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Hell's Fighters Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 3, 2012

    Hell's Fighters Review

    There has been a deluge of Italian genre movies finding their way onto Blu-ray lately. Giallo and splatter and cult-curios, in the main. But the Spaghetti Western has been quite slow getting up into the hi-def saddle. Sergio Leone’s outstanding contributions have made the transition (with largely middle-of-the-road results), and we’ve had Corbucci’s raging Django. But now it finally looks as though some of the outriders from this warped and crazy world are riding into town. Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General whistled out rom Blue Underground, and the double-bill of The Last Gun and Four Dollars of Revenge has already been released by Mill Creek, and now comes the great bunk-up of The Grand Duel from 1971 (directed by Giancarlo Santi and starring Lee Van Cleef) and Keoma from 1976 (directed by Enzo G. Castellari and starring Franco Nero), from the same label.

    The Grand Duel

    Santi had been assistant director for Sergio Leone, working on The Good, The Bad and The Ugly and Once Upon A Time in the West. With that sort of foundation and tutelage, it was only a matter of time before he helmed a Western, himself. He had attempted to do so on Duck, You Sucker (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) but was ousted by the film’s stars, who wanted Leone to direct them! TheGrand Duel was, therefore, his debut in earnest. The film was written by Ernesto Galdi, who had a fair bit of experience in the genre, with Arizona Colt and $1000 on the Black to his credit, and it is wildly off-the-cuff affair that actually dares to do something a little bit different with its plot.

    Disgraced sheriff, Clayton (Van Cleef) is on a stagecoach with a ratty conglomeration of Italian carnival stock characters, which will keep cropping up throughout, when they come to a pistol-packing standstill. An apparently notorious killer is holed-up at the dusty wagon-station ahead, where a standoff with bounty hunters is taking place. Clayton blithely hops down from the carriage and saunters through the ring of steel. The wanted man is Philip Vermeer (Alberto Dentice) and Clayton wants to take him back to his hometown to fight the allegations that he slew the Patriarch, the mob-boss who ran the place, in a mysterious night-time assassination. It appears that Vermeer is an innocent man, although he’s forced to kill a number of men in an effort to prove it. Thus, a very dubious partnership between Vermeer and the ex-sheriff ensues – one of those explosively wayward and not altogether trustworthy bonds that Cleef’s characters were always making. A gunfight erupts and the wanted man gets away, the remnants of the posse in hot pursuit. Tit for tat battles, chases and captures then dominate the first third of the movie, as both Clayton and Vermeer somehow manage to get to Jefferson, whereupon the main thrust of the plot takes over. With an arrangement of typically weird bad guys opposing them, namely the Patriarch’s revengeful sons, which includes the dastardly and corrupt town marshal, and their gang.

    Somehow, Clayton, who definitely knows more than he is letting on about the night of the murder, and Vermeer must unmask the real killer and free the town of the gang’s sadistic reign. Thus, the unique selling point about The Grand Duel (aka The Big Showdown and Hell’s Fighters) is the fact that it is very consciously constructed as a whodunit. However, the screenplay makes the error of only giving us a couple of suspects, which lowers the mystery/suspense level quite a bit, and there’s absolutely no surprises when the big reveal finally comes, although it is carried off with some considerable panache.

    It is undeniable that Lee Van Cleef is a titan of the genre, despite appearing in more than his fair share of Euro-saddle clunkers. He’s only got to show his face - that aquiline nose and those pitiless, piercing eyes like chips of cleaved onyx – and already the surrounding film has gained a considerable level of prestige that it would, otherwise, never have attained. And that incredible voice! Who didn’t wish that his Police Commissioner Bob Hauk (“Special Forces Unit Black Blight!”) was given a little bit more to do in Carpenter’s otherwise awesome Escape From New York? He moves through this power-play with icy conviction, though he is not averse to injecting some dark humour as well. His very first scene, for instance, has his reaction to being held at gunpoint to simply place his bag and his jacket over the gunman’s arm and weapon as though he was just a coat-stand. It is touches like this, and his detached enjoyment at some of the predicaments that Vermeer gets himself into, that make him stand out as the class act that he could so often be given the right material. It’s also worth remembering that he could switch from calm observer to master of annihilation in the blink of an eye too – as the moment when a wagonload of corpses is shockingly exposed.

