Friday, March 24, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Rider on a Dead Horse (1962)

Before you can even say “wow, a black person in a western made after the race pictures era and before ‘68”, gold prospector and all-around villain Barney Senn (Bruce Gordon) murders his black partner Sam to provide for a more satisfying share of their new-found riches for himself. His other partner, the morally slightly less disgusting Hayden (John Vivyan), Senn keeps alive because he needs the experienced frontiersman to lead him through the territory of a really cranky tribe of Apache. Despite being a bit of a racist prick himself, Hayden didn’t like Sam’s murder much at all and is obviously quite certain his “partner” will kill him once his usefulness comes to an end, but there’s little he seems to be able or willing to do about it.

So Hayden isn’t surprised when, soon after the partners have hidden their gold away on Apache territory to get away with their lives in the hopes of returning to fetch it later, Senn shoots him and leaves him in the wilderness. Hayden’s a tough customer, though, and manages to make his way to the neighbourhood of a Chinese railroad labourer camp, where the camp boss’s private prostitute Ming Kwai (Lisa Lu) takes care of him. Ming Kwai decides they will go to San Francisco together, though with a detour to get the riches Hayden quickly tells her about. Too bad Hayden has racist problems with Ming Kwai’s obvious carnal interest in him.

Unfortunately for the project of getting the gold, Senn has thought up an interesting insurance against his former partner and tells the local greedy bounty hunter Jake Fry (Kevin Hagen) a tall tale about Hayden having murdered Sam. Since the law in the area promises a thousand dollars to anyone bringing in any random murderer, and scruples aren’t a concept he’s heard of, Fry doesn’t take much convincing.

Eventually, the whole cast, and the Apaches, will end up stumbling through the wilderness, looking for the gold and trying to kill one another.

What a highly peculiar film this is. I at least didn’t expect to ever see a US western made in the early 60s with a script as much a proto-Spaghetti western script as this one has, nor would I have expected this film to have been directed by 50s low budget monster movie (of wildly varying quality) veteran and part-time TV guy Herbert L. Strock. It’s quite remarkable how close the film’s tone of laconic cynicism is to many a second tier Spaghetti, and how many scenes in it seem to prefigure specific moments you will find Italian westerns repeat again and again.

To drive the resemblance even further, Rider is, quite in style, exclusively populated by characters who are either outright crazy like Senn, or driven by greed and various other unpleasant traits and who tend to fall into the same character types the Spaghetti westerns would explore most often. Even our nominal hero is a racist – and, to my surprise, the film actually seems to have at least a faint idea that being a racist isn’t a great thing, and gives our guy a bit of a turn in a better direction, though not so much of one anyone could call this a redemption plot for him. There’s a strain of pessimism towards the human condition underlying the whole of the film that also came as a surprise to me. In part, this is of course just an element films about people scrounging against each other for gold share in general, but Rider seems particularly vicious about it, putting on a sneer when looking at a heap of dead Apaches, and not really seeming to put much stock in any of the characters changing much for the better because of what they went through. Sure, Hayden is somewhat redeemed through the love of a good woman, but that good woman also happens to be an Asian prostitute who likes to wield a knife (though she never gets to actually kill anyone with it), which is about as far from what you’d expect to see in a US western of the era, while also surprisingly accepting of facts of life Hollywood in general wasn’t quite willing to face again at this point, not even in the often emotionally and socially often quite progressive low budget westerns.

I was rather surprised and happy by Hayden and Ming Kwai actually ending up together, instead of her dying a death that somehow redeems him so our white hero doesn’t end up with an Asian girlfriend (oh noes!), as I was by the fact that the film decides to show its sole female character as its moral centre, despite the whole prostitute thing. At the very least, Ming Kwai is the only character on screen who doesn’t take convincing to be interested in anything beyond her monetary advancement. It’s all quite peculiar and unexpected.

Additionally, it’s difficult not to praise a film from this era that actually takes it as a matter of course that there weren’t just white people and white people dressed up as Indians (Native American really isn’t the appropriate term here) in the old west but also black people (though the poor man’s few lines are pretty cringeworthy) and Chinese, and even casts its central Chinese character with an actual Chinese woman instead of a white actress in yellowface.

The film’s problems are lying in its budget and its director. Strock does make a visible effort to shoot around his budgetary limitations that leave him with limited locations, some particularly shabby movie Apaches, and not exactly masses of well-trained horses and stuntmen with a style that from time to time reaches a somewhat hallucinatory quality by the virtue of mild oddness. However, as often as Strock succeeds at shots and scenes that are at least interesting to look at, off and odd in ways that again seem to pre-sage second tier Spaghetti Westerns (just watch the various sequences of people stumbling through the desert/wilderness, or think about the way Fry’s love for dynamite is portrayed), at other times, he misses so badly any given scene can easily drift off in the direction of the needlessly cheap looking and boring. I also can’t help but think Strock didn’t quite realize how uncommon and interesting the script he was working from was, and therefore put the emphasis on the more standard western elements whenever possible, where he should have gone really crazy. The film also gets a bit sluggish once everyone’s stumbling through the desert/wilderness.

On the other hand, there aren’t exactly many westerns made in 1962 or before with a mixed race relationship (even with sex – as a weird and uncomfortable pre-coital scene between Hayden and Ming Kwai very clearly demonstrates) this explicit and accepted, or with a script you wouldn’t have any trouble believing as the basis for an Italian western not made by someone called Sergio.

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