The Omega Man

Posted on May 26th, 2010 in 1970s, Charlton Heston by Colin

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Up to now I haven’t touched on science fiction on this blog. The reason for that isn’t that I have any beef with the genre, rather that it tends to get plenty of attention elsewhere. The truth is I’m quite fond of sci-fi, at least the movies from the 50s through to the 70s, and watch a reasonable amount of it. One of my all time favourites in the genre has to be The Omega Man (1971), a film that’s not without its faults but whose strengths raise it up high. To the best of my knowledge, the story by Richard Matheson has been filmed three times now with The Omega Man being the second effort. It’s a movie very much of its time, but Charlton Heston’s central performance and a fantastic score by Ron Grainer power it on and help to divert attention from the weaknesses.

The story is pretty straightforward: a Sino-Russian conflict spreads westward and eventually engulfs the whole world, resulting in germ warfare that essentially wipes out humanity. The film opens with Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), a former army scientist, driving through a barren urban landscape. This scene, which never fails to give me goose bumps, has Neville cruising down deserted streets to the accompaniment of Percy Faith’s A Summer Place blasting out from the car stereo. For an instant, everything seems almost idyllic - but the illusion of an early morning spin in a still sleeping city is shattered violently as Neville stamps on the brakes and produces a machine pistol to rake the windows of a building where he’s just spotted a dark figure flitting silently by. From this point on it becomes clear what the real situation is; Neville is the last healthy human in a world of corpses and photo-sensitive mutants. The first three quarters of an hour are spent establishing the near hopeless situation Neville finds himself facing. He commands the city by day, hunting mutants and searching for their hive, but the nights belong to the black robed Family. It’s clear that the strain of his solitary existence and nights spent holed up in his fortress-like brownstone have begun to take their toll on Neville’s psychology. He spends his time conversing with himself and playing chess with a bust of Caesar, and he’s beginning to crack up. Were any person forced to live in such isolation and fend off regular night time assaults and taunts from the sinister Family, it’s not unreasonable that they’d start to imagine they could hear phones ringing and begin to question their own sanity. Neville has spent two long years ploughing this lonely furrow, until he catches a glimpse of what he thinks might be another normal human being. It’s only when a slip on his part leads to his being captured by the Family that he finds out he’s not as alone as he thought. That whole first half of the movie carefully builds up a picture of Neville’s world and the horror of living within it. The second part takes us in a new direction as we see him regain hope and perspective. The question is whether that new hope can be sustained, and the answer is left open when the movie reaches its conclusion with one of the most memorable (and touching) final shots and fade outs in cinema.

Charlton Heston confronting the grim handiwork of the Family.

I started off by pointing out that The Omega Man is not without its faults, and I’ll try and address those first. The thing that will strike any modern audience is that this is a 70s movie, and proudly so. The imagery and many of the themes are rooted firmly in that decade. The problem is that this lends it an air of kitsch that may be off-putting to some. The presence of Rosalind Cash and Lincoln Kilpatrick results in a curious mix of jive talking blaxploitation and more serious questions about race relations, and they don’t really sit comfortably together in retrospect. However, that stuff is more a matter of personal taste and could be seen as part of the movie’s charm. A bigger issue is the Family (this is probably the main weakness of all three versions of the story) who never come across as threatening as they should. They do attain a cult-style creepiness, and their malice is never in question, but there’s also a slightly comical air about them - not helped by a hammy performance by Anthony Zerbe as their leader Matthias - that dilutes the danger somewhat. On the other hand, Heston’s take on Neville really anchors the picture. He does very well in the opening half when he basically has no one to play off and has to earn the viewers’ sympathy and support single handed. I thought he brought the right balance of tough resilience and increasing despondency to the role. The other major plus is a score by Ron Grainer that evokes the mood of both the story and the characters beautifully. I think it would be fair to say that Grainer’s music plays a significant part in ensuring the movie remains eminently watchable - this is probably among the best pieces of film composing the decade offered.

