Monte Hellman isn't necessarily a household name among movie fans. He worked pretty regularly in the 1960's and 1970's and has worked on and off since. He doesn't have a huge, crazy classic to his name, a director who usually was at the helm of low-budget, straightforward flicks. His best film -- for me at least -- is Two-Lane Blacktop. His others? More hit or miss, like 1978's China 9, Liberty 37, a western I didn't like at all.
Wasting away in a prison cell, Clayton Drumm (Fabio Testi) is minutes away from walking to the hangman's noose when he's given a reprieve. Well, sort of. Local government and train officials have an offer for the infamous gunfighter. They'll let him go free and avoid the noose if he agrees to ride out and kill a farmer, Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates), who owns a piece of land that the railroad needs to continue building across the country. Somewhat suspicious, Clayton takes the deal and rides to the Sebanek homestead where he meets the farmer and his younger wife, Catherine (Jenny Agutter). Drumm doesn't ride up and shoot the farmer but instead introduces himself as a drifter passing through looking for a roof over his head for the night and maybe a meal. Sebanek agrees, but he's no dummy. He knows what's Drumm is up to. What will come of the slow-burning showdown?
Hmm, interesting...interesting. I wanted to like this 1978 quasi-spaghetti western. I did, but it just isn't very good. As a director of westerns, he specialized in low-key, low-budget stories that were more about the reality of western life than the romance or the glory or the heroes. It was a dark, nasty life where death seemingly hovered in the air. There wasn't any romance or glory or glamour. In that sense, 'China' is spot-on. It is cynical, violent in quick strikes, and with a touch of irony sprinkled in for good measure. All these little positives though, they got lost in a sea of a wayward story, out of place soundtrack and a disappointing go-nowhere direction.
First, the biggest issue. The first 40 minutes are interesting. I kinda sorta maybe thought I was getting a story about a gunfighter who must make a difficult decision. Do what's right? (Not kill the farmer). Do what he's spent his life doing? (Kill the farmer). It isn't even close. It becomes a forced, uncomfortable love story about the gunfighter, the farmer and wouldn't you know it, the farmer's wife. Yeah, we're talking about some low-budget porn. All the potential goes out the window in an instant, and the rest of the movie is far different than what I thought I was watching. The switch itself isn't awful (but it ain't good either), but the pacing dies and any interest I had in the story was gone with the snap of a finger.
The casting definitely intrigued me, but that too came up a little short. Warren Oates is the man. I'll watch him in anything, even when he's just chewing the scenery. This is a good part for him, a for the most part quiet performance, a farmer who knows he's in a hell of a pinch and must decide how far he's willing to fight to keep what is his. So yeah, 40 minutes and then he's just an angry husband looking for vengeance. Testi was a big star in the 1970's, and I've typically liked him. The performance is -- again -- potentially interesting, the infamous gunslinger with a chance for redemption of sorts, but it goes literally nowhere. He isn't dubbed either so I had trouble understanding his very heavy Italian accent. There are some great scenes between Oates and Testi as they talk about how they got to this point, what to do from here that indicates this could have been an excellent, thoughtful western...but it isn't.
Instead, 'China' degenerates into soft-core porn. Agutter is nude for much of the movie and Testi goes shirtless a lot in awkward, truly uncomfortable love scenes as Testi and Agutter stare into each other's eyes before getting to the oh so sexy lovemaking. Except they don't have any chemistry, and they literally look like robots when they're kissing. It is truly awkward, almost like they were told to do it that way. It wouldn't be a huge issue except that this happens four and five times, long sex scenes set to equally uncomfortable and out-of-place folk songs that dot the soundtrack. When things should be quickening the pace, that pace goes nowhere as we get one more repetitive sex scene. So yeah, the good western goes bye-bye.
'China' was filmed on-location in Spain as so many classic to good to god-awful westerns were in the 60's and 70's. It is a mix of the American revisionist westerns and the hard-hitting, horrifically violent spaghetti westerns but never finds its own groove or rhythm. You get the sense Hellman was going for something lyrical and beautiful with a story about true love that can't be denied, but that never comes together. The running time is 102 minutes -- and I did get to watch a beautiful print on Turner Classic Movies -- but the last 100 minutes dragged in a big way. A major disappointment because it feels like there was so much wasted potential. So much potential that never goes anywhere.
China 9, Liberty 37 (1978): */****