    Both The Grand Duel and Keoma were made after the big boom in Spaghetti Westerns and both reflected the cultural shift in fashions and attitudes to incorporate something of a radical hippy aesthetic. The Grand Duel even features an overtly gay, almost Bowie-like antagonist in Adam Saxton, although this may also have been something along the lines of the Bondian vogue for camp henchmen – Mr. Witt and Mr. Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever, say. Playing Adam in his white suit and mottled scarf, Klaus Grunberg actually preens and pouts his pox-scarred face whilst putting some seriously unnecessary torment on a poor OAP who has foolishly voiced an opinion that he doesn’t like. Look at the way that scarf comes to resemble a snake around his neck, a snake that he lovingly toys with. The fact that he winds-up with a totally unwanted and completely superfluous mail-order bride is another delicious conceit, but his homicidal tendencies are given a punishing boost with a callous, and rather silly machine-gun massacre of innocent townsfolk who have decided to leave the town. To be honest, this sequence makes little sense, other than to recall the infamous mass-killing that Gian Marie Volante perpetrates in his grand introduction in A Fistful of Dollars, and to prove what a cold-hearted sod he is.

    The Saxon brothers, all of whom are Teutonic in appearance – the leader David (Horst Frank), the unlawful marshal Eli (Marc Mazza) and, of course, the murderous homosexual Adam – have ambitious ideas, far more so than the usual Spaghetti thugs. This is almost certainly down to Santi’s former association with Leone, whose motivations behind the story of Once Upon A Time In The West revolved around business, industry and capitalism, but it provides something of a fresh angle in a genre in which so much is based around one-dimensional greed and simple scummery. Backing their campaign with a rich vein of silver, the Saxons plan on hitting Washington and getting themselves ensconced in the White House of all places! Despite this lofty ideal, the film is most assuredly not political in any way.

    It’s often the zany details that make Spaghettis so irreverently adorable. I mean just why is it necessary to have Vermeer able to bounce around and fly through the air like a character in a Tex Avery cartoon? Is he a gymnast? Does he have a concealed jetpack? His introductory scene in the ambush at the wagon station is hysterical. He strategically takes out a sniper on the crest of some high rocks so that his falling body lands on the upturned axle of a wagon which, in turn, hurls Vermeer about thirty feet up onto a convenient roof, from whence he boings all over the show like some spring-heeled assassin. Then again, this could be a playful retort to Burt Lancaster’s acrobatic skills in the likes of The Professionals, and many others. Any shootout he gets into has him rolling around to doing somersaults. Mind you, it seems to work when it comes to dodging the bullets. However, check out the amazingly unnecessary head-over-heels dive from a balcony that one baddie does when hit. 10 out 10 for presentation – but what kind of bullet would make a man do that?

    And listen out for the library sound effect of a jungle kookaburra that suddenly sings out as a wagon procession enters one of those ubiquitous ex-quarry locations. The score, itself, is something of a classic. Luis Bacalov’s main theme is instantly iconic, and a perfect mix of the traditional Western score and the knowing irony and grandeur of Morricone. Quentin Tarantino was obviously a fan of it too – he used it brilliantly in Kill Bill Vol.1.

    I also love the way that those stylishly shot flashbacks to the Patriarch’s murder on the train platform are hugely less enigmatic than initially intended. I mean, come on, we can all clearly discern who that sinister silhouette down in the billowing steam at the other end of the platform really belongs to. And if we can work that out so easily, then we have already solved the riddle of the shooter’s identity, negating what sparse suspense has been cooking regarding the mystery of the assassination. But this is all part of the ridiculous fun of a Spaghetti murder-mystery in the old Spanish/Italian West.

