Michael Winner’s 1972 western is an interesting entry in the revisionist form of the genre. A number of self-reflective elements are in place but not everything works as Mark Fraser finds out…
Not all of the so-called anti-westerns made during the late 1960s/early 1970s were revisionist – even when they seemed to be re-examining aspects of the past. Top 10 Films looks back at one work where a number of self-reflective elements were in place, but they somehow failed to click.
While Michael Winner’s violent 1972 oater Chato’s Land may lay a claim to being a revisionist western, it is actually nothing more than a piece of respectable exploitation.
To be fair this is not necessarily a bad thing given the movie is quite competently made and, on the whole, boasts some satisfying performances from pretty all of its colourful cast.
Furthermore, it does undeniably contain a number of revisionist qualities, thus helping it partly slip into a western sub-genre where “traditional heroes give way to a world where morality is blurred and shades of gray dominate”.*
However, with its one horse plot and easy-to-digest sense of immorality, Chato’s Land doesn’t really deserve a place beside its superior revisionist cousins like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970), Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (also 1970) and Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid (1972) – films which, in one way or another, cover similar territories.
Unlike Peckinpah, Penn and Aldrich, the usually ham-fisted Winner was never really interested in nuance or subtext. Rather, he seemed to work on the assumption that his audience only wanted two things – violent conflict and bloody resolution. If anything, his movie looks more like a spaghetti western than any serious attempt to re-define the conventions of a well-worked genre.
Consequently, Chato’s Land remains in the same league as the exploitative American anti-western pot boilers that emerged during the first half of the 1970s like Don Medford’s The Hunting Party (1971), Barry Shear’s The Deadly Trackers (1973) and Don Chaffey’s Charley One-Eye (also 1973).
The film starts with the most basic of premises – a half-breed Apache named Pardon Chato (Charles Bronson) is harassed in a small town bar by a fat sheriff**and kills the redneck lawman in self-defence.
After fleeing the crime scene, he is chased by a posse made up of predominantly white town folk and farmers which is initially led by the level headed Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), but is later hijacked by the blood thirsty bullying racist Jubal Hooker (Simon Oakland) and his just-as-detestable brothers Elias (Ralph Waite) and Earl (Richard Jordan).
At first the cunning Chato successfully lures his pursuers into the wilderness, sabotaging their water supply and killing some of their horses along the way in an effort to dissuade the boys from continuing their search.
However, having underestimated their resolve, the half breed unwittingly (and somewhat incomprehensibly) leads them to his home, where a number of the group savagely rape his woman (Sonia Rangan) and murder his relative/friend/corral hand.*** In retaliation, Chato ups the ante in his cat and mouse strategy, causing the posse to literally implode as its members are either knocked off from afar or turn on each other as the futility of their self-destructive quest dawns upon them.
As basic as this may sound, Chato’s Land does enjoy a few distinguishing qualities which have, over the years, helped it remain a little more than just a low rent imitation of its contemporary revisionist counterparts.
First of all it boasts a pretty interesting cast of supporting actors, which encapsulate the crumbling group dynamics of the posse quite well.
The members of this ensemble – most of whom would not look out of place in a Peckinpah film – deliver such solid performances that the audience momentarily forgets the movie’s main star, Bronson, pretty much says next to nothing and exerts his influence on the story as a malevolent omnipotent force rather than as a traditional leading man. In essence, the bulk of the film is not really about Chato; rather, its focus is on the group’s self-inflicted implosion as it succumbs to a mixture of racism and morally corrupt cowardice.
Certainly a good part of this is due to Gerry Wilson’s strangely effective script, in which the dialogue of the white pursuers gradually gets more and more fatalistic as they wander deeper into the desert wilderness.
As the pipe-smoking Captain Whitmore, Palance may not be a villain in any classical sense, but he does eventually become part of the group’s problem after he refuses to deal with the growing threat posed by the hot-headed Hooker brothers, initially turning a blind eye to the rape and murder that takes place at Chato’s home. And while the good captain is ultimately in it for the thrill of the chase (he even gets dressed up in his Confederate army regalia for the event), his primary interest is still to capture the half breed to make sure that white justice is meted out in the form of a lynching, no matter how unjust it might be.
The same applies to Joshua Everette (James Whitmore), a straight talking farmer who also doesn’t take part in the rape/murder, but matter-of-factly tells the posse’s leader just before embarking on the mission that he would “ride any place to see a dead Indian”, adding: “This could be a good land without the Indians.”
Even the two members of the posse who come close to deserving sympathetic consideration – the Bible-carrying Gavin Malechie (William Watson) and his younger brother-in-law Brady Logan (Paul Young) – are tarred by the Hooker’s sins, and can only sit back and wait for the chance to kill Jubal before making their escape. Unfortunately, for the retreating pair, Chato is waiting for them.
At the end of the day the only white voice of reason in the film is Ezra Meade (Peter Dyneley), a landowner who refuses flat out to join the posse, presumably because of his obvious contempt for the Hookers and the fact he’s not a redneck racist (he has an Indian working for him, who is also more or less ordered to go along for the ride as a scout by Jubal, but declines).
As mentioned above, while all of this melodrama may have the markings of a revisionist western, there are still two key reasons why Chato’s Land remains firmly entrenched in exploitation territory.
