Vengeance Trail (1971)

Director: Pasquale Squitieri - Cast: Leonard Mann, Klaus Kinski, Sean Todd (Ivan Rassimov), Steffen Zacharias, Elizabeth Eversfield, Enzo Fiermonte, Tanaki

You don't see that very often: a spaghetti western with Indians. The great directors of the genre had concentrated on the Mexican Revolution or the American Civil War and its immediate aftermath, and had never showed much interest in the Indian wars. But in the early seventies, when the glory days of the spaghetti westerns were over, the Italians were looking for new inspiration, and both Little Big Man and Soldier Blue seemed rewarding models to copy, the more so since most Italian film makers had left-wing political ideas and these movies, unlike the cavalry westerns of the previous decades, showed more liberal, pro-Indian tendencies. Therefore in most Italian Indian westerns, the Indians are shown as victims of white man's racist and imperialist tendencies; usually there's a survivor of a massacre, who becomes an avenger afterwards. Vengeance Trail, the second of two spaghetti westerns by Pasquale Squitieri, is a nice variation on the 'first victim, then avenger' theme: the survivor is not an Indian, but a white boy.

The boy is called Jim, and in a rather corny opening scene, we learn how his family is living in harmony with the Red Man. But the family ranch is attacked at night by renegade Indians, and little Jimmy is the only one to survive the massacre. Some ten years later, he has become Jeremiah, a ruthless Indian hater and scalp-hunter. After killing a bunch of Indians, he is left with a truly beautiful squaw called Tena. Instead of killing her, he takes her into town, where he is harassed by three men of a local land-owner called Perkins, the richest man in the country and also a fervent racist. The three men offer him a few dollars for the squaw, so they can have their way with her. Eventually the whole town turns against the young woman, who is covered with tar and feathers to humiliate her. Jeremiah saves her from the angry mob, and flies with her to a ghost town, but they're soon surprised by the three men from the Perkins Ranch, who were still on their trail. Jeremiah eliminates them in a shootout in a dilapidated saloon, but is wounded himself. He is nursed back to health by doc, a travelling Jack of all trades, who also helps him to uncover the truth behind the so-called renegade Indians attacking farmers...

With an intricate script about prejudice, racial hatred and growing social awareness, this is a very interesting movie. The director, who had strong communist feelings at the time, saw it as an expression of class struggle, with the Indians and poor whites teaming up to beat capitalism and imperialism (ironically, he later changed his political mind rather drastically and was elected as senator for the right-wing Alleanza Nazionale). The plot, with white businessmen trying to provoke a war in order to chase both red and white people of their lands, there are some echoes of the early Karl May movies, but the story details are a bit more nasty and adult here: this racist land-owner Perkins not only orders his men, disguised as Indians, to raid farms in the surroundings, he also instructs them to abduct Indians and kill them, so their bodies can be left as false evidence on the scene of the crime.

But very interesting doesn't necessarily imply very good. Vengeance Trail is by no means a bad movie, but it suffers from its ultra-low budget. Shot entirely in the hills around Rome it has a cheap, often ugly look, except for the interiors - shot at the Elios studios - that are quite good. The sequence in the ghost town is a highlight. The lack of authenticity, location-wise, clashes with the fact that real native Americans were used as warriors: they were foreign students at the university. The scene in which Jeremiah reveals to Perkins who his allies are, works marvelously thanks to the fact that real natives were used : "Look, they don't need disguises to look like Indians!".

This is also one of the movies that gave Klaus Kinski a bad name. As a person, not as an actor. He wanted to be paid one day in advance every morning, spent every free moment in a white caravan, parked on the set, and was such a pain in the ass that all other actors hated his guts. The character he played was a particularly despicable person and Kinski said his behaviour would lead to more 'realism' in the movie, in particular during the scene with the townspeople trying to beat him up. According to some, the director chased him with a baseball bat when this scene was shot, screaming "Come here, bastard, I'll show you some realism!" The other performances vary a little, both in quality and style. Leonard Mann, as Jeremiah, remains silent and moody for most part of the film, while Steffen Zacharias, as Doc, almost behaves as if he's in some kind of Carry On spoof of a western. Ivan Rassimov, or Sean Todd as most of us know him, is a good villain, and the unknown Eversfield is a true delight as the long-legged, temperamental squaw.

I watched the British C'est la Vie release. It shows the movie in 1,85:1, which means the image is cropped a little left and right; moreover the image has not been enhanced for widescreen TV's, but surprisingly it looks very good, with bright colors and hardly any print damage. Overall this is a satisfying release of a movie that is worth checking out.

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