    With a lengthy first act that rambles along with Vermeer escaping and getting caught and escaping again from the ragtag posse of stab-in-the-back mercenaries, and Clayton acting as an occasional manipulator in these hectic proceedings, the film then settles into the whodunit phase of questions and killings in the mob-cowed town of Jeffersom. But this makes the story curiously off-kilter and almost like a game of two halves – two plots shoehorned-together. But Santi is able to deliver a superb climactic showdown between Clayton and the Saxon gang. Very stylistically lensed and choreographed, this takes place within an empty cattle corral, the whole thing kicked-off after a tense, Leone-esque build-up of simmering animosity and sweaty trigger-fingers by Vermeer shooting Clayton’s hat from his head to galvanise him into action. In fact, if he hadn’t done so, chances are that the face-off would still going on with a gaggle of dusty, windblown skeletons. Every shootout has to have something to give it some distinction, and with this one so clearly modelled upon the three-way confrontation between Blondie, Tuco and Angel Eyes in TGTBATU – the cutaways, the close-ups, the hovering fingers and twitchy eyes, and the very presence of Van Cleef - Santi injects the visually memorable, if rather daft use of the many corral gates being swung open and Clayton advancing whilst the others steadily stride backwards until there is nowhere left for them to run.

    The Grand Duelis a great screwball flick. There are ladies in it, but you could be forgiven for not even noticing. The pace is also comedic in its constant ebb and flow of activities, exchanges and revelations, but the style is patchwork and the screenplay more than often irreverent. No classic, then … but well worth a look.


    I’ve reviewed the “Twilight Spaghetti”, Keoma, pretty extensively already for another site in the dim and distant past, and I recall being elated to rediscover it. Seeing it now on Blu-ray again breathes life into this broad, wayward, semi-magical and extremely energetic Western. Enzo G. Castellari was a sort of demigod of exploitation actioners. His films always had an edge to them, and plenty of bloodshed, as Inglorious Bastards and The New Barbarians can gleefully attest. His screenplay bears the hallmarks of racial bigotry and intolerance, the corruption of power and the hostility shown towards to returning soldiers. In many ways, it seems to pre-empt the one-man crusade of David Morrell’s First Blood with the strong-willed half-breed Keoma surviving the Civil War but, like the returning John Rambo, he finds another one right on his doorstep.

    Franco Nero is Spaghetti Western Royalty. He didn’t need to appear in all that many because he will be forever remembered as the first and greatest incarnation of the mythical Civil War wasteland avenger, Django in Sergio Corbucci’s renowned classic of the same name. His Clint Eastwood impersonation couldn’t hide his own true charisma and star-power. But nobody is going to argue that Nero makes for a less-than-convincing Indian half-breed. Then again, this is also the man who once played Sir Lancelot in the mesmerizingly surreal and daftly enjoyable big screen adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, his surprisingly effective (well, enthusiastic) singing voice dubbed by another performer who actually sounds just like him.

    Looking like a cross between Barry Gibb and Rambo, this noble yeti returns to his home after years clawing a living seemingly day by day, but he finds that the town is stricken with the plague and under the cruel yoke of Donald O’Brien’s pitiless Caldwell, and his gang. Further adding to this miserable turn of events, he finds that his three half-brothers, who could never abide him when their compassionate father, William Shannon (played by William Berger) brought him to the safety of the farm after he had survived a vicious massacre of his village, are now Caldwell’s enforcers. Beaten, humiliated and abused in his childhood, he now has the chance to even the score. But the situation is not so clear-cut. Meeting up with the man who saved him from the Soldier Blue-style atrocity, his adoptive father, Keoma discovers that Shannon is virtually the only man in the territory who has not bowed-down to Caldwell, even if his three sons, Butch, Lenny and Sam, have had no trouble swapping allegiances and turning their backs on family honour and pride.

