As ponderous and deeply silly as The Master Gunfighter is, it’s a gently graded foothill in the foreboding Bad Movie mountain range churned up by the tectonic ego of by ’70s schlock auteur Tom Laughlin. The tallest, and deadliest of these cinematic peaks is surely The Trial of Billy Jack. Sadly, I will shortly be attempting to scale that K2 of the motion picture world. Whether I conquer it or instead am myself destroyed in the effort, time will tell.
The Master Gunfighter was, presumably, an attempt to broaden Mr. Laughlin’s commercial appeal. Mr. Laughlin had had, by this point in time, success with three earlier films built around the character of Billy Jack, an ex-Green Beret, half-Indian, ass-kicking pacifist. Think what you will of Mr. Laughlin’s oevre, there’s little doubt that he managed to tap deeply into the anti-Establishment zeitgeist of the times. Moreover, he not only wrote, directed and starred in the Billy Jack films, but also personally took over their distribution when he felt the second movie, Billy Jack, had been badly handled by Warner Brothers. After reacquiring the rights to the picture, Mr. Laughlin tailored a distribution strategy for its re-release, including the use of saturation TV advertising, that proved years ahead of its time.
With the millions he pocketed from this experiment, Mr. Laughlin personally funded the third picture in the series, The Trial of Billy Jack. The result remains one of the most notorious cinematic turkeys ever. It’s a film that I feel can only be described as literally insane. Astoundingly, however, it too proved hugely successful at the box office. At that point, perhaps feeling his oats, Mr. Laughlin made the subject of today’s inquiry.
Following the comparatively lackluster showing for this picture, Mr. Laughlin attempted to retrench with a fourth Billy Jack epic. A remake of Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (!!), Billy Jack Goes to Washington followed the misadventures of the pacifist ass-kicker in the highest Halls of Power. Sadly, the film—largely financed by Mr. Laughlin himself, as was his habit—went massively over budget. Moreover, with the war in Viet Nam concluded and the evil Nixon driven from the White House, much of the hot air had leaked out of the revolutionary balloon. (And believe me, hot air was pretty much what drove it.)
In any case, the resultant film was so misbegotten that it was barely released. Mr. Laughlin, a conspiracy buff of the highest order, has long maintained that the Government suppressed the film, lest it inspire a Hippie Power revolution. In any event, Mr. Laughlin never made another film, although he would occasionally continue to act in other’s works.
The script for our current subject supposedly isn’t credited to Mr. Laughlin. However, he was known for assuming pseudonyms, and the credited screenwriter, Mr. Harold Lapland, has no other credits listed on the IMDB. In any case, he must have influenced the end result, as it bears many of his cinematic trademarks. The two most evident of these are an nearly unmatched level of pomposity, and a manifest self-regard for his own deep thinking. These are the traits, or so On Deadly Ground would lead us to believe, that made an acolyte of well-known Billy Jack rip-offer, Steven Seagal.
The pomposity is immediately evident, as we watch a sunrise slowly occur over a distant horizon. This visual is accompanied by narration uttered by infamous hambone and highly decorated bad movie veteran Burgess Meredith.
“All history is part fact, part fiction and mostly interpretation. The picture you are about to see based on the never substantiated legend of a remarkable six-chambered, double action pistol that fired twelve repeating bullets, and which was brought from the East by the son of one of the last of the great landowning Spanish Dons.
Educated along with his sister in England and the Orient, he returned not only with a pistol, but with a mastery of the technique of the Samurai sword as well. It is also the story of the legendary Master Gunfighter, who by the use of that same gun and Samurai sword, changed forever the history of early California.
But it is also factual, in that contrary to public opinion, the supposedly peaceful California missions were really built upon forced slave labor. Once an Indian was enticed into becoming baptized, he was never allowed to leave or change his mind. He would be flogged for sinning, for disobedience or for not putting out his scheduled amount of work. More serious crimes were punished by having one’s fingers cut off, eyes cut out, and even castration. And these atrocities were reported against priests as well as soldiers.
