Friday, July 02, 2004

Review: "Chato's Land" (1972)

British director Michael Winner's most famous flick was the 1974 Charles Bronson revenge film "Death Wish". It started the "vigilante" genre, prompting countless carbon copies of the formula after the film hit it big. The quality of those imitations were often poor, and that's including the sequels Winner himself made: The bad "Death Wish II" and the ugly "Death Wish III".

There were two other notable films Winner made before his big success, both starring Bronson and released in 1972. The first is the entertaining action film "The Mechanic" and the second is the bleak Western "Chato's Land". I say bleak because I really mean bleak, and it is obvious halfway through the film that there will be no happy ending to this story.

It begins inside a quiet saloon where an Apache Indian (Bronson) is sitting with a drink at the bar. An angry man sitting at one of the tables taunts him and eventually pulls his gun, but the Apache is faster and shoots him dead. He quickly, but calmly, exits the saloon, mounts his horse, and rides off into the desert. A posse is quickly formed lead by Captain Quincey (Jack Palance), a confederate civil war veteran, to go after the Apache. And within the first five minutes, we have the complete bare bones plot.

Although not entirely original, the film takes the vantage of the Apache as a good guy. A more accurate description is there are plenty of bad guys in the story that rank above him. These include Jubal Hooker (Simon Oakland) and his sons Elias and Earl (Ralph Waite and Richard Jordan). All three have a viscous streak that gets the whole group in trouble from the get-go. As the posse starts decreasing one by one, it is the Hookers, and not the sensible Whitmore, that prods them to continue, sealing their fate.

Because all the fat is cut, the film quickly pulls you and never lets go. When I said the film starts in the saloon, I meant just that. No credits, no titles, just straight to the bar and the shot that starts it all. And before you know it, we're out in the unforgiving desert made tolerable by the company of this large posse, as they themselves are also heartened by the number of their group. As their number dwindles, and they go even farther into unknown territory, we know what the outcome will be, and we can't tear our eyes away.

The familiar faces, besides Bronson and Palance, are James Whitmore as Joshua, who most people know for "The Shawshank Redemption" and Miracle Grow ads. Far more disconcerting is Waite as Elias, whom nearly everybody recognizes for his role as Pa Walton on "The Waltons" TV series. To see him play such a sadistic bastard the same year he started a TV role that would become one of the most beloved father figures of all time may be disturbing for fans of the show.

As I said, this is not a happy film. What it is is a fascinating, alternative Western with good performances and a story that will engross the viewer. If you love the genre, you should give this one a shot.

Seven out of Ten

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