doctor who saves him from the firing squad only does so in order to have the pleasure of killing him himself. An act he tries to accomplish throughout the film. But Tepepa the film is far more complex than a simple folk hero tale with some explosions and gun battles thrown in.

To begin with, the narrative style of the film is anything but straightforward. Interweaved with the forward progression of the story is a series of flashbacks, recounted memories and eyewitness reports which theoretically flesh out the back story leading up to the present but, in reality, only serve to cloud our ability to identify true events and character motivations. Like a novel with a series of unreliable narrators the film lures us in with one account only to undermind it with the next. Tepepa asks Madero to recall certain events in a letter he dictates to the president, the doctor sees his dead fiance in flashbacks to scenes we discover he never actually witnessed, Colonel Cascorro reads eyewitness reports which are just as likely to have been extracted through torture as freely given and, given the colonel's character, could simply be invented for his purposes. All of these versions of events conflict with each other and we are left grappling for grains of truth we can rely on in a vain attempt to identify the true heroes of the piece. In reality of course, there are none. All the characters here have their own prejudices and are driven by their own priorities. All insist they stand for the common good, but all, to some extent are merely self serving. All, ultimately, are corrupted by whatever level of power they gain and are blinded by their own unwavering view of what is most important.

This is also a story steeped in betrayal. A theme at the heart of the Mexican revolution. Madero is seen as a traitor to the revolution; failing to honour his promises and distancing himself after victory from the peasants who supported him. Choosing rather to ally himself with the army and police who had been their adversaries during the war. But the other characters here, be they central or peripheral, are equally prone to turning their backs on former comrades or making agreements with enemies in order to progress their own cause. Tepepa himself, despite his criticism of Madero, turns his back on Jose Torres' character once he sees he has lost both his hands and is therefore of no use to him and his struggle. Torres, in turn, betrays Tepepa for money to make a better life for his son. The doctor is at least consistant in betraying any trust Tepepa puts in him but we are still taken by surprise by his ultimate act as it betrays not just an individual but the hippocratic oath of his profession too. Finally, the doctor himself is also betrayed by the boy he thought he had befriended for the simple reason that "He didn't like Mexico."

Tepepa then, is not an easy film to watch. It demands more from its audience than simply following a hero through to a happy ending or merely enjoying an action packed ride through the Mexican revolution. Its characters are complex and unsympathetic to varying degrees. Those you are drawn to and wish to think the best of have their weaknesses exposed. And in so doing, shed a less damning light on their adversaries whom it is easy to despise. It is a film which plays with ideas of 'truth' and suggests that, as in Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when it conflicts with 'legend' it is the latter which will ultimately be more palatable.

The artistic personel here are all of the first order and at the top of their game. Petroni, a fine director responsible for the excellent Death Rides a Horse, produces probably the best work of his career here. Morricone's melancholy score is sublime and perfectly fitting for the tone of the film and Franco Solinas' script is proof that his equally meritous work on A Bullet for the General was no fluke. The casting together of Tomas Milian and Orson Welles, although apparently an extremely unhappy personal mix on set, proved fruitful for the viewer at least. Milian plays the charismatic Tepepa with consumate skill; winning us over despite the flaws his character exposes as the piece unfolds, while always maintaining a suggestion of cruelty hovering beneath the surface. For Welles the cruelty is open and unabashed. Although I sensed that the big man was somewhat going through the motions en route to a pay cheque, his slothful greasiness suits his character perfectly. John Steiner's Dr Price is equally well played with a fine combination of british haughtiness and seething, pyschotic rage.

Unfortunately, as is often the case, Tepepa does not have an english friendly international DVD release. The italian Mondo edition which I watched has english audio as an option but this soundtrack is not complete and it's repeated dropping out through the course of the film (some 15 minutes in total) is irritating and off putting for a film that demands your concentration. Unfortunately this is the only complete version of the film available that I am aware of and is therefore, though imperfect, the best option there is. I got over the sound drop outs by keeping the italian subtitles switched on throughout and piecing together what I could using my bad Spanish and the little Italian vocabulary I have picked up from film titles over the years. This is not ideal in any sense but a complete english soundtrack simply doesn't exist so, until some kind soul releases the film with complete english subtitles, it's all we have. And, in any form, this is a film which deserves to be seen.