And it is also factual that the Americans in their turn not only stole all the land from the Spanish, but in the process, attempted to destroy their culture and to exterminate them as a people as well. Part fact, part fiction, and mostly interpretation. This is a story of how it was in early California, as well as how it might have beenâ€¦”
To be fair, the inclusion of this admittedly long-winded and somewhat numbing recitation undercuts a lot of the criticism that could otherwise be leveled against the film. Much of its historical content remains more than a little suspect, for example, but they’ve pretty much come out and said that it should be taken with a grain of salt. However, I’m not entirely convinced this doesn’t just represent some last minute butt-covering. I suspect they assumed Laughlin’s traditional audience would accept the film as being ‘true,’ if not factual.
Even so, much of the film’s contents remain somewhat mendacious. Those with a knowledge of Laughlin’s Billy Jack pictures will ken that The Master Gunfighter is, at least partly, meant to establish that the blood-soaked venality of the modern day Amerikkka portrayed in them grew out from an equally bloody past. Unfortunately, his attempts at a sophisticated (read: overly complicated) narrative manage to obscure the point of much of this material.
It is noted above, for instance, that the Missions established in Spanish California screwed over the native American Indians pretty good. However, these oppressors (i.e., the Spanish Dons and their countrymen) are then themselves afforded a higher moral status once the “Americans” enter the scene. After all, brownish skinned Europeans must be morally superior at least to lighter-skinned Europeans, even if clearly inferior to the even darker Noble Savages like the indigenous tribes.
In the end, it seems that Laughlin’s critiques were aimed more at the Catholic Church—although the word ‘Catholic’ is never uttered—than the Spaniards who had seized and settled the lands. However, despite the amount of opening narration given to the subject to the Missions, they have little direct bearing on the events portrayed here. Every once in a while a reference is made to some religious figure, but not enough to really draw our attention to the Church as malefactor.
In fact, the opening narration has oddly little to do with the film’s actual contents. We never see a Mission in operation, nor the referenced converted Indians tormented in the fashion described. Odder is that the Spanish Don’s son, the one who was educated in Japan and subsequently brought the extraordinary pistol and Samurai sword back to California, turns out to be Paulo, the film’s villain. (Admittedly, he’s a tragic villain, but still.) Usually, it’s the hero who embarks upon an adventurous sojourn and picks up warrior skills, not his antagonist.
The prologue acts as a clumsy mechanism to explain his use of a Samurai katana. Yet his expertise with the sword, as well as his possession of the amazing revolver, are shared by Finley, the film’s Hero. A line or two indicate (sort of) that Finley was probably raised in Paulo’s house, and that Paulo passed on to him both a second twelve-shot revolver (or maybe a pair of them—again, details aren’t this film’s fine point) and training in the use of the katana.
Meanwhile, the narration also bothers to declare that Paulo’s sister, Eula, traveled with him and received the same education. However, her presumed similar skills are not much on display, leaving one to wonder why they raised the issue. This is especially true given the infamously xenophobic and anti-Western culture of the Japan of that era. This makes it grossly unlikely that a male Gaijin, or foreigner, would be allowed to travel, much receive instruction in the art of swordsmanship, there. As doubtful as that would be, however, the idea that a woman would be allowed education in that country is even more ridiculous.
Then there’s the assertion that much of ‘history’ is interpretation. This, obviously, is true. Even so, a little context doesn’t hurt either. One needn’t condone what happened to the American Indian tribes to recognize that what occurred, or something very much like it, was inevitable. The Indians had the misfortune to occupy lands that expansionist, more technologically advanced people coveted.