Firstly, as in a lot of other Winner movies, the violence is simply too gratuitous to be considered anything else but exploitative. The late English director seems to enjoy watching his actors get bashed over the head with rocks, bitten in the face by rattlesnakes, knifed in the back of the neck and falling head first into camp fires or puddles. In one scene the camera even dwells on a dead horse that has been partly eaten by the posse and then left to the buzzards. Gritty perhaps, but not particularly subtle.
Then there’s the rape scene, which again looks as if it is really only thrown in by the director for shock value. Having said that, this admittedly brief brutal sexual encounter is nowhere near as nasty as the extended gang rape in the Winner/Bronson 1982 vehicle Death Wish II, when a group of Los Angeles street thugs repeatedly beat, violate, and kill a Mexican housekeeper (Silvana Gallardo) during what is possibly one of the most pointlessly provocative and audacious moments in the British auteur’s 33 film oeuvre.
Finally there’s the undeniably one dimensional portrayal of Chato, with the finely muscled Bronson pulling every noble savage cliché out of the book. Once again there’s not too much nuance here, let alone character development, as the half breed routinely goes about dispensing with members of the posse adopting a ruthless zeal that borders on the psychotic.
In this regard it’s worth noting a point made by Armando Jose Prats – in his 2002 book Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western – that revisionist westerns contain “an overtly ethical critique of empire and a vehement insistence on the full and equal humanity of the Indian (to) claim the thematic centre”.****
If anything, this doesn’t come close to describing Chato’s Land. Aside from the fact the film seems to wallow in white society’s questionable ethics, it also openly celebrates the revenge-driven Chato’s need for retribution.
For instance, while he shows obvious respect for the posse’s Mexican scout (Raul Castro), muttering to himself in one of his few lines of dialogue that he’s “pretty good. Pretty good,“ the half breed then shows no hesitation in shooting the poor man in the back during an attack – this despite the fact the Mexican is also a victim of European colonialism and thus a kind of kindred spirit.
And while he gives the loathsome, sister-chasing Earl Hooker his just desserts by tying him to a tree branch and burning his genitals, Chato again reveals his nastier side when he shoots one of the film’s few sympathetic characters (Malechie) in the back at night as he is making his way back to civilisation. So sure, this Indian may well be at some kind of thematic centre, but his sense of humanity proves to be just as suspect as that of his enemy’s.
Charlie and Jack
Finally, there is an aspect of Chato’s Land which has nothing to do with revisionism or genre, but should be of interest to Hollywood historians – that being the casting of Bronson and Palance in the same movie.
These two actors, who were born only a few years apart and grew up in similar environments but experienced very different career trajectories, finally came together in a movie in which they didn’t end up appearing together on screen.
Bronson – who was of Lithuanian stock and born Charles Buchinsky during 1921 in Cambria County, Pennsylvania – spent a good portion of his youth working in coal mines before serving in the US air force during World War II. He didn’t make his first movie until 1951, when he had a small role in Henry Hathaway’s You’re in the Navy Now. He then had to wait another seven years (and appear in 26 more movies as well as a number of TV shows) before landing his first lead part, that being in the Roger Corman gangster yarn Machine Gun Kelly (1958). By the time he made Chato’s Land, his first of six movies with Winner, his star was well and truly on the rise, albeit more so in Europe than in the US. A couple of years later, after the pair made Death Wish (1974), Bronson shot to Hollywood superstardom, becoming one of the best paid actors in the world overnight.
Meanwhile Palance, a Ukrainian descendant whose real name was Vladimir Palahniuk, was also born in Pennsylvania (1919 – in Luzerne County) and worked in the coal mines as a youngster before joining the US air force during the Second World War. Unlike Bronson, he enjoyed early success as an actor, receiving fourth billing in his debut movie Panic in the Streets (1950 – directed by Elia Kazan) and awarded two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominations by 1953 (Sudden Fear – 1952; Shane – 1953). His first lead role was also in 1953 with Man in the Attic. It was his eighth film.
Post Chato’s Land, which was Bronson’s 54th movie and Palance’s 46th*****, things couldn’t have been more different. Up until the end of the 1980s Charlie was the leading man in just about everything he did, while Jack – whose resume included top billing in a Jean-Luc Godard film (Contempt – 1963) – was relegated to a few B-grade leads and supporting roles. Having said that, Palance’s work was finally recognised by Hollywood in 1992 when he received the best supporting actor award for City Slickers; this at a time when Bronson’s career had become something of an embarrassing sell out after he appeared in a slew of right wing vigilante movies, many of which were so vulgar they made Chato’s Land seem like high art.
Looking back, it’s doubtful that anything would have been much different had these two men actually appeared in the same scene given the world weary Captain Whitmore still would have had to have done all of the talking while Chato grunted and grimaced. Chances are it may have been quite anti-climactic.
Written by Mark Fraser.
*Quote lifted from the entertaining and articulate movie website FunTrivia.com.
**Despite conducting some research, and revisiting the film itself, I have been unable to find the name of this actor, whose character is called Eli Saunders.
***Again, while I was unable to unequivocally identify the actor or determine what his character’s relationship to the Chatos actually is, I suspect it’s either Celestino Gonzales or Luis Amarilla.
****Armando Jose Prats, Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western, Cornell University Press, 2002, p 152.
*****These numbers were derived from glances at both IMDd and Wikipedia. Having read quite extensively about Bronson in the past, his figure looks correct; the one for Palance, however, is a surprise. Either way, one thing that’s quite interesting about both of their careers is the amount of TV work they each did during the 1950s and 1960s.
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