You know who’s pretty cool? Anthony Quinn. I don’t always think of Mr. Quinn as one of my favorite movie stars, but my goodness, did this man have a hell of a career. Zorba the Greek, The Guns of Navarone, Viva Zapata, Lawrence of Arabia, he did it all. One of my favorites though is a little known, generally forgotten quasi-spaghetti western from 1967,Guns for San Sebastian.
It’s the late 1740s in Mexico, and bandit Leon Alastray (Quinn) is in trouble and on the run. Wounded after the rest of his gang is killed or captured, Leon is saved by a faithful, well-meaning old priest, Father Joseph (Sam Jaffe). When Joseph refuses to turn Leon over, he quietly accepts his punishment to the far-off, possibly abandoned desert town of San Sebastian. Feeling like he owes the old priest, Leon accompanies him far out into the desert to the town and finds…nothing. When their plan goes awry though and the villagers return, it is Leon who must pretend to be a priest and help the village not just recover, but survive. Why? The villagers have come under the “protection” of a half-breed bandit, Teclo (Charles Bronson), who is also working with the warring Yaqui Indians. What is Leon to do?
This quasi-spaghetti western from director Henri Verneuil has virtually no reputation within the genre. Why? Well, it’s a spaghetti western in name only really. It isn’t gunfighter anti-heroes and evil bandits and extreme violence. To call it an epic isn’t fair, but it is an above average, highly entertaining period piece. It is set in Mexico in the 1740s so not your typical background setting, but for me, it worked because ‘Guns’ is trying something different. This is a gem, one of my favorite underrated movies that deserves a far bigger reputation.
For starters, it’s Anthony Quinn. What a great actor, what a great presence. Accused at times of stealing scenes and other times of chewing the scenery, I’ve always thought just the opposite. He just goes with the part. His Leon character is fascinating both within the spaghetti western but also the western genre in general. He’s not a cardboard cutout, an emotionless killer. Leon goes through a change over the course of the movie. We see him grow and develop and fight for what he believes is right. It just so happens that his decision-making now impacts a whole village. I’ll get into this more in a bit, but the obvious comparison for the film and character is The Magnificent Seven.
Quinn’s Leon has been a bad, bad dude with bounties over his head and soldiers always on his trail. Out of desperation and survival, he follows this priest into a desert wasteland. Once he arrives in San Sebastian, Leon starts to make tough choices, not just selfish choices. So where The Magnificent Seven had seven gunfighters, here we have only one, but the premise is the same, bad guys to anti-heroes to gunfighters doing what’s right, not necessarily what’s easy. He also gets to cozy up to one of the women in the village (Anjanette Comer) who knows his secret. It’s just a cool dynamic though, the supposed savior and the village needing some sort of help, familiar but tweaked.
So if we have an interesting flawed main character, we need a worthy opponent, right? Who better than Charles Bronson? In the mid 1960s headed to Europe and became one of the world’s biggest stars, and he’s having some fun here. It isn’t the most well-written, developed villain, but it’s a good part. Who else to look for? Jaffe is excellent in a smaller part and Comer is good too, shoving aside the helpless female role that’s all too familiar in the western. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos too has a fun part as Cayetano, an architect tasked with building a wall-like fort around San Sebastian to hold back an attack. Jaime Fernandez plays Golden Lane, the Yaqui chief, with some familiar faces among the villagers if you’re a fan of ‘Magnificent Seven’ and The Wild Bunch. There’s also small parts for Silvia Pinal, Leon Askin, Pedro Armendariz Jr., and Jorge Russek.
‘Guns’ has a ton going for it beyond the acting. As mentioned, the story is both familiar and unique in how it develops. It was filmed on-location in Mexico with several familiar locations in and around Durango, including El Saltito waterfalls that’s also been seen in Major Dundee, The Train Robbers and Sons of Katie Elders among others. It’s the rare spaghetti western filmed away from Spain and Italy. Also, master of the genre when it comes to soundtracks, composer Ennio Morricone delivers an absolute gem, a beautiful score that isn’t as big and booming as some of his more well-known scores. Listen to an extended sample HERE. Morricone’s score playing over the final scene is one of my all-time favorites. As always, it’s always a plus when the littler things come through in such strong fashion.
I’ve seen this movie three or four times now, and it gets better each time. Great performances, interesting story, an impressively staged, large-scale action scene, memorable score, and an excellent, appropriate ending. Highly recommended and well worth tracking down.
Guns for San Sebastian (1967): *** ½ /****