Sunday, July 19, 2020

Offbeat Westerns - Ten Eclectic Picks - Part 2

By Christopher Robinson

Last week we spotlighted five western movies that ride a crooked trail (click here). Their appeal and reputations are particularly forged by the rough path those trails took. Before we run down the next five, I thought some insight into the selection process might be useful.

As previously mentioned, our offbeat picks leaned toward westerns whose uncommonness was largely unintended. Either they were created as something outside the genre resulting in a western anachronism of sorts or, as in the case of Charro!, gained a dissident reputation as a result of those involved.

In a film like Zachariah, by contrast, western themes were drawn upon for surreal effect as an attempt to deliberately and self-consciously create an unprecedented subgenre. The 1971 flop had hoped to corner the psychedelic rock youth market by mixing in cowboy and gunslinger elements, still highly popular with movie audiences of the time.

With a young Don Johnson and performance cameos by acts like Country Joe and the Fish and the James Gang, it retains some retro value today, although one can easily see its conventional origins in light of the period from which it came. As such, we left Zachariah off this list but perhaps the above explanation will serve as a fitting reference point.

Ten Eclectic Picks Menu:

  1. The Phantom Empire
  2. The Night Rider
  3. Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!
  4. Lonesome Cowboys
  5. Charro!
  6. The Valley of Gwangi
  7. White Comanche
  8. Kid Blue
  9. God’s Gun
  10. The White Buffalo
Editor's Note: Because Christopher's article is longer than usual, we featured half of it last week (click here) and the other half now!
--Al Colombo

6. The Valley of Gwangi

The best beast fest in the old west!

Only stop motion effects genius Ray Harryhausen could have pulled this one off, a reworking of King Kong and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, set in turn of the century Mexico. 

Warner Brothers’ 1969 The Valley of Gwangi tells the story of two rodeo and circus friends with a miniature diving horse who encounter a local paleontologist named Horace Bromley. Bromley convinces the couple that their unique horse is a prehistoric throwback from a region known as the Forbidden Valley where a group of gypsies soon conspire to return it. Learning of the horse theft, the owners trek to the valley accompanied by Bromley who seeks the alleged scientific wonders to be found there.

Predictably enough, they arrive to witness a paradoxical habitat where evolution has been mysteriously halted and are instantly met by pteranodons, styrachosaurus and a mighty allosaurus the gypsy clan call Gwangi. The pernicious relic attacks and chases the group before it is  knocked unconscious by falling rocks.

After binding and transporting Gwangi to town, they attempt to display the towering terror in their circus but the gypsies free it from its cage, unleashing a calamitous reign of violence and destruction. The heroes then summon the survivors to the safety of a nearby cathedral where Gwangi eventually finds them and rampages for one final harrowing showdown.

Planning stages for The Valley of Gwangi dated back to the early 1940s at RKO Pictures with Willis O’Brien, King Kong’s visual effects master and Harryhausen’s mentor.

Though work never extended beyond the pre-production phase, Harryhausen made use of O’Brien’s surviving drawings and dioramas. Additionally, O’Brien’s story served the basis of the similarly themed, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, the first ever dinosaur western, also set in Mexico.

Gwangi, shot in Spain throughout 1967, utilized the rocky terrain of Almeria, the choice shooting locale for so many European westerns of the era. To achieve his goal, Harryhausen employed a combination of large and small scale models in addition to live animals. The approach is evident in the film’s most indelibly memorable moment where the rodeo cowpokes attempt to lasso the gargantuan lizard at the base of the Forbidden Valley. Sadly, the studio failed to properly market the film and it suffered consequently at the box office. Its legend today, however, has grown as increasingly large as the fearsome creature in its title.

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7. White Comanche

What’s better than two Shatners?  How about two Shatners; one, a cowboy and the other, an Indian?

A Spanish production, White Comanche was produced during a schedule break of TV’s Star Trek. While William Shatner made few western features, he did work on and off in television westerns and even went head-to-head with Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers in “Spectre of the Gun”, an episode of Star Trek that was,  in actuality, a remake of the British sci-fi series Doctor Who episode, “The Gunfighters.”

In White Comanche, Shatner plays the dual role of half-Indian twins raised on a reservation, now living in contrasting cultures whose paths are destined to collide in a violent showdown.

Johnny Moon (Shatner) reluctantly tracks down his hostile brother Notah (Shatner) when the latter’s attacks and rapes are increasingly attributed to him.

Recognized today for its notoriety and cult status, White Comanche ostensibly suffers from a rushed shooting schedule as if Warhol had managed to squeeze its production in  somewhere during his Lonesome Cowboys shoot. The lack of any demonstrative camera techniques to photograph Shatner’s roles simultaneously as well as an identical haircut for both characters may stem from just such a circumstance.

As for the French jazz lounge score, it only accentuates the films incongruous  qualities. That’s not such a bad thing, though. To Shatner’s credit, he was simply carrying out his mission as promised; exploring strange new worlds.