Thursday 17 July 2008

The Road to Fort Alamo

Dir: Mario Bava


Mario Bava is far better known, and respected, for his Horror and Giallo films but he did make three westerns of which Road to Fort Alamo is the first, and some say, best. So Koch Media's recent release of this film has been gratefully received by italian genre film fans everywhere as we finally get the chance to judge for ourselves just how well the maestro of the macabre handled the horse opera.

The first thing that strikes you as the film unfolds is that, for such an innovative film maker, this is a very classical western in its style. 1964 was, of course, very much part of the 'early' period of italian westerns so it is hardly surprising that the Leone influence that shaped so much of the genre over the coming years was not in evidence here. In fact, the over riding influence in this film is clearly that of another, older, godfather of the western; John Ford. Parallels with Ford's 'Cavalry Trilogy' abound. The arragont commanding officer who leads his men into danger because of his insistance on going by the book is lifted straight out of Fort Apache, but many other elements could be attributed to any number of Ford's films. The wise and experienced sergeant, the strong woman character travelling in the wagon, the wanted bandit redeeming himself in the face of danger for others; all of these are Fordisms and it is obvious that Bava's film was meant to reflect the great man's work. Unfortunately, Bava didn't have the benefit of Ford's landscape to work with nor, clearly, his budget. It's equally clear, however, that he also didn't share his natural affinity with the genre. That is not to say that Road to Fort Alamo is a bad film. I quite enjoyed it. But the piling up of elements from previous westerns does not equal a quality entry into the field.

Interestingly, some of those elements lifted from Ford's classic westerns, although common in american films up to this time, proved to be rare in the spaghetti genre that unfolded over the ensuing decade. Stories involving the U.S army battling against the threat of indian attacks are very thin on the ground. In fact, the bright blue and yellow cavalry uniforms and blazing red warpaint on show here are so unfamiliar to the spaghetti afficionado that they create an almost inverted originality. The same goes for the studio bound night time 'exterior' shots which were all clearly filmed on an Elios studio sound stage. These scenes have a strikingly lurid colour palette and lighting set up which gives them quite a pleasing, if unreal, ambience about them. This is also the case with the cave scenes, of which there are a number, and which suggested to me more of a Peplum feel than a western one.

Indeed, the peplum connection is quite strong in this film throughout. All the lead actors, Ken Clark, Jany Clair, Michel Lemoine and Alberto Cevenini had previously appeared in a number of sword and sandal epics and Bava himself of course had early experience during that particular cycle of italian commercial films. Clark, in particular, had a physique which probably suited him better for Peplums than Oaters but his previous experience in his native U.S.A in films such as The Proud Ones, The True Story of Jesse James and Delmer Daves' The Last Wagon shows that he was reasonably at home in the Western too. And he does a reasonable job here, as do the rest of the cast. Alberto Cevenini is perfectly fine in the Harry Carey Jr, younger sidekick type role, Michel Lemoine is suitably slimy as the psychopathic gang leader, Carson, and the flame haired Jany Clair plays the love interest with as much voluptuousness as you could ask for. It is also nice to see Gerard Herter in all his wickedness appear, although all too briefly and this time as a card sharp rather than his usual teutonic, nobleman officer.

Overall then, the film is probably best rated as a mixed bag. Unusaul in its strong adherence to old school american western cliches and bright colour palette, yet lacking in any real originality. Competently acted and directed but suffering with some awful continuity errors that not even its low budget can excuse. These are actually quite fun in their own way. My favourites being Ken Clark's black haired stunt double (Clark is a blonde) and the changing colour of horses as they ride in and out of shots. The musical score by Piero Umiliani is quite good but probably better suited to a 50s crime thriller with its use of staccato brass and tumbling violin riffs and the happy ending, though fitting with the tone of the piece, is a bit too predictable and trite. But despite all this, I found it entertaining throughout and would certainly recommend it to Bava completists and early italian western fans alike. In fact to anyone not averse to a bit of corn with their spaghetti.

Congratulations are due to our friends at Koch who have done a fine job on the DVD release as usual. The picture is beautifully clean for the most part which shows off the aforementioned bright colour scheme to perfection. It is in full 2.35:1 ratio with good sound quality and Italian and German audio with English subs available through your remote. My only criticism of the release is that the documentary featurette included, despite having all titles in English has only italian audio and german subs available. Looks like it would have been interesting if only I could understand what was being said.