    Even though this mob have effectively annexed the town from the rest of the land, a renegade plot device sees that plague victims are routinely shunted off to an isolated quarantine and forsaken. When one of them opts to make a fatal run for it so that he can distract Caldwell’s nasty Johnny Reb escorts and give his pregnant wife, Lisa (genre fave Olga Karlotos), time to get away in the opposite direction, Keoma intervenes and immediately marks himself out as an enemy of Caldwell and his nefarious plans. Falling in with Lisa and making it his sworn duty to protect her and see to it that she is able to have her child in safety, Keoma inadvertently draws the battle-lines in the dust … and goes to war all over again.

    Whether going on a hit-and-run mission through the town, escaping and evading through barns and outhouses while a torch-wielding mob seek him out, or just battering his brothers for old times’ sake, Franco puts the miles in. When first reunited with his half-kin, I love the way that he takes each of them on, individually, in a ferociously destructive brawl, signifying the next one for the roughhousing with a curt finger jabbed directly at them. Orso Maria Guerinni’s Butch sits in the saddle, surveying the amusing mess that his brothers make of the job with a marvellous look of bemusement. He truly believes that he can still outwit and out-punch Keoma. The wonderful way in which he happily accepts the challenge and then hops down, with a playful sigh and a do-I-really-have-to-do-this eye-roll, is a treat. Even with that incredible Peter Wyngarde-mixed-with-Darkness (from Ridley Scott’s Legend) face, you just want to see him get a thorough pasting.

    The action, fittingly, is flamboyant and strenuous. Castellari obviously feels he is a kindred-spirit to Peckinpah. A few of his more outrageous set-pieces involve copious slow-motion mayhem intercut between a couple of focal points in the time-honoured Peckinpah style. The bodycount is also right up there with The Wild Bunch – well, almost. People are shot, knifed and studded with arrows. Castellari digs a trench the length of the main street in the town, and fills it with muddy water. You just know that someone – probably Keoma – is going to get dragged all the way through that at some point … and in slow-mo! Riders reach out from their speeding mounts to catch hold of railings and wooden supports, hauling themselves from their saddles and up onto buildings with dazzling athleticism. The big shootout is a leviathan set-to with a bodycount that doesn’t know when to stop.

    The locations are superb. They do not resemble any sort of landscape you would happen upon in the United States – what with high, rock-dashed meadows and granite-cleaved plains fuzzed-over with Italian moss – and they even seem out of the ordinary for this normally parched Almerian or more lush Andalucian genre. But this queasy dislocation only adds to the chaotic, time-locked arena in which this bizarre familial tragedy plays out. And with a town-set designed by the great Carlo Simi (Leone’s key creator), we have a wonderful battlefield in which to play.

    Woody Strode (Spartacus, The Professionals, Once Upon A Time In The West) gives it some as Keoma’s old friend and the kindly family slave who once looked after him and the antagonistic brothers. Curiously, the mighty-muscled screen icon actually looks older in the flashback scenes to the occasionally happy homestead of Keoma’s youth than he does in the later film, and I think that this has to do with him having both hair and, get this, a smile on his face, rather than sporting his more familiar scowl beneath that varnished-mahogany bald bonce. Strode has an incredible screen presence. He doesn’t need to speak – as he doesn’t in his show-stealing prologue to Leone’s epic West – and he doesn’t necessarily have to do anything in order to convey immense physical and spiritual power and indomitable self-belief – traits beautifully portrayed as the champion gladiator Draba in Kubrick’s seminal Spartacus. But, obviously, we want to see this guy in action, like in the hypocritical Burt Kennedy’s excellent multi-national cavalry-actioner, The Deserter (1971). Running with Keoma’s renegade once more after too long in a booze-filled wasteland, George thunks! arrows into whiskery, gun-toting varmints and breaks rascally necks with those mountainous pure beef arms. His introduction sees him as the stoic recipient of a bullyboy’s urine, and you really think that he is going to start cracking heads right then and there. Instead, Strode delivers a deeper set of confused, conflicted emotions - shame, guilt and stunned effrontery playing about his hurt features as the scumbags knock him to the floor. But later on we are treated to the giant’s incredible, jaw-dropping swansong as, riddled with bullets, he unleashes a deranged death-rattle war-cry that freezes the blood and numbs the senses. No matter how many times I see this movie, this glass-shattering, snake-hissing Dervish caterwaul never ceases to amaze me. It is actually upsetting to hear.

