Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.
Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or
improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if
you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can
be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.
The US Civil War is over. The former Confederate Army is being dissolved,
which leads to an army of men without money or food trying to get home passing
through areas where they aren't exactly welcome anymore.
A man (Giuliano Gemma) who has given himself the pseudonym of Michael Random
- after a brand of tobacco, the film informs us, not the plotting proclivities
of Italian scriptwriters - is one of those men. While he is not a bad guy at
heart (as proven by his heroic efforts in protecting a helpless kitten from
being eaten), Michael is rather cynical about the war and his shadowy past in
which (as we will learn much later) he was a gunman known as "California", so he
would really rather keep to himself and cultivate his aloof pose. That's easier
said than done when a very young, very much not cynical former soldier named
Willy Preston (Miguel Bose) starts to follow Michael around like a loveable
At first, the older man is annoyed by his new companion, but Willy's
excessively kind nature and the vagaries of travelling together let the men grow
At the same time, a group of fur-coated bounty hunters lead by a certain
Whittaker (Raimund Harmstorf) is prowling the ex-Confederate refugees as the
easiest prey imaginable. Whittaker is in league with some Union generals who are
just too eager to produce new victims for him.
Somehow Michael and Willy are always able to just barely avoid direct run-ins
with Whittaker's group, but those guys are not the only danger awaiting
After some strokes of bad luck, Willy ends up dead with a bullet in his back
for a horse he had to steal to keep alive. Michael decides to do the decent
thing for once, and travels to the Preston farm, telling Willy's family that
their son died as a hero in the war.
Willy's parents (William Berger and Dana Ghia) are just too willing to take
Michael in as a kind of adoptive son, while Willy's cute sister Helen (Paola
Bose) takes quite a shine to the man. It seems as if Michael could make a
peaceful life for himself on the farm, but one day, when visiting the nearby
town, more bad luck leads to Helen's abduction by Whittaker and his gang, who
have just fallen out with their former friends in the military.
Michael swears to bring Helen back, whatever the cost might be.
Before director Michele Lupo ended his career with a string of shitty Bud
Spencer vehicles, he made this excellent late-period Spaghetti Western.
It's a slow film mostly built on two of the most important fundaments of
Spaghetti Western filmmaking - mood and mud. A large part of the film trades in
a silent mood of melancholia. To produce that effect, Lupo drenches his film in
muted autumn colours, fog and the aforementioned mud. It is quite a beautiful
film to look at if you are a friend of the colder seasons, and definitely a
visually well-composed one.
The film keeps the Spaghetti-typical nasty violence a bit more low-key than
usual. This doesn't mean that there is no violence on display, rather Lupo uses
violence and the undercurrents of violence as silently waiting below much of
human interaction instead of throwing it into our faces all the time. Unlike
many American western directors, he doesn't shy away from random death and the
suffering of innocents, he just doesn't wallow in it more than is strictly
necessary to get his points across.
The film's subtext isn't much friendlier than those of other Spaghetti
Westerns, though. Lupo's film isn't as hopeless as some other films of the sub
genre, but calling California's ending a happy one would be quite a
stretch, unless every ending that leaves people still standing is to be called a
I was pleasantly surprised by the acting here. Gemma has never been one of my
genre favourites (which mostly says that he isn't a Franco Nero or Lee Van
Cleef) does an excellent job of keeping his character sympathetic despite his
flaws and past and still makes you believe in both, while Harmstorf actually
manages something you don't get to see too often, namely making it plausible why
people would want to follow the main bad guy. He's quite a charismatic man in
his own, selling-women-into-prostitution way.
You could now add the usual paragraph criticizing the treatment of Bose's
female main character as an object used to keep the plot running, but I'm afraid
this just comes with the Spaghetti Western territory. At least, Lupo is showing
restraint when it comes to showing the indignities heaped upon her on screen.
Although I am not sure that this really is the better way to go about it. Not
showing the worst often just seems a bit cowardly to me, as if a film wouldn't
trust its audience enough not to enjoy a rape sequence.
The film's screenplay isn't without its flaws anyway. While I approve of its
preference for randomness in place of classic plot logic when building the film
(and here it really feels like a writerly decision to keep closer to reality
than the orderliness of tight plotting and not like incompetence), there are
moments when the film just drags its heels a little too much for my tastes.
Of course, nobody in her right mind watches Italian films for the quality of
plotting. Thankfully, the rest of the script isn't half bad.
California is one of the better late period Spaghettis I have seen,
well worth watching for anyone interested in seeing a film of the genre that
shows restraint without being defanged.