The 1960s British Invasion didn’t just affect our music; it took over the one movie genre thought to be impenetrably American…well, until the Italians proved us wrong.
It was thus almost inevitable that the British would switch riding English to western and carve out a path that I hereby dub the Tombstonehenge Trail. As early as 1962 Hammer icon Michael Carreras tried his hand at an oater (The Savage Guns), followed, most humorously, by the Carry On gang (Carry On Cowboy). But the success of Leone and the mass exodus to filming in Spain’s Southwestern doppelganger terrain provided an easy route for the filmmakers across the pond to give it a go.
Of course, the American west was primarily made up of immigrants, but the American western was Yankee Doodle Dandy to the core. The influx of Brits to Hollywood’s prairie, was, to say the least, fascinating. A few actors were actually good at it, for example Donald Pleasence (The Hallelujah Trail, Will Penny) and Christopher Lee (Hannie Caulder).
But in 1968, the floodgates officially opened with the all-star roundup entitled SHALAKO, and, later, the eyebrow-raising appearance of Oliver Reed in THE HUNTING PARTY (the first of his TWO excursions to the American wilderness). Both of these movies are now available in remarkably fine Blu-Ray editions from the trail bosses at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics. So mount up, ya varmints.
The pros far outweigh the cons in 1968’s SHALAKO, and there sure are a lot of pros. The epic western is based on a Louis L’Amour novel dealing with the supposed actual incidents of rich Europeans going on 19th century Western safaris in the U.S. of A.
And what Euros!
Headed by German teeth-gritting Nazi precursor lunatic Count Peter van Eyck (in his final role), the gang includes titled grifter couple Jack Hawkins and Honor Blackman, and skeevy Senator Alexander Knox and his spectacular Mexican trophy wife (Valerie French). The point of this pointless exercise in bourgeois bravado is to impress Polish countess Brigitte Bardot, whom van Eyck wants desperately to nail. Obviously oblivious to checking references, the mad Bavarian has hired Stephen Boyd to lead them onto what they don’t know is sacred Apache ground. BOING!
Amidst the champagne and caviar on the range (with Boyd and his scurvy crew angrily reduced to guzzling rotgut), is the arrival of mountain man Moses Zebulon Carlin, aka Shalako (the Native American moniker for “rainbringer”). It’s Sean Connery, looking about as thrilled as being invited to a screening of Operation Kid Brother.
Doesn’t help that the naturally riled Apaches are led by the blood-thirsty Chato (Woody Strode), who doesn’t care if the hemoglobin is red or royal blue. From this point on, it’s a rock-’em-sock-’em action packed widescreen extravaganza that, while posing no threat to The Searchers or Red River, is nonetheless a fun canter through the west (well, Almeria, Spain) that is never boring and often full of WTF double-take moments.
The direction is by veteran Edward Dmytryk. Like most of his late pics, it comes close to being intriguing, and certainly 100% professional, but, as with all his post-HUAC efforts, refuses to go that extra distance – that fine line between adventure and adventurous. The SHALAKO Dmytryk is definitely the guy who directed Where Love has Gone and The Carpetbaggers, and not Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire.
Of course, the cast is what makes this movie, and, not surprisingly, it was Bardot who received most of the press, even if it wasn’t exactly positive. Just out of a celebrated messy divorce, followed by the end of a torrid affair with Serge Gainsbourg (who apparently is still hurting from that breakup to this day), Brigitte, reportedly, immediately engaged in a hot and heavy liaison with Boyd (the two had previously collided in her then-husband Roger Vadim’s steamy 1958 sex tale The Night Heaven Fell); the rumors seemed to gain additional credence when the French actress threw the Irishman a mammoth St. Patrick’s Day soiree on-location.
The script for SHALAKO is a too-many-cooks barbecue. Cowritten by actor James Griffith (who could have played the Boyd role himself), Hal Hopper and Scot Finch (screen story by Clarke Reynolds), the narrative turns too unbelievably into a mutual admiration society toward the end. Like my problem with the Ben Johnson transformation in Shane, while I could get van Eyck’s arrogant begrudging appreciation of Connery’s character, I cannot accept scumbag, racist politician Knox going all regeneration-sweet.
The movie is gorgeously shot in FranScope by the renowned UK d.p. Ted Moore. Grainy main credits aside, the bulk of the Blu-Ray genuinely looks like 1960s Technicolor (an enticing extra is audio commentary by director/writer/actor/film historian Alex Cox).
The music, on the other hand, is problematic, to say the least. One would think that in the genre’s Golden Age of 1960s Soundtracks, it would be impossible for a major western to have a substandard score. But noted British composer Robert Famon (Captain Horatio Hornblower, Expresso Bongo) achieves the almost unfathomable – a super-production Western that sounds like an A.C. Lyles oater. The “B” score is almost comical, suggesting a Carry On parody – a claim not aided on-screen by the appearance of Eric Sykes as van Eyck’s manservant, nor the ridiculous title song lyrics (heralding the pleasures of owning a woman) by (Carry On alumnus) Jim Dale.
