Spaghetti westerns, at a glance, seem like a more legitimate enterprise than your average B-movie. After all, it launched the careers of people like Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone, and gave us masterpieces in action, suspense and drama like the Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon A Time In The West, and popular series like Django and Sabata.
The truth is, however, these were productions as cheap and exploitative as any tale of mutants, ghosts or aliens. Taking advantage of the impoverished Post-WW2 economies and barren countryside of Spain and Italy, these Westerns upped the violence and grit while often recording without sound, so as to be dubbed over back in the States. They tore down the cleaner image of older Westerns, trading the white hats/black hats of Cooper or Wayne for something grimmer, dirtier and, in many ways, more like the real West.
A Town Called Bastard (renamed to Hell for the States) wants to be all of the above: violent shoot outs and Bandidos, crusted with sweat and dust, whilst also presenting life in Mexico following the assorted revolutions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s a battle of wills between comrades, it’s a tale of past crimes and retribution, it’s about the struggles of the poor and their complete powerlessness… and it’s also under an hour and a half in runtime.
The story, truncated though it is, is more or less about an Irish revolutionary-turned priest (Robert Shaw and, by the way, the film just gives him that as his name), who lives in the titular town of Bastardo, under the thumb of bandit king Don Carlos (Telly Savalas). One day, a mysterious woman in black (Stella Stevens), and then a segment of the Mexican army under a manipulative Colonel (Martin Landau) ride into town, seeking the fabled Freedom fighter Aguila. She wants him for revenge, as he killed her husband, while the Colonel wants to capture him for glory.
Truncated really is the best word to describe the film: the whole narrative doesn’t feel cohesive, jumping from themes, focus and even who the antagonist is (Savalas is ousted well before the halfway mark to make way for Landau). It starts with a flashback to the Mexican Revolution, then jumps ahead several years to what seems to be a three-way battle of wills between Don Carlos, the Priest and the Woman. However, Carlos is then literally strung up shortly after and then it becomes a sort of period drama about past sins. Then it decides it’s an indictment of the post-Revolution Mexican Government, with some ticking clock elements involving executing the townsfolk to flush out Aguila. Then it’s about the sins again. See the problem?
The cast is great, as expected from the calibre of actors involved. Shaw gives the Priest a hardened sort of dignity, while Landau and especially Savalas get to chew scenery, but the material doesn’t give them much room to play with. The film’s attempts to give us morally ambiguous characters feels messy. Our Priest doesn’t feel like he has many dimensions, given we don’t get a grasp on how or why he’s made the choices he has, nor does the film seem to take a definitive stance on him: sometimes a misunderstood man of compassion, sometimes repentant for his actions, while at other times he can be bitter and deceitful, a man without shame or regard.
Thankfully, the film is much stronger on a production front, mostly set within the sunbathed fort that is Bastardo, with a decent amount of shootouts sprinkled in. It effectively conveys a sense of age, abandonment and weariness, fitting in with our cast and the bleak lives of the townsfolk. The score by Argentine Waldo de Los Ríos fits the film well, and also has a Morriconian influence, especially with its frequent use of a choir that calls back the opening theme of A Fistful of Dollars.
So, where does all this leave A Town Called Bastard? Well, I’m not usually in the habit of saying this, but if there’s ever a film I would like a remake of, it’s this one. I feel like there is a solid base for a morally grey tale, and there’s more than enough material that could be covered thematically with a longer runtime and stronger screenplay. Indeed, someone like Tarantino or Rodriguez would be perfect for such a project. As is, it’s a messy, muddled Western that is short and curious enough to be worth one viewing, saved by some well-done action and its cast.
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