Europeans had been killing each other for land for centuries. (As, in fact, had the Asians and, to a smaller extent, the Indians themselves.) They obviously weren’t going to balk, then, at killing non-Europeans for land. The cruel fact is that ‘ownership’ of the land was going to be in bloody flux until it was occupied by somebody who could hold it. Again, that doesn’t excuse the crimes committed against the Indians. Still, it’s remains a tad presumptuous for us today to cavalierly judge the inhabitants of what was, for all intents and purposes, a completely different world.
The stuff about the pistol, meanwhile, is just goofy. Presumably the twelve-shot revolver cited was actually procured during the character’s European travels—I’m trying to go along with the film as much as possible—as Japan was not known for its advanced firearms design. Furthermore, while the exact gun indicated here remains a fantasy, there was a French inventor who designed a ten-shot revolver a decade or two (apparently) after the events portrayed here took place. The result was the Le Mat revolver, and it eventually did see service in this country. It was carried as their personal sidearm by several Confederate generals during the Civil War. Eventually, though, the vogue for the gun died out, and to this day the vast majority of revolvers continue to chamber six shots.
The Le Mat’s revolving drum, meanwhile, held nine bullets. In addition, it sported a tenth, stand-alone barrel that fired buckshot. Therefore the gun established above is not quite as fantastic as it might otherwise seem, although it’s still exaggerated and highly anachronistic. Much odder, however, is that the gun’s advantage in firing capacity never once, at any point in the movie, comes into play. One can only assume that the concept was introduced because the filmmakers thought the hero having a ‘supergun’ would be neat. However, you’d think they could have then done something with it.
Moreover, the description of the weapon was obviously written by someone who knows even less about firearms than I. For example, a ‘chamber’ is, as far as I know, the cavity into which a bullet is inserted. Therefore a “six chambered” gun couldn’t possibly fire twelve shots. Moreover, the term “repeating bullets” raises more questions than it answers. A ‘bullet’ can’t be fired twice, as is seemingly the implication here.
The intro is, finally, hampered by its Laughlin-esque attempts to sound poetic and cool and all. I found the phrase “unsubstantiated legend” pretty amusing. By its very defination, all legends are unsubstantiated. After all, once a legend is ‘substantiated,’ it’s more properly called ‘history.’
Well, I guess I have to get back to the movie itself at some point. The visual accompanying the two minutes and seventeen seconds (!) of opening narration is of the sun rising over a seascape. The image starts out blurry but gradually comes into focus as the credits roll. It is thus unlike the film itself, which starts out blurry and pretty much stays that way.
Even so, it should be noted that the musical score by composer Lalo Schifrin is quite good, and certainly more energetic than what it accompanies. If Mr. Schifrin’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he wrote the classic Mission: Impossible theme, amongst his work on hundreds of films and television projects. Aside from his work here, he also scored quite a few Clint Eastwood movies, including some of his Westerns and the earlier Dirty Harry pictures.
Unfortunately, the music can only distract so much from the rest of the picture. Once the seaside beachfront has sharpened into focus, we see a woman leading a horse and rider across the screen. Following them is a long line of other people and animals. This procession, in an all-too typical Laughlin directorial flourish, is filmed in slow motion. While The Master Gunfighter remains a good hour shorter than the infamous three hour length of The Trial of Billy Jack, it’s still long enough that the use of slow motion comes across as a little cruel.
We then cut out to sea, where a schooner is sailing parallel to the shore. Remarking on the line of folks, horses and wagons, its Captain helpfully notes, “That looks like a bridal procession.” Turning to Chorika, a young Spanish (American Indian?) lady standing beside him, he continues, “I understand you’re going home to be a bride yourself.” Ah, the Wonderful World of Clunky Exposition.
Chorika asks if she can be dropped off anywhere around their present location. Her home village of Goleta, she explains, lies in the next cove over. This allows for the elaboration of further plot points, as the Captain explains the dangers of the local waters. “Just last month a government ship carrying two millions dollars in gold sank trying to get through those rocks.” I assume he means the U.S. Government, although this is clearly still Spanish California. However, I could be wrong. The film is pretty vague on a number of issues. (Some of the questions would eventually be answered, although far too many of them indirectly. However, by the time some of the information is delivered, I was far past caring.)
