Partners in Revenge
The first of a six-movie partnership that would bring a new, grittier edge to action movies in the 1970s and ’80s was shot not in the New Mexico territory in which it was set in the 1870s but in the wilds of Almería, Spain, where portions of Sergio Leone’s masterful Once upon a Time in the West were lensed. That international flavor might be a key ingredient in the chemistry that recently anointed (after 20 years of increasingly memorable supporting roles) Hollywood icon Charles Bronson and freewheeling British director Michael Winner shared. The future linchpins of the soon-to-come Death Wish franchise came together initially for Chato's Land (1972), which had a revenge plot as straightforward as any vintage frontier shoot-’em-up saga with a righteous loner at its center, but wrapped in a coolly cynical attitude and energized with a pointed brutality that could only emerge from the revisionist Western movie trend of its turbulent era of rich Leone and Peckinpah productivity. Bronson plays Padron Chato, an Apache forced to gun down a racist sheriff in a barroom confrontation. The movie’s title refers to the harsh desert terrain where the fugitive Chato evades a corrupt posse of 13 rancid reprobates, led by barkeeper and embittered ex-Confederate Jack Palance. After the badmen come upon Chato’s wife and violently assault her, that arid location becomes the place where the more persistently bloodthirsty of the gang members will face Chato’s nearly dialogue-free justice, whether from gunshot, rattlesnake or rock. Chato’s pursuers include rancher James Whitmore, stable owner Richard Basehart and the rabidly racist trio of brothers Simon Oakland, Richard Jordan and, on the cusp of his long TV tenure as wise, gentle paterfamilias John Walton, Ralph Waite. Did Winner and screenwriter Gerald Wilson intend any more than just making a gripping Western? International reviewers have glimpsed something in their work that U.S. critics didn’t. Graeme Clark of the UK-based website The Spinning Image: “There are those who view this film as an allegory of the United States' presence in Vietnam, which was contemporary to this storyline…. Granted, there is the theme of the white men intruding on a land where they are frequently under fire, and ending up humiliated as a result, but when this was made it was not entirely clear that America would be on the losing side as the conflict may have been winding down, but was by no means over. Better then to enjoy the film as a straight Western adventure. Not that there are no themes to be drawn from this if the viewer so desires, as there's one about racism that is pointedly developed throughout. The white men regard Apaches as little better than vicious animals, and Chato, to them, is like a rabid dog who deserves to be put down before he can cause any more trouble. What some of the posse come to realize is that their race can be equally as violent as the Indians, and even be worse as they have some hypocritical claim to be following the traditions of justice in their murderous acts.” Sam Jordison of Film4.com weighed in similarly: “The cruelty of the posse is well conveyed…. Some of their acts, such as the brutal rape of Chato's squaw and the burning of an Indian village, have an unpleasant edge which Winner does not shy away from. Parallels with the contemporary situation in Vietnam can't have been lost on the original audience.” What is not lost on any audience of this well cast and splendidly scored (by The Wild Bunch Oscar® nominee Jerry Fielding) Western is that Bronson and Winner were a combination to reckon with. Their next effort would be another impactful thriller: The Mechanic (1972, already available from Twilight Time), opening just five months after Chato’s Land, and also casting Bronson as a spectacularly skilled hit man. They’ll be heard from again on the TT label down the road; for now, the hi-def Blu-ray expedition into Chato’s Land starts April 12. Preorders start March 30.