The Omega Man is one of the gradually increasing number of classic films that’s made it onto Blu-Ray. Having said that, I’ve yet to buy into the format myself (partly because of a lack of attractive titles but mainly because I’m satisfied enough with the quality of the DVDs I own - but that’s a discussion for another time) so I’ll confine myself to saying that I’ve no doubt the BD adds to the overall visual presentation. The old Warner DVD was one that never gave me any cause for complaint, with a strong and detailed anamorphic scope image. For me, the film is an old favourite whose failings can be easily ignored when there’s the pleasure of seeing Heston near his best and hearing Ron Grainer’s haunting melodies.

The Big Country

Posted on April 23rd, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, William Wyler, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons by Colin

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The Big Country (1958) has been described as a Cold War allegory, and I guess the reasons for that are fairly clear for anyone who wants to see them. It’s also been referred to as a traditional “stranger in a strange land” style tale, which is once again obvious enough. Whilst the latter is a theme that’s been visited too many times to mention, the former tends to date movies badly if that’s all there is on offer; one has only to compare a one-note diatribe like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue to multi-layered works such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, or Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid to see the difference. What raises The Big Country above a trite critique of contemporary politics and lends it a timeless relevance is the fact that it’s also an examination of man (or should I say men) and what he’s made of. The hero continuously has his masculinity questioned and challenged, and it’s his refusal to play others’ games and conform to preconceived ideas of how he should or should not act that builds up his stature in the viewer’s eyes while, conversely, it is diminished in the eyes of his fellow characters.

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the archetypal easterner come west. His arrival is enough to literally stop the locals in their tracks, gazing in wonder at this alien figure with his trim suit and odd hat. McKay is a seaman who’s come to this new land to wed Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of a wealthy rancher. Within a very short time McKay has a run in with Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and his brothers, and so gets his first taste of the situation he’s landed himself in. The Hannassey’s are a rough and ready clan of ranchers engaged in an off and on vendetta with McKay’s future father-in-law Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). The cause of the feud is a piece of land that both families covet due to its providing that most valuable of commodities in the parched prairies of the old west, water. Having said that, the bitterness and venom that both Pat and the Major express when speaking of their not so welcome neighbours hints at some deeper source for the rivalry. Right away you can sense McKay’s unease at the raw hatred he’s exposed to, and the fact that he refuses to share in it and even backs off confronting the Hannassey’s shocks his bride-to-be. In fact, McKay seems to do nothing but disappoint his betrothed; he avoids taking a ride on the unbroken horse that’s traditionally wheeled out to give all newcomers a rough welcome, and worst of all turns his back on a fight that the Major’s foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) goads him into. As far as Pat is concerned, these all amount to calculated insults and his shunning of such public displays of machismo cast doubts on his manhood and, by extension, on her pride and judgement. However, the viewer gets to see what Pat and her father don’t: that McKay is no coward, he’s merely a man with a deep sense of personal honour who’s offended by the act of showing off to others and proving to them that which he’s very sure of himself. When Pat rides off in a huff, and the Major and Steve go hunting vengeance, McKay quietly takes out that unbroken horse and sets about taming it. Time and again the animal hurls him into the dust of the corral, and time and again McKay gets back in the saddle until he finally bends it to his will.

The thing about McKay is he’s spent years sailing the oceans of the world and knows full well what hardships he’s capable of enduring. He feels no obligation to show the Major what a big man he is for the simple reason that he’s already proven that to himself. To McKay, that’s all that matters: that a man should know his own abilities and that his woman should believe in him just because she is his woman. For Pat, however, that’s not the case and she comes to feel shame for having chosen a man who regards acts of bravado as beneath him. If further evidence were needed of McKay’s physical courage then it comes in a remarkable night time scene. Having begged off a public brawl with Steve, McKay pays him a nocturnal visit to “say goodbye”. The two men walk out onto the moonlit prairie and engage in a brutal fist fight that was marvellously filmed and choreographed. Director William Wyler shot the whole scene without music and the only sounds heard throughout are the grunts and gasps of the two men punctuated by the thud of bone striking flesh. Wyler also made excellent use of the camera in that scene, alternating between close-up, medium and ever widening long shots that point up not only the isolation of McKay and Steve but also their insect-like insignificance (and indeed the insignificance of their struggle) in that vast landscape. By the end of their bout, as both men stand bruised and bleeding, McKay asks Steve what he thinks that has proved. In addition, there’s also the standoff with Buck late on, when he rides into the Hannassey’s place to try and rescue Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) and head off a bloodbath in the making. As Rufus (Burl Ives), the patriarch of the Hannassey’s, does the honours the two men take the requisite number of paces and turn to face each other down the barrels of McKay’s antique duelling pistols.