This leaves us to ponder why a ship, especially one with such valuable cargo, would be trying to sail through such inhospitable terrain. After all, the movie’s just spent several minutes showcasing a scenic stretch of calm beach within walking distance of the village beyond. The only possible reason to hug such a hazardous stretch of shoreline is that the gold was meant to be to be delivered somewhere nearby. However, wouldn’t it have made more sense, then, to have landed the cargo on the beach and then take it overland to wherever it was meant to go? For that matter, if the rocks are the Captain’s concern, why doesn’t he have Chorika rowed ashore to the beach? [Future Ken: It isn’t until far later in the proceedings that the situation is explained, and the rationale given then isn’t entirely convincing.]
The answer is the broader sense, of course, is that the gold is the plot’s MacGuffin. They needed to establish why it’s there, and apparently weren’t overly concerned with whether the explanation for its presence made much sense or not. Also, two millions dollars would have been a ludicrously gigantic amount of money in what is presumably the early to mid-1840s. Oddly, we never see any sign of an official investigation into what happened to this tremendous sum.
I should also briefly note the poor acting here. The guy playing the Captain delivers his lines in a manner fully as wooden as his vessel, and the young lady playing Chorika is nothing short of awful. (Unsurprisingly, her sole other film credit was a role in The Trial of Billy Jack.) The biggest problem is that she in no way suggests the time period. Her scripted lines are, admittedly, badly anachronistic to begin with. Still, her pouting reaction and whining reply to learning that she’ll have to return to her village from Monterey, which will take an additional week, has us half-expecting her to pronounce the situation a ‘total bummer, man.’
The film obviously doesn’t expect its audience to be able to appreciate the fact that the past was a completely different world. (In fact, such an awareness would actually be counterproductive, as the picture is trying to push the idea that the past and present are, for all practical purposes, indistinguishable.) Hence the insane amount of two million dollars, as well as the idea that someone living in the 1840s would find a “whole week” to be a frustratingly long time in terms of travel.
In any case, the necessary ground having been laid, we return our attention to the beachfront procession. We cut to the actual bride, who is riding in a cart. She espies masked, spear-carrying horsemen on a nearby ridge, and assumes a frightened expression. Sure enough, the horsemen rush the wedding party. We soon learn that not all is at it seems, as the bridal wagon turns out contain the aforementioned gold. (We’ll just ignore how it might possibly have gotten from a foundered ship to its present location.) The amount we see doesn’t really seem like enough of the stuff to be worth two millions dollars, but there you go.
Two men oversee the raid from a nearby a bluff, filling in more plot details as they converse. One notes that the villagers were “taking the gold over to the American agents at the Circle K ranch.” In return, we’re told, the Americans—again, the film uses the term solely to indicate citizens and agents of the United States—are to rid them of the missions. At this point its seems that Chorika, and the other villagers of Goleta, are the converted Indians alluded to in the film’s narrated preface. They must be very converted, though, as they dress entirely in the manner of Spanish/Mexican peons. After all, they wear sombreros and ponchos and other such standard articles. Moreover, the architecture of their village is much more Spanish than anything native to this continent.
(You might think the name ‘Chorika’ would have clued me to her being an Indian. However, the film itself doesn’t mention her name, at least not until much later on. Instead, I gleaned it from examining the DVD’s scene selection captions (!), the first of which reads, “Chorika sailing home.” Amusingly, these ‘chapter’ titles often do a better job of filling in the plot details than the movie itself does.)
Now, for all I know this all this is rigorously correct. However, the film doesn’t exactly do a good job of cleanly laying this sort of stuff out either. Considering that there are three separate sets of characters here; the “Americans,” the Spanish and the Indians, all of whom have their own concerns, well, I just think they should have been a little more diligent in this regard.
