Six-Gun Reviews returns with MoM debutant Shawn Gordon taking a look at UK-Spanish co-production A Town Called Bastard (1971) starring Robert Shaw, Telly Savalas, Stella Stevens, Dudley Sutton and Martin Landau.
“Who is Aguila” – Stella Stevens
“Aguila is the revolution” – Robert Shaw.
Grim, brutal, puzzling, mysterious, mean-spirited, surreal and weird are all words used to describe A Town Called Bastard. However, ‘offbeat’ is a word that would be more correct for describing the movie. One thing is for sure, A Town Called Bastard is not like other Euro westerns.
It is produced by Benmar Films, who made several star-studded early 70’s Spanish-UK co-productions – including the Cushing-Lee vehicle Horror Express (1972) – before disappearing nearly as swiftly as they’d appeared. A Town Called Bastard is their contribution to the Zapata-western, a sub-genre that used the Mexican Revolution as political allegory. This is one of the most complex and intriguing of all the movies to come from this European cinematic movement. It is all anchored by a fascinating central performance from Robert Shaw.
It is also known as Una Ciudad Llomada Bastard in Spanish, and A Town Called Hell in a somewhat condensed (and far more confusing) version which has become a staple of DVD bargain bins. The Town Called Hell version is the one that has reinforced a negative view of the movie. The film is frequently accused of being confusing, unintelligible or downright unwatchable – it becomes apparent from a viewing of a decent full-length copy that none of these criticisms are true.
Telling a story of revenge and redemption, A Town Called Bastard begins with a widow (Stella Stevens) arriving in a gloomy, semi-gothic border town (which has been dubbed Bastard by it’s inhabitants), along with a silent gunman (Dudley Sutton). The widow is looking for Aguila, the man she believes murdered her husband. She finds the place an evil and corrupt town run by the merciless bandit Don Carlos (Telly Savalas), who promises her that he will deliver Aguila. However, he is just a charlatan who has no idea who Aguila really is. He finds the townspeople unwilling to give up a hero of the revolution.
Counselled by a cynical, but pacifist, priest (Robert Shaw) who lives in sin with his lady friend (Paloma Cela), the widow is undeterred in her pursuit. The cleric knows more than he lets on about Aguila and the revolution. Furthermore, he has ‘seen’ the widow before as a spectre in a recurring nightmare in which she kills him. Then, not long after her arrival, a Colonel (Martin Landau) in the Mexican army arrives searching for Aguila as well, acting as a sort of bounty hunter. The Priest and the Colonel have a history together, one that dates to a time when he the cleric wasn’t a man of peace.
The movie features a delectable all-star cast of international stars – including the aforementioned Shaw, Savalas, Landau and Stevens – as well as familiar supporting actors like Fernando Rey, Al Lettieri, Michael Craig and Aldo Sambrell, mostly playing despicable characters of one sort or another. The heavily Anglo-cast seem a bit out of place, playing what I presume are meant to be Mexican characters (although, in their defence, this is never stated outright) – either way, the cast is an intriguing one. Savalas in particular chews the scenery in what may his most vile role However, the movie really belongs to Shaw and Landau, given juicy roles with interesting exchanges. The lovely Stevens is striking in her gothic black dress, channelling Ingrid Pitt (she even arrives in a coffin!)
The script by Richard Aubrey, a screenwriter of few credits, isn’t exactly a lot of fun… but it is absorbing, taking its time to ponder ideas, develop themes and, eventually, connect all the threads of several different storylines which all move at once. The story is peeled back in layers, slowly, revealing much but never fully explaining things away. A lot of the movie is left open to interpretation, taking a lot of its mystery to the fade out. It’s more complex than the usual western, let alone the European variety. Never for a moment is the story as obvious or predictable as other westerns. The film is allowed to unfold at a slower pace than customary in the the genre, a fact which may put off some viewers but should intrigue others.
Robert Parrish is the credited director, while it is known that second-unit director Irving Lerner did some uncredited directing himself. Parish and Lerner were both accomplished directors who began their careers as editors, Parrish even nabbing an Oscar for his editing work on the film-noir boxing picture Body And Soul (1947). So, it is kind of peculiar that the one major fault of A Town Called Bastard is its often awkward editing, which contributes to the overall confusion which many people grumble about when mentioning the movie. The poor editing is not restricted just to the shorter version, which I was disappointed to find out: the longer cut is pretty badly edited too.
The score by Waldo de los Rios is more low-key than is usual for a spaghetti western. However, the movie does feature a strange show-stopping musical interlude – a dance hall rendition of Johnny Horton’s popular song “The Battle of New Orleans”, which isn’t, strictly-speaking, historically sound.
A Town Called Bastard is full of religious imagery including crucifixions, a martyr priest, etc. It should be noted that those looking for Leone-style action will be disappointed. While A Town Called Bastard does have moments of extreme violence, often bloody and graphic, it isn’t the fantasy-like gunplay of “The Man With No Name” variety. The movie is more akin to the personal vision found in the westerns of Peckinpah. Don’t let me over sell the movie, though: it is no Peckinpah! But it does manage to be one of the most intriguing, bizarre and often baffling contributions to a genre that too-often suffers under the weight of unoriginality and convention.
MoM Rating: 7/10