East meets West - Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston in The Big Country.

I’ve already mentioned William Wyler’s masterful use of the wide lens, but it’s to be seen all the way through the film. The whole thing is a visual delight that takes in both the sprawling prairie vistas and the blanched rocks of the canyon between Terrill’s ranch and the Hannassey’s place. Blanco Canyon is the setting for the scene that, for me at least, is just about the finest in the picture. The Major has decided that a showdown with the Hannassey’s is unavoidable and sets off to finish things for good. When it becomes apparent that he and his men will be riding into an ambush, the Major turns to Steve for support. However, this man has had his bellyful of mindless violence and says so. The Major rides off alone to meet whatever fate awaits him. Steve has looked on this man as a surrogate father all his life and you can see the anguish etched into his features as he watches him depart. He mounts up, and the camera moves to the mouth of the canyon and the lone figure of the Major. As Jerome Moross’ spine-tingling score slowly builds the angle shifts slightly and Steve gallops into view, drawing level with the Major he looks back to see the rest of the ranch hands come one by one round the rim of the canyon. There’s not a word exchanged between Heston or Bickford but the flickering glances and quickly concealed smiles speak volumes. To me this is cinema at its purest, where visuals, score and subtle expression tell the viewers all they need to know about the nature of a relationship, and in this case what masculinity is about - the importance of loyalty, affection and sheer guts even when good sense should dictate otherwise.

I honestly couldn’t criticise any of the performances and just about every major character felt fully rounded. Peck’s hero is maybe too straight down the line but that’s a minor complaint when you consider that such a role was necessary amid all the complexity elsewhere. Charles Bickford should be the guy to hiss at, but the raw courage and determination he invests in the Major tempers the less savoury aspects. There aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country, Chuck Connors comes the closest but even he is more to be pitied than anything. He shows himself to be only a step or two above an animal towards the end but it’s hard not to see him as something of a victim of circumstance in some respects too. I thought Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances in a role that ensured he got to act in a restrained and measured way, his lower billing probably contributing to that. Burl Ives picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part and I’d say he deserved it on the basis of a couple of memorable scenes alone - his gatecrashing of Major Terrill’s party and the climax, where he is forced to do the unthinkable, immediately spring to mind. Both Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker did well portraying two opposite sides of the female character and made the most of their screen time.   

MGM’s R2 DVD of The Big Country is slightly disappointing. The anamorphic scope image is generally clean and sharp with good colours but there are some really irritating instances of shimmer, especially when any of the wooden buildings are on view. What’s maybe more annoying is the fact that the disc is practically barebones. This is an important film, and not simply because it’s an epic production; it’s a movie that’s both visually and thematically rich and deserves better. Anyway, despite some reservations about the DVD the film itself is a genuine classic that ought to have a place on the shelf of those who consider themselves western fans, or even just fans of quality cinema.

55 Days at Peking

Posted on November 29th, 2009 in 1960s, War, Nicholas Ray, Ava Gardner, Charlton Heston, David Niven by Colin

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I generally steer clear of writing about huge sprawling epics on this blog, but that’s not to say I don’t like them. As it happens I’m extremely fond of such films and often feel that it’s a near impossible task to do them justice in a relatively short write up. When I was growing up the Samuel Bronston movies were always a source of marvellous entertainment to me, and represented some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on film. So, when I realised this would be my hundredth post here I thought maybe it was time to turn my attention for once to a genuinely big film. I could have chosen El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire but opted instead for one of the so-called lesser Bronston’s, 55 Days at Peking (1963).