As the raid progresses, we see that it’s not just the bridal party that’s being assaulted, but Goleta itself. Cutting to the village, we see other the marauders rounding up the villagers. As this occurs, a horse carrying Finley (Laughlin) speeds to the scene. Sickened, he recognizes one fellow, Frewan, by his great height and elaborate hair braid. (Good thing he’s wearing a bandana mask, huh?) However, there’s nothing he can do to stop them.
We abruptly cut to “Goleta, one week later.” Chorika is just arriving from Monterrey, as established earlier. The small boat that has brought her drops her off some small distance from the village. As she begins towards her destination, she passes a crow pecking at a piece of what apparently is meant to be a body part of some sort. (I think it’s actually a cow heart or something along those lines.) She pauses fearfully to look upon this.
Walking up a hill, she finds Goleta deserted. Well, deserted of human life. There are, however, crows in evidence. Lots and lots of crows. I realize that crows have symbolic resonance as a symbol of death, but yeesh, there comes a point where the effect begins wearing off. That point is quickly reached. Here’s a breakdown of the scene, crow-wise.
o Crow eats unidentified body part; Chorika is uneasy.
o Chorika crests a hill leading to the village.
o A shot of a crow perched on a scaffold used for repairing fishing nets.
o A shot of two more crows perched on the scaffold. They caw menacingly.
o A shot of Chorika standing and staring, the raging waters behind her. This is shot in slo-mo to emphasize the beautiful scenery.
o Long shot of her entering the deserted village, with the camera pulling back to reveal that the local terrain doesn’t seem very conducive to either fishing—the shore is surrounded by rocky breakers—or agriculture.
o Shot of two crows on roof of house; camera pulls back to reveal another crow.
o Shot of perhaps a dozen crows occupying the village’s water cistern.
o Chorika approaches house.
o She sees a dead crow strung up on string and hanging from a tree. (?)
o Shot of cawing, menacing crow.
o She opens the door of a house, calls out in accent not very 1800s, Spanish or American Indian.
o Severe close-up of crow in house.
o Back to crows on cistern.
o Frightened, she continues through village. She walks into a fishing net, in which a crow is caught. She gasps.
o Cut to two crows previously seen on scaffold. One caws, they fly off.
o Shot of crow pecking at dead crow.
o Chorika turns, shock shot of dead crow tied to scaffold.
o Chorika continues calling into houses and walking through village.
o A crow erupts from a window.
o A crow erupts from an open doorway; Chorika shies away.
o The house the crow just flew from is her family’s. She opens door (which has somehow closed in the few seconds since the crow came through it), calls to her mother.
o Severe close-up of crow in the house.
o Shot of Chorika.
o Shot of crow silhouetted against window.
o Shot of Chorika, scared. Camera zooms in on her.
o Camera pans room; there’s a crow there.
o Close-up of two crows.
o She enters back room, camera cants back and forth for standard disorientating effect.
o Severe close-up of crow.
o Shock sound effect as shutters smack into the house; shot of numerous crows on dining table.
o Chorika runs upstairs to sleeping chambers.
o Several crows on blanket-covered bed.
o Crow flies down from ceiling, Chorika shies away.
o Chorika pulls back crow-laden blanket, finds her mother’s body. Camera cants back and forth.
o Outside, a flock of crows are in the air.
There are actually several more shots of crows before the sequence is over, but I think you get the idea.
Thankfully leaving the avian world behind, we cut to Finley standing in a bedroom and packing a valise. He is dressed in Spanish-style apparel that is comparatively reserved, all things considered. Paulo (Ron “Superfly” O’Neal!!) enters, clad in much more flamboyant togs. “I’ve decided to leave the hacienda,” Finley explains. This statement is followed by an Unnecessary Zoom Shot in on Paulo, proving that director Laughlin did indeed carefully study some Italian Westerns before making his homage to them.
