The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chato's Land

Here's one of my biggest pet peeves as I watch westerns. Well, any movie that resorts to this hackneyed technique. When you need someone to play a Native American character or a Mexican or an Asian or just cast a white guy who can pass as a different ethnicity. It almost always fails in grand when it does work? Enjoy it. Go figure, but Charles Bronson of all people makes for a passable Apache in 1972's Chato's Land.

Picking up supplies in a desert town in Arizona, Pardon Chato (Bronson), a half-breed, is told by the sheriff to leave the saloon without getting a drink. The sheriff draws on Chato, forcing the half-Apache, half-Mexican to turn and fire, killing the sheriff. Chato mounts his horse and rides out of town as news spreads across town. A former Confederate officer, Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), organizes a posse and sets off into the desert in pursuit of the Apache fugitive, fully intending to hang Chato should he be captured. The posse has trouble tracking him though across the desert and begins to question if the hunt should be continued. But then when they seem to be at the end of their rope, the posse stumbles across Chato's home and more importantly, his wife and child. Now, the hunters have become the hunted.

A frequent collaborator with Charles Bronson, director Michael Winner takes a lot of grief because of his total filmography. They're not necessarily good films, but son of a gun, they're usually pretty entertaining. His forays into westerns though are pretty good, both 'Chato' and 1971's Lawman. Filmed in Almeria, typically a backdrop for spaghetti westerns, 'Chato' is a violent, dark, uncomfortable and yes, revisionist western. It isn't necessarily a movie you love, but one you watch with a sick sense of dread. This isn't the polished, clean western of the 1950s. This is a dark, filthy, world where violence and betrayal reign supreme. Horrific people in a dusty, sweaty world where anything and everything can and will kill you. If that doesn't sound like fun, I don't know what does!

A star in the 1960s, Charles Bronson became an international star in the 1970s with movies like this, Death Wish, The Mechanic and many others. What's impressive about his titular performance as Chato? Well, he's on-screen for maybe 15, maybe 20 minutes total. He says about 48 words the entire movie. This is a movie about his presence alone being the star. Bronson is ideal casting for this steely-eyed, cold, calculating and brutally efficient Apache warrior looking for revenge. The posse spends whole scenes talking about him, Chato waiting in the darkness or over the next ridge to attack, a one-man army. In the second half, Bronson strips down and wears nothing but a loincloth as he goes after the posse. The dude was 51 years old at the time and looks like he could kick anybody's ass. Like anybody. Go ahead, challenge him. It's weird that the title role is almost a cameo, but Bronson kills the part.

So who does he get around to killing on the posse? Another actor who found second life in Europe and internationally in the late 1960s and 1970s, Jack Palance. This is a great part for the grizzled actor with the perfectly, smoky (some would say evil) voice. He waxes eloquently about the Civil War, the desert, the Apaches, anything and everything. Not quite chewing the scenery, but he nibbles a bit. As for the posse, there's some townspeople (Richard Basehart, Paul Young, William Watson, Victor French), some ranchers doing their civic duty (James Whitmore, Roddy McMillan), a Mexican scout (Raul Castro) and three brothers who ranch and are looking for blood (Simon Oakland, Ralph Waite, Mr. Walton himself, and Richard Jordan). We see their unity at first, their eventual turning on each other, and then their desperate bid for survival. There's some cool names, lots of recognizable faces among the posse.

Now if you look back and read some original reviews, they were startlingly negative. I get it. It would be easy to peg this 1972 revenge western as a snuff film of sorts. Much of the second half of the movie is finding interesting ways for Bronson to kill the posse that isn't so pure, isn't so interested in justice or doing what's right. Given a chance to do something horrific, they don't hesitate. They don't flinch. We know virtually nothing about Chato, but we're rooting for him simply because he isn't the posse. And it's there where the snuff aspect comes out. Quite an ending, quite a final shot too. Know what you're getting into but a western definitely worth seeking out. Come on, how many movies can you see a man use a rattlesnake as a throwing weapon? Not too many, huh?

Chato's Land (1972): ***/****

1 comment:

  1. Bronson doesn't look like a WASP though on regular occasion so it's no surprise that he fits as an Indian, or Mexican. In fact in CRIME WAVE he looks Spanish in a way. That's why it works I think.