The action takes place in the summer of 1900, during the latter stages of the Boxer Rebellion, when the foreign legations in Peking came under siege. Without wanting to get mired in historical detail, it seems safe to say that the Boxers found their roots in a sense of unease over the growing foreign influence in China. At the time this influence was most apparent in the area of religion, with Christianity usurping the local variety. The movie opens with a brief voiceover narration to the accompaniment of a cacophony of national anthems assaulting the eardrums. After a little more exposition in the Forbidden City, the camera cuts to the arrival of a column of dusty and weary US marines. At their head is the swaggering figure of Major Lewis (Charlton Heston), no mean feat while still on horseback. That the situation in China is spiralling out of control is immediately obvious when we see an English priest, strapped to a water wheel, being slowly tortured to death. Lewis’ attempts to buy the priest fail and the only thing he and his men accomplish is the killing of a Boxer. From here events move inexorably towards the inevitable crisis. Despite the best efforts of the British minister, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), a state of war is fast approaching. In the midst of the mounting chaos Lewis finds himself drawn into a romance with a Russian aristocrat of dubious reputation (Ava Gardner). This slow build up occupies the first half of the film and it is quite heavy going. However, there are some visually impressive set pieces, such as the confrontation with a Boxer “theatrical” group during the Queen’s birthday celebrations, to keep it from becoming totally bogged down.

It’s only with the murder of the German envoy that things start to heat up on the screen. This is the point where the real action and spectacle take centre stage. Lewis’ romance starts to fade into the background as all attention is focused on the ever more desperate attempts to defend the foreign compound from wave after wave of attacks from the fanatical Boxers. It’s these marvellously choreographed scenes of pitched battles along the ramparts that really breathe life into the movie. The maniacal determination of the Chinese to breach the foreign defences forces the besieged men to come up with ever more ingenious ways to repel them. When the Boxers wheel a massive tower laden with explosives up to the perimeter, and proceed to bombard the exposed compound below, there’s a wonderful scene wherein a French priest (Harry Andrews) with a suspiciously strong Irish brogue supervises the construction of an improvised mortar to lob fireballs back at them. While this all sounds slightly deranged on paper it’s filmed and performed with enough style and conviction to remain gripping and tense throughout. Even though the seemingly endless assaults and counterattacks make for great cinema in themselves, there’s also a well filmed sequence of a night time raid on the Chinese arsenal which concludes with a magnificent and explosive payoff. The only false note is having the British minister tool up and join the raiding party on their sortie - although I’m guessing it was done to give David Niven the chance to get away from pottering fretfully around his study.

Take my hand - Charlton Heston in 55 Days at Peking

One of the pleasures of watching the epic movies from this era is the knowledge that the sheer scale of the production wasn’t anything but real. Nowadays, in the age of CGI, the thought of something as financially prohibitive as building a full size replica of the besieged compound and filling it with literally thousands of swarming extras would be enough to give the average studio executive palpitations, if not an outright seizure. However, the fact that what you see on the screen in a movie like this is real and has actual physical mass adds something indefinable, a quality that’s now been lost. Somehow the very knowledge that you can now create pretty much any image imaginable on screen rubs away a little of the magic for me. To all intents and purposes 55 Days at Peking was Nicholas Ray’s last film, having walked away leaving it incomplete after one argument too many with Bronston he suffered a heart attack. It’s not his best work by any means and I don’t believe he was ideally suited to these kinds of large scale productions. Still, the striking use of colour throughout does seem to bear his hallmark. As far as the performers are concerned it’s Heston’s film all the way. Chuck was in the middle of that purple patch that would last another decade and he stamps his authority all over this picture. Though to be fair, while the film doesn’t develop his character to any meaningful degree it does offer ample opportunity for the kind of iconic posing only he could pull off convincingly. David Niven’s quiet, gentlemanly dignity is a welcome contrast (his casual flicking aside of the kneeling cushion when summoned before the Dowager Empress is a beautifully understated moment), and he even manages to make some fairly trite dialogue sound credible by adopting just the right amount of earnestness - a true professional. Ava Gardner was nearing the end of her days as a leading lady at this point and her performance is adequate but nothing more. I understand that she didn’t get along particularly well with Heston (they certainly don’t have a lot of on screen chemistry) so that may be part of the problem. Finally, a word about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; his style is not to everyone’s taste and he’s sometimes criticised for being excessively bombastic, but I like it a lot and think it’s perfectly suited to this kind of larger than life movie.

