Challenge of the McKennas (1970)

La Sfida Dei McKennas

(Dir: Leon Klimovsky – Cast: John Ireland, Robert Woods, Roberto Camardiel, Annabella Incontrera, Daniela Giordana, Giovanni Cianfriglia, Nando Poggi – Music: Francesco de Masi)

This film has a flying start. A young man is dragged up a rocky slope by three viciously laughing Mexicans to a tree. The scene is witnessed by a desperate young woman, obviously the girlfriend of the man who's about to be hanged. The hanging is executed in a particularly gruesome way, no wonder the girl passes out. Still unconsciously lying were her boyfriend was murdered, she is found by a rider passing by, who gives the young man a decent funeral and brings her to a nearby ranch: the ranch of Don Diego, who was present at the hanging, and happens to be the girl's father, a man who rather hangs his daughters worshippers than giving her permission for a marriage. The passer-by, who calls himself Jonas, is offered a job, on the condition that he buries the corpse anywhere else, that is: outside the confines of Don Diego's properties. Jonas looks around, and asks: "Is all this your land?" " As far as you can see," Don Diego responds, "and for the rest I don't care."

The first ten minutes of the movie tell us a lot: the budget is limited, the actors are fine, and dialogue is witty. What looked like a rocky slope at first, seems more like a gravel pit, the usual excuse for the Almeria desert in low-budget spaghetti westerns. It's one of the few outdoor locations you'll get to see: the entire film was shot in Tuscany, near Pisa, a typical Tuscan mansion serving as Don Diego's hacienda. At the same time we spot actors like John Ireland (as Jonas) and Robert Woods (as Don Diego's degenerated son, who doesn't tolerate any admirers of his little sister in her presence, most probably because he wants to have her for his own). Nearly the entire budget must have been spent on their wages. And than this witty dialogue. Don Diego's wisecrack about his properties, is one of the first of a series of repartees in the style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammet. John Ireland has one of the best when he's asked by Annabella Incontrera if he always sleeps in 'those rags': "Only when I sleep alone."  (I beg your pardon, Mr. Ireland?)

With only a handful of locations and a very tight script, the  film almost respects the dramatic unities of time, place and action of the Greek tragedy, as defined by Aristotle. With story elements like incestuous love, patricide and wounded pride it often reminds us of Ferdinando Baldi's The Forgotten Pistolero, which was based on the classic Greek tragedy of Orestes. None of the characters is really one-dimensional here, and they all seem frustrated in their ambitions. Of all characters Bobby Woods' sadistic and sexually frustrated son of a powerful patriarch, probably is the most essential spaghetti western character, but the suggestions of incestuous longings, add an extra dimension to his weird performance. For the first time impersonating the villain in a spaghetti (a Mexican villain no less), his performance often flirts with parody, but it works, probably thanks to the contrast with the more restrained performances of both Ireland and Camardiel (as Don Diego). Daniela Giordana, who plays Don Diego's poor daughter, is not a great actress, but her beauty makes up for that: she was miss Italy 1967. Anabella Incontrera is as delicious as ever, both as an actress and as a woman, as the quite ambiguous Maggie, whose whorehouse/saloon is the last safe resort for the hopeless in town (but they're kicked out at closing time!). The only thing that doesn't really click, is her romance with the aging Ireland, who is old enough to be her father (and never looked like a romantic lead anyway), and apparently too old for the barroom brawl, since he is doubled by a stunt man who is at least twenty years younger than he. Both Ireland and Incontrera are 'people with a past': Ireland once was a man of God and therefore refuses to carry a gun, while Incontrera became Don Diego's lover, when she arrived in town, long ago, and Don Diego took care of her. He still was a good man in those days, she tells us. Today he hated by his lovely daughter while his lunatic son desperately craves for his love.

There has been quite some discussions on who actually directed this movie. Since one of the screenwriters was Eduardo Mulargia, the director of several spaghetti westerns, some presumed he did most of the direction, but according to Woods (talking to Giusti, author of the Italian dictionary of spaghetti westerns) Klimovsky was responsible for technical aspects such as framing, but didn't talk much with the actors; Ireland and Woods actually 'directed' most dramatic scenes. A remarkable aspect is the amount of Christian symbolism involving fish. Remember that the fish is a symbol of Chist. furthermore Ireland's character is an ex-priest and calls himself Jonas, Greek for the Hebrew Jonah, who lived inside the whale for some time.


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