Paulo asks about Eula, his sister and Finley’s bride. Is he planning to take her away, when “she’d die away from here”? (This being the woman the narration told us had spent childhood years in Europe and the Orient.) Finley responds that he doesn’t intend to. “My life as a drifting gunfighter would destroy her,” he admits. Averring that she means “more than everything to me,” Finley is leaving on the sly, lest she follow him. However, Finley wants something in return for leaving the life and woman he loves behind. He demands that Paulo swear to never, no matter what the provocation, again commit another slaughter like that he did at Goleta. “Swear it, Paulo,” he cries, “or I am throwing away my entire life for nothing!” Paulo does so, swearing on the Japanese katana sword (?) he carries.
For what it’s worth, the film’s running time as listed on the IMDB is roughly ten minutes longer than the version available on the DVD. Let’s indeed assume, then, that this is in fact a shortened version of the film, rather than just mistaken info on the IMDB’s part. If that’s so, then I can only assume that the missing footage answered some of the questions raised by the scene just described. For instance:
o What is Finley and Paulo’s relationship? Given Finley’s Anglo-sounding Christian name, I’m assuming he’s either Paulo’s half-brother or adopted brother. I’m assuming this, not because of any evidence presented, but because I’ve seen a lot of movies.
o Why is Finley suddenly leaving?
o How does he know his lot is to be a “drifting gunfighter”?
o How does his leaving protect the others from the consequences of the Goleta incident? With two million dollars at stake, wouldn’t there be enough attention to go around?
I assume we’ll get some answers as we go along*. Others, we can fill in, again from having seen other movies. I’m guessing that the innocent Finley is covering his brother’s crime by leaving the area, drawing the attention of the authorities in his direction. Hence he’ll have to become a gunfighter to live, as they attempt to track him down and capture/kill him. However, it’s really kind of obnoxious for the film to make the viewer figure all this stuff out on his own.[*Future Ken: Sure enough, many of these issues—although not all—are dealt with much later in the proceedings. Even so, I think Laughlin tried to get a little too fancy with the film’s narrative structure, because the early part of the movie is just plain confusing.]
Also, another short note on the performances here. Despite (presumably) being reared in a Spanish-American hacienda, Finley speaks in Laughlin’s clipped, midwestern accent. This is probably because the actor, whose general technique can be charitably described as minimalist, knew better than to try an accent he couldn’t pull off. In this he proves be wiser than O’Neal. I have no idea what sort of accent the latter was attempting. In any case, and despite his character’s background, there’s little of the Spanish, British or Japanese in it. In the end, the two ‘brothers’ couldn’t sound more different if they tried.
Finley departs, as the Omniscient Meredith returns to utter more narration:
“Finley never dreamed that as Paulo made that promise, it sealed their duel to the death. For when government agents never found a trace of a single member of the village of Goleta, the ship’s crew or the gold, rumors spread.”
“Some said they were taken away and made slaves at the missions. Others that they were taking off by pirates, or rival Indians. Some even said by crow demons. And it followed that Finley’s sudden departure from the hacienda linked him to the stolen gold. Every gold scavenger [??], as well as the U.S. and Spanish governments hunted him throughout Mexico and the Baja. Eventually, Finley was to learn that the rumors accusing him of stealing the gold were reported to have been confirmed, not only by members of the Santiago hacienda, but by Paulo himself.”
First of all, Chorika found her mother’s corpse. Wouldn’t that count as a “trace” of one of the villagers? Also, given the widely divergent theories regarding the villagers’ fate, how did it “follow” that Finley’s disappearance was connected to it. Was he assumed to have worked with the Spanish missions or pirates or rival Indians or crow demons? Also, couldn’t they at least establish which government, American or Mexican, was the rightful owner of the gold? Finally, is it supposed to be sinister that Paulo accused Finley of the crime he himself committed? After all, Finley left with the intention of drawing attention his way. So why would this constitute an act of betrayal?
