DVD Review: Once Upon a Time in Italy - The Spaghetti Western Collection (A Bullet for the General / Companeros / Four of the Apocalypse / Keoma / Texas Adios)
There may be no such thing as a definitive Spag-Western boxset out right now...unless you consider the Sergio Leone Anthology as such; then again, it's solely Leone, whom despite his general awesomeness isn't representative of the genre as a whole.
Anchor Bay's Once Upon a Time in Italy collection (released in 2004) of 5 Italo-westerns isn't "definitive" by far. It is, however, terribly entertaining and gives viewers a good idea of the broad scope the spaghetti-western reached back in its days of glory.
The 5 films are: Damiano Damiani's A Bullet for the General (better know as El Chuncho, Quien Sabe?); Sergio Corbucci's Vamos a Matar, Compañeros; Lucio Fulci's Four of the Apocalypse; Enzo Castellari's Keoma; and Ferdinando Baldi's Texas Adios.
A Bullet for the General (1966) is the most political of the films, dealing with a budding friendship between a loyal, neanderthalic bandit (Gian Maria Volontè, in his best spaghetti western role!), who steals arms for a revolutionary cause and a mercenary, baby-faced American opportunist (Lou Castel), whose sole motivation is money. Whether you look at it as a tongue-in-cheek diatribe against American foreign policy -- especially taken in the context of the 1960s -- or whether you lay back and enjoy the film at face-value, in either case it's emotionally provoking and full of a charismatic renegade spirit. A sweet soundtrack by Luis Bacalov and a stellar supporting cast (Klaus Kinski as a pious, God-fearing priest...!?) really make Damiani's film fly and position it as one of the greatest non-Leone works.
1970's Vamos a Matar, Compañeros is regarded as one of the best comedies in the genre. It stars two of its most ubiquitous stars: Franco Nero (as a dandy weapons dealer from, of all places, Sweden) and Tomas Milian (as a bumbling Mexican militant/revolutionary). Here, we're dealing with the Mexican Revolution, which was a popular theme in spag-westerns, as most were filmed in Spain and thus the extras and sets could be used to achieve greater realistic effect. Back to the plot, in a nutshell...Nero and Milian, who have hilarious on-screen chemistry, are sent to "rescue" an idealistic professor (Buñuel favourite Fernando Rey), who's leading a revolutionary group but has been exiled and kept prisoner in Texas. Only he knows the combination to a safe which, supposedly, holds riches and treasure. Oh, and Jack Palance is the main villain, rocking an awkward pseudo-Scottish accent. Between smoking joints, he's humoured by his pet hawk, who meets an interesting fate at the hands of Milian's character. Lots of fun and full of great one-liners!!!
I really wonder why Anchor Bay chose to include Lucio Fulci's 1975 mess of a western, Four of the Apocalypse, in their boxset. If they were trying to show the various faces of Italian westerns and thought this to be an interesting entry into the "Spaghetti-Horror" category, I applaud them. Better yet, maybe they simply wanted to convey that there are, in fact, really, really bad Italian Westerns which shouldn't be forgotten. Hmm, it makes one wonder. This mish-mash of a film reeks of 70s-era exploitation, cheesy shlock horror, psychedlic experimentation, and even boasts a modern Joplin-esque soundtrack. The only redeemer in this stinker of a western is Tomas Milian's all to brief appearence as a Manson family-type psychopath. Even the charismatic Milian can't save this foray into wasting precious celluloid.
The most surprising film is Enzo Castellari's Keoma (1976). What a strange and lovely film! It stars Franco Nero as Keoma, a half-breed, hot-tempered loner who goes back to his dingy hometown after fighting in the Civil War only to find it run by a corrupt, ignoble gang, of whom his half-brothers are a part of. Family rivalry, Peckinpah slow motion, crafty cinematographic flashbacks, and an oddly catchy soundtrack ensue. This spag-western is considered "Gothic" or "supernatural" by some conoisseurs of the genre, although I found it to be more on a Shakespearian level. A symbolic, operatic piece of action which really caught me pleasantly off-guard. And hats off to Franco Nero, who portrays the Christ-like yet bad-ass Keoma with childlike passion that wrings your heart.
Baldi's Texas Adios (1966) also stars Nero, who dubs himself or usually (in the case of Keoma and Companeros) just talks in a charming, accent-laden English. Here however, Nero is dubbed and half of his performance gets lost in a dull, American montone. Much like the dubbing of Nero's voice, Texas Adios also falls flat in a dull, American montone. This is an attempt at a "classic", Americanized western from the Italians in Cinecitta; why they chose to go this average route and in a way retrograde their efforts is a mystery to me. The film follows Nero's character, Burt Sullivan, and his kid-brother Jim (Alberto Dell'Acqua) as they go off to find a notorious Mexican landowner who killed their father. Revenge here is a dish served with a side of yawn. Texas Adios is the blandest of the 5 films, although I'd take it over Four of the Apocalypse anyday.
Final Verdict: Anchor Bay's boxset is a great deal. Three amazing films; one mediocre; one unwatchable. The fact that you are getting A Bullet for the General, Companeros, and Keoma in one set is reason enough! And also, the EXTRAS are tops.
Extras: Trailers for each film. Plus, all of the movies (except A Bullet for the General, unfortunately) have interviews with the stars...recent, humourous interviews! Franco Nero and Tomas Milian are absolutely a delight to listen to. A great treat for fans of the Italo-Western.
-- Ellie Slavova