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8. Kid Blue

At the  turn of the century, a failed train robber called Bickford, alias Kid Blue (Dennis Hopper), hiding out in a small Texas town dominated by subversive and overbearing sheriff Ben Johnson, is working in a ceramics factory with his friend, Reese(Warren Oates) and tinkering with an experimental airplane with the local preacher (Peter Boyle).

He reconsiders staying straight once his secret gets out and Reese’s wife has coaxed him into an affair.

“A man’s got to kill his own snakes”, Bickford cryptically tells Reese just before matters get dicey.

Kid Blue is also evocative of the more high-profile The Missouri Breaks, starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, released three years later.   

Ultimately, a stellar cast and a compelling story couldn’t prevent this revisionist/realism western from becoming a largely forgotten and elusive western gem that deserves a  look if you missed it the first time.

With 1971’s The Last Movie, Hopper was heralded as the latest American art house auteur of his generation only to trash his relationship with Universal Pictures by holding his own footage hostage during a prolonged post-production and burn all his Hollywood bridges. Kid Blue’s anachronistic aerocycle which takes flight in the outrageous anticlimax is reminiscent of The Last Movie’s wicker movie camera that Peruvian locals employ for a mock-western film shoot.

The idea itself apparently stemmed from a real phenomenon which Hopper had witnessed during the production of The Sons of Katie Elder, in Durango, Mexico, home to John Wayne and the setting Hopper originally envisioned for The Last Movie. Incidentally, Hopper later credited Wayne with saving his nearly shattered movie career.

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9. God’s Gun

If you can handle two Shatners, why not try two Lee Van Cleefs on for size?

In this Israeli-Italian coproduction, Johnny (teen idol Leif Garrett) lives in a border town with his saloon keeper mom (sex symbol Sybil Danning) and works for local priest and ex-gunfighter Father John (Lee Van Cleef). When a marauding gang of killers and rapists led by a bandit named Clayton (a maniacal Jack Palance) terrorize the town, they are subdued and jailed by Father John as the drunken sheriff (Richard Boone) proves feckless.

Soon after, the tables are turned and Father John is viciously gunned down, rendering Johnny unable to speak in his shock. He absconds with a gang member’s horse and rides to Mexico where Father John’s twin brother, also a reformed gunslinger, lives on a ranch with his daughter. The two devise a plan and pursue Clayton’s gang using unorthodox methods to enact their revenge and rid the frontier of Clayton and his killers once and for all.

A peculiar opening credit sequence following a puppet show kicks off what Richard Boone called “the worst picture ever made” before he frustratedly walked out on its chaotic production. Van Cleef’s long career in westerns would hereafter be finished and producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus went on to buy the Cannon Group Inc., producing everything from Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris actioners to sensational cash-ins on the 1980s ninja craze.

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10. The White Buffalo

In the 1870s, revered gunslinger, lawman, scout and gambler Wild Bill Hickok experiences recurring nightmares of a great albino buffalo  leading him on a perilous journey of obsession and self-discovery.

Hickok’s quest takes him to the Black Hills of Dakota where he joins forces with a curmudgeon trapper named Zane (Jack Warden) and the Oglala Sioux chief Crazy Horse (Will Sampson) who tells of the ferocious bison’s rampage in his village which has killed his child. Crazy Horse has vowed to hunt down the creature to restore his own honor and allow the child’s soul to rest (In actuality, white buffalos are extremely rare and as such, were sacred in many American Indian cultures).

Crossing paths with an array of old adversaries on the way, Hickok’s destiny inevitably becomes dependent on the uneasy alliance forged between the three dissonant hunters.

A Dino De Laurentiis production directed by J. Lee Thompson and featuring an impressive supporting cast and above-average performances, The White Buffalo is intrinsically more  Jaws exploitation than western historical account or Moby Dick allegory, for that matter.

Much of the film’s buzz and subsequent reputation was centered on the title animal designed by Carlo Rambaldi who also brought King Kong to life for De Laurentiis in their prior collaboration. Viewers continue to differ on the merit of that property’s visual effects.  Shot with wide angle lenses through studio manipulated fog and snowstorms, the animatronic beast is never shown from a moderate  distance or vantage point, rocking along in the manner of the mechanical  bull at Gilley’s on an inconspicuous dolly track to simulate its charging movements. Ultimately, its peculiarity adds to the overall mystique and probably serves the story well by not overshadowing it.

Since its release, The White Buffalo, much like its elusive namesake, has been seen by a relative few. Fittingly, it would be the final western from both Bronson and Thompson who later teamed up for several lower-budgeted crime thrillers and Death Wish rehashes in the Eighties under the fastidious Golan-Globus production banner.

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About the Author

Christopher Robinson is a writer, filmmaker and musician in New Jersey who has contributed to several magazines and websites.

Robinson also worked as a cameraman, videographer, cable access TV host, teacher and producer. He scripted and produced commercial videos as well as cable television programs for local consumption.

For more info about Christopher, click here.

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