Meanwhile, in the first fifteen minutes of the movie, we’ve already had over three solid minutes of narration. One of the general rules of film is “show, don’t tell.” It’s usually not a good sign when a picture of this length leans so heavily on the device, and this proves no exception. Narration is best used to establish mood, or to fill in details that a more quickly paced film doesn’t have time to establish in a more traditional fashion. However, The Master Gunfighter exhibits the same leisurely, even plodding, gait as most of Laughlin’s films. Therefore, the reliance on such an expedient aptly sums up its haphazardly structured screenplay.
Cut to Juarez, Mexico, three years later. It’s festival time, and the crowded streets are filled with Mariachi bands and folks who are dancing and tossing their sombreros into the air and suchlike. Suddenly, we espy a quartet of Ominous Gringosâ„¢ riding through the throng on horseback. They pull aside to join the (inexplicably) silent crowd surrounding a sideshow display.
Accompanied by a pretty woman playing a guitar Flamenco-style, a barker promises the crowd that they will soon be mesmerized by the amazing feats ofâ€¦The Master Gunfighter. “I guarantee you, you have never seen guns or swords move so fast!” he brays. This piques the interest of the OGs, who interrupt a subsequent spiel by a midget barker (Dracula vs. Frankenstein’s Angelo Rossetti!) and Ominously demand that the show begin immediately. Acceding to their wishes, the Master Gunfighter emerges from a tent. To disguise his identity, I suppose, he wears a damn goofy black hat. This consists of a high, thin crown that makes the wearer resemble a Conehead, accompanied by a huge, hanging brim that obscures his face.
To prove his mastery with, inevitably, a Samurai sword, the guitar player’s skirt is hiked up. As she continues to sing and strum her instrument, a large fish is placed upon her slightly parted knees. (Look, I’m just describing all this.) The crowd holds its breath, and the Gunfighter draws his sword. It slashes down in an instant and pushes the fish down between her legs, while leaving her stems unscathed. Then he draws his revolver and blows apart some small plates his associates toss into the air.
Now, a good Samurai katana was one of the sharpest implements ever devised by man. An especially fine one could be standing placed in a stream, where its blade would slice apart a leaf carried along by the current without slowing its passage. Therefore, the Gunfighter’s sword should not push the fish between the woman’s legs, not unless it was the bluntest such weapon ever. Instead, it should have left it invisibly cut in twain, like those candles Errol Flynn would imperceptibly decapitate in his swashbuckling movies.
Apparently unaware of such nuances, however, the crowd remains transfixed. The Ominous Gringos, meanwhile, one of who sports a hilariously atrocious Irish accent, debate whether this fellow is Finley. Their leader, who himself carries a cavalry-style cutlass—who knew swords were so popular in the Old West?—stops the performer from leaving, and commands the guitar player to continue her tune. As she plays, he draws his sword and cuts one of the strings of her guitar. (In a nice, quick touch, the breaking string bloodies her thumb.) He then orders her to play one, whereupon he blows off two of the tuning keys.
When this fails to draw a reaction from their quarry, he draws his sword again and slices off the brim of MG’s hat. MG stares at him manfully, but keeps his cool and walks back into his tent. The OGs remain unsure regarding whether this dude is the man they seek. “The Finley I heard about,” the mock-Irishman dreadfully brogues, “would let no man pull upon him. Ever.”
That night, we cut to a man seated outside a cantina. Suddenly, the four OGs emerge from the pitch-black darkness of the street, to halt shoulder to shoulder before him. (Wow!) The man explains that he’ll have to take their guns before they can enter. They draw upon him and in a laughably cartoonish moment, he and his chair are sent careening backwards across the cantina floor as he’s riddled by four bullets. I don’t know who waxed the floors in that place, but the guy earned his money.