55 Days at Peking is available on DVD from a number of sources worldwide, and the edition I have is one I picked up in Greece years ago. It was released on the PCV label and it’s got a fine anamorphic scope transfer that doesn’t suffer from any major damage or colour fading. The image is progressive and doesn’t look to me like it’s been manipulated excessively. I’ve had a look at the screencaps on the Beaver’s site and I’m fairly confident that my copy looks a good deal stronger than the Japanese one featured there. It’s R2 PAL, of course, and runs at 156 minutes including the overture, intermission, entre’acte and exit music. It’s a shame that reports of poor sales seem to have halted further releases in R1 of the Miriam Collection since the Bronston titles already out in that line are probably the best on the market. This is a movie that’s been neglected in more ways than one over the years and critics have rarely had many positive things to say about it. It is probably overlong and could use a little trimming in the first half, the use of Caucasian actors in the major Chinese roles is possibly a source of annoyance for some, but I still enjoy the movie immensely. Perhaps the fact that it’s a throwback to that vanished era of large scale, no holds barred filmmaking adds to its charm for me. I recommend it if you can get your hands on a decent copy.

Tombstone

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No. Make no mistake; it’s not revenge he’s after…it’s a reckoning.

Is Tombstone the best western of recent years? Perhaps not, but it must surely rank as one of the most entertaining. Eastwood’s Unforgiven may have more things to say, it’s themes may run deeper, but despite its undeniable quality it is nowhere near as much fun as Tombstone. When one sets about telling a story that has already been committed to celluloid as many times as this one has, it’s no mean feat to produce something which avoids staleness. The trick was to make a film that stayed closer to the historical facts than any previous effort, yet compress it and ensure that the pacing didn’t suffer. Tombstone manages to maintain this fine balance: the facts are mostly adhered to, but some are altered for dramatic effect and, crucially, the script never allows itself to getbogged down in tedious minutiae.

The title of the film makes it plain that it’s going to deal with the portion of Wyatt Earp’s life spent in the town of Tombstone, and the events surrounding it. Of course references are made to the lives and exploits of the Earps in the years preceding the story but they’re never labored, serving only to clarify the reputation of Wyatt. The opening of the film is a short montage of black and white shots with a voiceover by Robert Mitchum to establish time and place. This little sequence ends with the famous shot from The Great Train Robbery (1903), where a gun is fired straight at the audience. In truth, this is only one of many homages paid to the classic westerns of years gone by, the film is littered with them. From there on, it’s pure blood and thunder stuff as we get our first glimpse of the villains of the piece, the Cowboys, riding into a Mexican pueblo to massacre a wedding party as an act of vengence. The real Cowboys were a band of outlaws who came together from time to time to engage in various criminal acts. The movie, in order to heighten the drama, gives the impression that they were a closely knit group - a sort of western prototype for the mafia. The Earps, on the other hand, are shown to be former lawmen (except the younger Morgan) who have no interest in a confrontation, preferring to spend their time building up their finances via gambling. Some of their less savoury activities, such as their alleged involvement in prostitution, are glossed over, although Ike Clanton (Stephen Lang) frequently refers to them as pimps. They only find themselves drawn into conflict with the Cowboys after the killing of town marshal Fred White (Harry Carey Jnr) forces their hand. As a result, the situation soon deteriorates rapidly, culminating in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, the Cowboys’ retribution, and Wyatt’s subsequent vendetta.

Hell's coming with me - Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp. 