The top performances are by the nasties, Boyd, Strode and Blackman – with Woody’s final exchange to his chieftain father (Rodd Redwing) being the best line in the picture. Suffice to say, Blackman, who dumps obsessed hubby Hawkins to copiously shag Boyd, rapaciously redefines the name Pussy Galore.
1971’s THE HUNTING PARTY, also filmed in Spain, is a much better picture, but additionally a far more disturbing one. The plot is paradoxically simple though complicated.
The beauteous wife of a vicious rancher is kidnapped by a notorious bandit and his gang in the midst of the infamous Lincoln County War. That’s the simple part. The bizarre addendum follows. She wasn’t taken for a ransom (in fact, she was mistakenly abducted from a schoolhouse where she was visiting a friend); she was snatched by ruthless brute Frank Calder so the woman can teach him to read.
“Why do YOU want to read?,” she snottily asks. “Because I can’t,” is his honest reply.
Now I should tell you that the animalistic outlaw is played by none other than the animalistic top-billed Oliver Reed, and he’s swell in the part (authentic accent and all). Melissa, the wife, is Candice Bergen, in the second of her three western cinematic adventures. The third lead screwball in the cast, psycho husband Brandt Ruger, is Gene Hackman, just coming into his own as a major star. Bergen’s body language and facial reactions are perfect; however her line delivery leaves something to be desired, as if she was coached by Hymie from the Get Smart series. She is also brutalized like nobody’s business. Remember, this is post-Wild Bunch territory where the Western comeback had to be a pissing contest over who could spill the most blood (even John Wayne’s Big Jake got lambasted for its violence, although it scored millions at the box-office, the Duke’s last mammoth hit).
Bergen’s character takes the brunt of the savage histrionics. A writhing opening sequence shows Reed slicing the throat of a steer (removed by the British censor) so that he and his men can eat while (no pun) cross-cut with Hackman performing rough sex on a screaming Bergen (not removed by the British censor). Nanoseconds after she’s taken, Melissa is victim of an attempted rape by gang member L.Q. Jones. And later, when Reed tries to show his kinder, gentler side, it degenerates into a sexual assault. Truly, within the first half hour of THE HUNTING PARTY, Bergen is exposed to more wood than she was with a lifetime of Charlie McCarthy.
Oliver Reed being Oliver Reed, his half-assed apology is capped with “But I’m not sorry,” ostensibly a declaration of Ollie love if ever there was one. Bergen reacts by trying to kill him, followed by a vigorous chase on horseback before the abused woman realizes that Reed’s sexual demands are far more affable than Hackman’s.
Meanwhile, Hackman and his capitalist buddies go on a hunting party – an excuse to show off his new telescopic rifles (“They cost $700 apiece.”), a weapon/gift he generously bestows upon each of the oligarch scumbags (including Simon Oakland and Ronald Howard). Their ride on Hackman’s private train, featuring his bordello car, is something to behold, albeit revoltingly when a gorgeous Asian hooker (Francesca Tu) becomes Ruger’s human ashtray.
When word comes that Melissa has been kidnapped by Calder, the hunting party changes prey, as a gleeful Hackman relishes picking off the unsuspecting culprits from nearly a mile away (this finally disgusts the fat cats, who all but desert him).
Even today, THE HUNTING PARTY is often hard to watch. It’s excruciatingly violent and uncompromising. The one humane scene with Reed, best pal Mitchell Ryan (quite excellent as the more erudite member of the gang) and Bergen melting the ice over a jar of peaches is genuinely lovely even if it is the movie’s misfit moment. Does it excuse rape? Methinks not, but Bergen (well, her character) seems to disagree. From that point on, she and Reed are a couple.
The movie, magnificently shot by Cecilio Paniagua and scored by the great Riz Ortolani, was directed by Don Medford. Medford, known mostly for his TV work, only directed one other feature (the Sidney Poitier In the Heat of the Night sequel The Organization). This is likely his best work, a gig he got from controversial TV producers-turned-big-screen-moguls Arnold Laven, Jules V. Levy and Arthur Gardner (revered for their series The Big Valley). The script by William W. Norton, Gilbert Ralston and coproducer Lou Morheim (from a story by Morheim and Ralston) doesn’t flinch for an instant, pushing the Peckinpah card (slo-mo bloodshedding and all) to the edge.
The ending is an Erich von Stroheim fantasy in buckskin, but the movie in general pays mucho lip service to such then-contemporary fare as The Professionals, Faccia a Faccia (perhaps inadvertently) and, natch, The Wild Bunch.
The Blu-Ray is terrific, sharp and rich in color, with a crisp audio soundtrack so that you hear every squib squish.
A mandatory extra, produced for Kino by Frank Tarzi, comprises an interview with Mitchell Ryan, who reveals some stunning background information about the shoot, mostly involving him and his relationship with Reed, which, as was part and parcel with the volatile Brit’s reputation, resulted in some outrageous events. There’s also supplemental commentary by Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson.
SHALAKO. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Kingston Film Productions. CAT #: K21512. SRP: $29.95.
THE HUNTING PARTY. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios. CAT #:K21633. SRP: $29.95.