    Olga Karlotos is an absolute beauty. Her traumatised and put-upon Lisa may be heavily pregnant and forever skirting around the infectious fringes of the plague, and she may be the recent widow of a brave and selfless man who she clearly loved, but she is undeniably someone worth fighting for, and another unmistakable religious symbol of spiritual redemption. Those gorgeous wide eyes fill the screen with panic, anxiety and righteous defiance, and it is genuinely hard not to shudder at the thought of what actually happens to one of them a few years later under the command of Lucio Fulci in Zombie Flesheaters, via the longest, sharpest, nastiest wooden splinter in cinema history.

    Caldwellis a monster, all right. But the main villains are, of course, Keoma’s half-brothers. And what a trio they are!

    There’s Butch, the eldest, with that classic, strangely hypnotic Donald Sutherland/Tom Selleck/Peter Wyngarde face that I spoke of. Even the dubbing-voice that masks his own (that of Nick Alexander, who would also provide the unmistakable dubbing for Al Cliver) seems perfectly attuned to this cavalier, punch-lipped mop-top. Then there’s Sam (Joshua Sinclair), the middle brother who dresses like a rarefied saloon dandy, a gambler with a rakish ‘tache and swishy, hair-spray ad locks. This guy is an absolute deadringer for Paul Drake’s rapist gang-leader in the Dirty Harry revenger Sudden Impact. And then there’s blonde pretty boy Lenny (Antonio Marsina) who is the youngest, but still as mean as a rattlesnake. Quite cleverly, the flashbacks feature a trio of lads who really do look like they could be their younger incarnations, and the attitudes and behaviour they extol are totally accurate.

    In the usual fashion, our hero goes through hell before getting the job done. Like Clint’s Dollar-fixated loners (and practically every other character he would play in the sixties and seventies), Keoma gets a thorough kicking and is then tied to a wheel fixed high up on a wall, his arms lashed outward in a cruciform. Left there during a raging storm, he is lashed by the elements whilst the bad guys and the townsfolk, who are too scared to do otherwise, celebrate this Christ-like betrayal and subjugation with liquor and song, the symbolism of his torment glaring at us with formulaic glee. But this is what the genre thrives upon. Nobody is ever entirely good or bad, and everyone suffers – the hero most of all. We have to understand that even if he loses everything he holds dear, he will not bend or break. His spirit remains unchecked. Curiously, these films seem absolutely convinced that we will not entirely side with their antiheros unless we’ve seen how far they are prepared to sacrifice themselves first. How much punishment they can take. Whilst Clint would ensure that American Cinema would also adhere to this ethic in his films, Mel Gibson, too, would put his characters through severe abuse in order to prove them worthy of our respect. As would Stallone – well, a while ago anyway. But this now seems to be a forgotten trait with steel-boned uber-warriors, these days, arriving out of nowhere (though usually with a history that hints at some emotionally shut-out grievance), laying waste to legions of enemies and then disappearing into the mists of off-the-peg iconography, with a smirk and a hard-as-nails quip.

    The rough-housing ways of the Spaghetti Western see to it that the good guys are routinely maimed in some way by the end. And even if Nero isn’t disfigured like he was in Django, Keoma does not ride off into the sunset without a great deal of emotional scarring.

    Part and parcel of this is the freakish addition to the story of the witch that seems to perch just over Keoma’s shoulder, advising him, reproaching him and keeping him on the path to some mysterious destiny. Played by Gabrielle Giacobbe, who actually resembles the old-hag-zombie from Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead, which seems oddly appropriate to me, the witch is a fantastic touch that adds a frisson of Shakespearean macabre to an already majestically surreal film.

    Spoiler Alert!

    This film contains one of the most hilarious, yet brilliant moments that the genre has ever thrown up.