The centrepiece is undoubtedly the shootout at the O.K. Corral, and this is filmed with much more attention to the real details than ever before. The movie takes pains to show who shot who, when, where and how. Even the dialogue sticks close to what has been recorded, with Wyatt (Kurt Russell) telling Ike to either get to fighting or go (he went) and Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) delivering the memorable “You’re a daisy if you do” before dispatching Frank McLaury. It’s a well filmed scene which captures not only the spontaneous excitement but also the nervy disorganisation of the event. The aftermath of this was a lot of legal shenanigans before the Cowboys took bloody revenge on the Earps. The movie skips over the legal wrangling completely and condenses the Cowboys’ attack into one night of violence. While this may be taking liberties with the facts, it helps the film immeasurably by ensuring the narrative keeps moving. The greatest divergence from the truth takes place during the depiction of the vendetta. There were nowhere near as many people killed as the movie suggests, although the entertainment value would have been greatly reduced if this had been insisted on. Even so, the film still manages to include some genuine happenings here, such as Wyatt’s shotgun duel with Curly Bill (Powers Boothe) and the stopover at the ranch of Arizona cattleman Henry Hooker (Charlton Heston).

I'm your huckleberry - Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

The acting is dominated by Kurt Russell as Wyatt, Val Kilmer as Doc, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. These three performances are central to the success of the movie and they’re so good it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the roles. Russell plays Earp as a cold pragmatist driven to action only by family loyalty, and an emotional icicle who’s gradually thawed out by Dana Delany’s slightly goofy but attractive actress. Michael Biehn’s Ringo is a study in madness and evil, alternately killing priests, quoting in latin, and screaming at the Earps that he wants their blood and souls. The real standout, though, is Val Kilmer as the screen’s definitive Doc Holliday. It is unlikely that Kilmer will ever play a better part (he’s certainly done nothing approaching it since) than the doomed lunger. He gets all the best lines and delivers them with such fatalistic charm that you can’t help liking him. The script also offers him a great exit; if that deathbed scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye then you’ve obviously mislaid your heart somewhere. It’s nice to see a nod to the classic westerns with the casting of Harry Carey Jnr and Charlton Heston, and Robert Mitchum’s narration - Mitchum was to have played Old Man Clanton but a back injury on the first day of filming put paid to that. A few other references to the movies of the past come with Dana Delany singing Red River Valley (one of John Ford’s favorites) and Russell channelling the spirit of Henry Fonda as he reclines on the boardwalk with his heels on the hitching post before marching off to the O.K. Corral and immortality.

The only DVD of this film worth owning is the R1 Director’s Cut. The anamorphic scope transfer is generally good, though there is visible edge enhancement. The 2-disc set has a number of extras including a commentary from director George P. Cosmatos and, most importantly, it is the only complete version of the film. The added scenes, while not of huge significance, do help fill in a few gaps in the narrative. Although Tombstone will probably never attain the status of one of the great westerns I still get an enormous kick out of it every time I see it.

The Last Hard Men

Posted on December 10th, 2007 in 1970s, James Coburn, Westerns, Andrew V McLaglen, Charlton Heston by Colin

Sometimes the title of a movie is almost prophetic; James Coburn and Charlton Heston were probably among the last real tough guy actors. But everything must change and be replaced, and that’s the underlying theme of this 1976 end-of-the-trail western.

In the early years of the 20th century Zack Provo (Coburn), along with a half dozen others, escapes from a chain gang and goes on the run. News of the breakout reaches retired lawman Sam Burgade (Heston) who realises that Provo will come gunning for him. It was Burgade who ran Provo to ground and he knows that old scores will have to be settled. With the abduction of Burgade’s daughter (Barbara Hershey), the chase is on - ending only after an orgy of sub-Peckinpah slow motion violence.

James Coburn

The movie was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and, like most of his work, promises more than it ultimately delivers. McLaglen, an apprentice of John Ford, always knew how to film a landscape and offers some pleasing images here. The main problem is that he seems to be trying to remake Big Jake in the style of Peckinpah, and it never really comes off. However, we’ve seen all this before, and seen it done better. Heston tosses out some lines about how the times are changing, but it doesn’t feel like it has any real conviction. Jerry Goldsmith provides a rousing score but again there’s nothing original - it is the same one he produced for 100 Rifles a few years before. All in all, not a bad movie but not a great one either. If you’re a western fan, or a Heston or Coburn completist like me, you’ll want to check it out - just don’t expect too much. 

The film is widely available in continental Europe, though not in the UK yet, from Fox. The transfer is a solid one, with a sharp anamorphic scope image and strong, bright colours.