Sergio Corbucci might have faded into obscurity if Spaghetti Western fiend Quentin Tarantino hadn’t reimagined his most famous character, Franco Nero’s “Django,” as an ex-slave avenger in “Django Unchained.”
Corbuccci made over 60 films, from sword and sandal fare of the early ’60s to 1980 genre trash like “Super Fuzz.” But he found his steadiest employment with Westerns, filmed on Spanish locations and Italian soundstages, blood-spattered action fare with looped sound, Italian actors, sometimes an American lead or two, occasionally even a German (Klaus Kinski).
The costumes, firearms and rolling stock was always just a little off in Spaghetti Westerns. Pre-Internet, there was only so much research a director of Italian quickies could do. That fake electronic-whistling gunshot sound effect is an instant give-away that you aren’t going to see any sagebrush, cactus or tumbleweeds in this particular film. Because while Spain might have had its share of weathered cantinas and vaguely European wagons and coaches, the flora and fauna is quite different.
“The Hellbenders,” titled “I crudeli” in Italian, was highlighted at a Tarantino-curated film festival and made it onto the “Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained” director’s Top Ten Westerns list some years back.
It’s a post-Civil War massacre and robbery tale about unreconstructed Confederates led by the great Virginia-born character actor and Orson Welles chum Joseph Cotten. The film is best appreciated for the unsentimental view of the Confederacy it presents, something Hollywood was still avoiding in such contemporaneous fare as John Wayne’s “The Undefeated.”
The movie is a simple villains’ odyssey, get the cash and get it “home” to the South, and fend off Yankee cavalry, a nosey posse, Mexican bandits, a lone bushwhacker and Indians as they do. The siblings in Col. Jonas’s “Hellbenders” (named for a salamander) will fight over the mission, the money and the women they get to play a grieving widow escorting her late husband’s coffin to wherever they expect to bury him. And Col. Jonas will sound positively Falwellian in his mission to create his “new Confederacy of states created under God.”
But, about that mission. Does anybody think a lone coffin could hold enough greenback dollars to “reorganize the Confederacy, attack the Union and win back the South?” Confederates were never very good at math, then or now.
The one son of the colonel who seems savable might be Ben (Julián Mateos), the one who has to recruit a fresh “widow” (Norma Bengell) when their first one, a brassy, weepy drunk (María Martín) gets herself killed. Ben had a “different mother” from the other two (Gino Pernice and
Ángel Aranda), who are drooling savages. Ben is almost humane.
Corbucci puts on a staging, filming and editing a shootout tutorial in the film’s first set-piece, the ambush in which the cavalry escorting a load of worn out currency to a mint where it can be destroyed is wiped out.
There’s a cornball game of cheater’s poker in a Denton, Texas saloon, a borrowed Sergio Leone plot-point (treasure in a coffin to be dug up) and a less-than-Leone feel in the dialogue, the cheap costumes, too-tidy makeup, the looping and the not-Morricone score.
The film doesn’t dawdle between the way stations on this quest. But it lacks urgency, and even the fanaticism seems blase.
Critics at the time noted this was not one of Cotten’s better performances, and it most certainly isn’t. But one can appreciate the callous fanaticism for the Lost Cause, his dismissal of the slaughtered, foe and friend.
“Don’t fret about them, son. We’re not kin.”
But I’m not all-in on this film, which has its moments, just not enough to overcome the grating shortcomings Italy’s finest brought to America’s greatest gift to genre cinema.
When it comes to Spaghetti Westerns, there’s Chef Leone, and everybody else — Corbucci included — is just pasta in a can.
Rating: unrated, violence
Cast: Joseph Cotten, Norma Bengell, María Martín, Julián Mateos, Gino Pernice and
Credits: Directed by Sergio Corbucci, scripted by Ugo Liberatore, José Gutiérrez Maesso, and Albert Band. An Embassy Pictures release on Tubi, Youtube, etc.
Running time: 1:32