    Watch the awesome bit when they’ve got his dad held at gunpoint and Keoma has to give himself up after killing about fifty of them. Coming down from his lofty, bullet-blasted tower, he is promptly gabbed by two of Caldwell’s men. As they walk him towards the grinning overlord, watch as his dad does this weird smirk as if he’s got something up his sleeve, like a stick of dynamite, or some other secret plan to get them out of the prairie-poop … and then the bastard just shoots him in the back. Shannon spins around to face him in agony, and his look of shock is priceless. Keoma, still a good distance away, clubs down his two captors in beefy slow-motion and, with a silent scream of rage, barrels down at Caldwell and then hurls himself through the air like the human equivalent of an air-ramped car in The A-Team. It’s completely ludicrous, yet so damn glorious at the same time.

    But the mighty leveller that this film wields lies not in its knee-jerk screenplay, or its panto-villainy and uber-violence. Nor yet in its deranged dubbing. No, the element that sorts the men out from the boys with Castellari’s hirsute rampager is its cranial-scratching, dementia-inducing, cat-worrying soundtrack. Now, personally, I love it, but I can patently sympathise with those who can’t, and who then find themselves loathing the very presence of their own ears. The Spaghetti has a long and beloved history of oddball scores. We all know and love the classic Morricone symphonies of slaughter, their haunting beauty, macho swagger and their often terrifyingly aural psychological twists and turns. But there were many others like Luis Bacalov, who we talked about earlier, Carlo Rustichelli, Francesco De Masi and Piero Piccioni, but Morricone was the instigator of the unusual and distinctive sound of the Spaghetti, the whacky orchestration and the unorthodox use of the human voice. Well, he has a lot to answer for. What may have been cool for Clint, many would insist led to a barrage of scores that we either just plain hilarious, weirdly anachronistic or, as in this case, a downright ugly combination of everything all rolled into one unholy concerto.

    Susan Duncan Smith wails the ballad of Keoma like some Italian opera diva who has been flung out into the gutters and now screeches half-forgotten, half-chewed snippets about the life of a former lover to anyone within a mile or two’s earshot. The actual score from Guido and Maurizio De Angelis fascinates with a unique, repetitive guitar-twanging that thrums a gently mesmerising, but amazingly catchy suspense beat that wouldn’t be out of place in a John Carpenter flick. This strangely meditative action cue plays out sensationally during Keoma’s terrific escape from the town under the cloak of night with Lisa in-tow, Caldwell’s rebels searching the place by torchlight. But the thing that everyone remembers about the score, because it claws its way into your skull, wraps itself up in barbwire and systematically rolls around and around in there, is the boulder-crunching, gravel-chewing staccato growl of Cesare De Natale, who mickey-mouses various portions of the onscreen story like a narration from a grizzly bear. With a sore throat. WHOA! I know some people who have just switched the film off, unable to take any more of it because of this ocean-dredging sound of his tonsils. But say what you want about this dying bronto tongue mangling, it adds another quirky flavour to Keoma’s untethered atmosphere of coiled rage and Macbeth-like fate-strewn odyssey.

    Both films are vigorous and idiosyncratic. Both are also tremendous fun, with all the oddities, clichés and visual wit that you expect – nay, demand – from the Spaghetti Western. Keoma remains the better of the pair-up, but then it is also one of my own personal favourites and a bullish example of the form, with added gravitas from the great Franco Nero, who will soon be seen making an honourable cameo in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. There are allegories about prejudice and the scars of Vietnam if you want to embrace them, but Keoma packs quite an emotional punch that is beautifully enhanced with the queer mystical elements that punctuate the half-breed’s quest. The Grand Duel is just ballsy entertainment from start to finish. It knows what you want and simply has a great time providing you with it.

    If you love the Spaghetti Western milieu – and why wouldn’t you? – then Mill Creek’s double-bill is very definitely worth your time and effort. And it sure ain’t gonna cost you much in the way of dollars either! $10 or less is a steal in anybody's book.

    This double-feature comes highly recommended.