Every once and a while, it was not uncommon to see a somewhat established American actor show up in a spaghetti (such as Orson Welles in Tepepa, or Rod Steiger in Duck, You Sucker). Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears, a 1972 effort by Paolo Cavara was American actor Anthony Quinn's turn in the genre. The rugged-looking Quinn is perhaps best known for his role as Zorba the Greek, as well as for his numerous romantic escapades off-screen. Director Cavara rose to notoriety with the pioneering "shockumentary" Mondo Cane, in 1962. Like Ferdinando Baldi's Blindman, the hero of the story has a disabity; in this case, Quinn's Erastus "Deaf" Smith is both deaf and mute. There actually was a real Erastus "Deaf" Smith, who was a prominent character in the Texas revolution, and has even had a Texas county and a peanut butter named after him, although he was not mute, and as far as I know, didn't have a Johnny Ears tagging along with him. He was one of Sam Houston's most loyal scouts.
Quinn's Deaf Smith is joined by Franco Nero's Johnny Ears, his travelling companion who helps him out. When our story takes place, Texas has just won its independence. Smith is a spy for Texas president Sam Houston, and is sent to speak with a man names MacDonald, to find out about quashing a potential revolution by a General Morton, who is against the idea of Texas joining the United States. When Deaf and Johnny arrive, they find the whole MacDonald family brutally mudered (even the children!), by Morton's men.
Smith and Ears set out to get to the bottom of the plot, and Morton does his best to have them killed. A complication arises when Johnny falls in love with one of the girls at the local whorehouse, as it puts tension between him and Deaf. Eventually, they are able to inflitrate the Colonel's fort, and in one of those "it can only happen in a spaghetti western" moments, the two men eventually wipe out the whole fort full of Morton's men, kill Morton, and save the Republic.
This movie had a pretty decent budget, as it was released by MGM. In addition to having Quinn, it had two noteworthy Hollywood writers on board, as well, Oscar Saul and Harry Essex. I had no idea what to expect when watching this one, other than interested in seeing Quinn in a spaghetti. I was a bit wary of the "deaf" gimmick, but that's not really where the problem lies with this film. The problem with this film is Franco Nero. Although it's certainly sacreligious in some segments of spaghetti fandom to say so, I've never been much of a fan of Franco Nero. He most certainly has contributed to some of the most well-known and popular films of the genre, such as the legendary Django, the twighlight western Keoma, and Corbucci's The Mercenary, as well as several others. Generally, when he plays a serious character, he's not that bad, he can play it quite intense. However, more than not, he plays a sort of goofball, wisecracking type of character. It's this aspect of Nero's acting that keeps Compañeros and The Mercenary from being in my top 20 like it is with many other fans. I don't think he's very funny, he's actually quite annoying. And he plays that to the hilt in this film, as the 1973 New York Times review stated, with his "overacted machismo that is pointless, especially when it is channeled toward comedy". It was originally intended to be a much more serious movie, but the producers wanted it to be a bit more light hearted, and that is where its failings lie. Had they not gone that route, this could have been a very good film.
Now, I didn't hate this film. Anthony Quinn was excellent, and I enjoyed every minute he was on the screen. Spaghettis, as you well know, are not always known for top-notch acting, and when Quinn is on the screen, you know he's a professional. I don't know if playing a deaf/mute was a challenge for Quinn, but his thoughtful expressions made for an excellent, and very genuine, real character, all the more pertinent in some of the over-the-top situations we see him in. Although he does have a few light-hearted moments, they stand in marked, understated contrast to Nero's hyperactive schtick. The ending is somewhat bizzare, too, as there is a strange freeze-frame of Nero screaming in horror, when it wasn't really a "horrible" situation (it reminded me of a horror movie ending).
Nero's character, acting aside, is an idiot. He falls in love with a whore, and when he comes back the next day to see her again, he's shocked (!) and disappointed that she has a client. He's willing to take her in to his confidence when he speaks of going to the gold mine that he and Deaf have (although this doesn't really factor much into the plot), even though he hardly knows her. The love scene he's in goes on way too long, and has lots of closeups of Nero The Mustache in all of his face-swallowing glory. Ugh.
I liked the premise of the story, although one has to wonder why Sam Houston would pick a man who can't speak or hear to be a spy, although he does seem to read lips quite well (the real Deaf Smith was not mute). As an interesting note, in the final scene where they take out Morton and his men (similar in bombastic implausibility to the end of Valerii's A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die), there's a huge Gatling Gun. Johnny goes to use it, and can't figure it out, a far cry from Nero's Django character, who made the Gatling Gun a household name in the genre. The weapons were also not correct for the time period, but that's an inconsequential detail unless you're really hung up on accuracy (but if you were, you probably wouldn't be a fan of European westerns, would you?).
The verdict? Quinn, along with the "deaf" premise done somewhat well, made this a watchable movie. Nero nearly derailed it for me, but the story (and, I might add, the stellar cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli) make this one that, although it's nothing to spend too much time (or money) seeking out, it's not one to avoid, either. If you are one of Nero's die-hard fans, you'll probably enjoy the film more than I did.