The OGs enter the bar in, what else, an Ominous fashion. Per union rules, everyone hurries to get out of their way. Upstairs they confront Jacques, a suave, quick-talking black cardsharp. They act all Ominous, and he counters by acting all Wryly Unperturbed. They Ominously demand Finley’s whereabouts. Of course, they also insult his racial background, because they’re bad guys in a Socially Aware ’70s Western.
Jacques, being a Proud Black Man in a Socially Aware ’70s Western, don’t play that. One OG is quickly sent (are you sitting down?) through the balcony railing to crash into (you haven’t since stood up?) into a fully laden buffet table. The other OGs, however, don’t bat an eye. Jacques coolly extorts a second gold piece from them, andâ€¦
Cut to a close-up of a quite normal-looking revolver. “Except for the black pearl,” a voice notes, “it looks like any other expensive pistol.” As the camera shifts focus, we see Finley. “Twelve shots, you say,” his companion continues. “Amazing.” Amazing? It’s downright fantastical. The gun we see lacks the bulked up cylinder that of necessity characterized the Le Mat, and that weapon only held nine shots. I’m sorry, but to carry twelve bullets, you either need a more sizable drum or smaller bullets. Since no manly Western hero would carry a .22 or anything of that ilk, the revolver as shown is impossible.
Finley, tired of the path he has chosen, is offering the gun up for sale. Questioned as to how he’ll survive without it, he laconically replies, “Is being a gunfighter so great?” (Wow!) Suddenly, though, his keen senses pick up on something, perhaps the Ominous Background Music. He reaches back for his revolver, taking it from the prospective buyer who still doesn’t realize that anything is wrong. Holstering it (his other gimmick is a frontless, quick-draw holster), and with hand on the hilt of his katana, Finley strides forward into the deserted street.
Suddenly, the midget barker runs up, warning of an ambush. Finley, already prepared as the OGs surround him, silently gestures the barker off to safety. His four opponents—I guess the one guy shrugged off falling onto the buffet table—draw their swords. (!!) “You see, Finley,” their leader sneers, “we’re not going to shoot you. We’re going to cut you up a little first, then shoot you. Maybe.” Oh, well, that explains it.
Anyway, there’s a nice continuity error here. In the long shot, we saw all four men draw their swords. When we then cut to a medium shot of the leader, however, his sword is still sheathed. “Well,” Finley laconically responds—Laughlin’s entire acting technique can pretty accurately be summed up as ‘laconic’—”if you know who I am, then you don’t leave me much of a choice.” Yeah, it’s not like they were threatening to kill him without knowing who he was. That’d be completely different.
There’s more posturing of the sort familiar to Spaghetti Western fans, such as when Finley nonchalantly notes he’ll kill all of them, a remark that in turns draws a snort of derision from his overconfident opponents. This exact sort of moment was handled a lot better, unsurprisingly, in Leone’s classic Once Upon a Time in the West. However, while much of this film is shot in the style of the Spaghetti Western, it’s obvious from the sword fight choreography (stiff though it is), that Laughlin also screened some Japanese films. I’d have to assume this was mostly Kurosawa’s stuff, considering what would have been available at the time.
In any case, the resultant fight scene is more in the tradition of the Samurai movie. Finley stands unmoving, waiting to respond to their attack. Their demise follows in typical fashion. After the four, wait, I think it’s now five (?), men are dispatched, he guns down some additional opponents. I have no idea where all these people are coming from. Anyway, the last fellow, the one who realizes he’s over his head and drops his gun to beg for mercy, is known to Finley, presumably from his hacienda days. “Someone must have put a price on my head!” Our Hero intuits. (Well, duh!!) It turns out that Paulo, working through “The Council,” is planning another robbery/village slaughter and wants Finley dead first. Leaving the fellow quailing behind him, Finley jumps upon his horse and begins the journey back to California.
This raises all sorts of questions. First, damn, does Paulo really need more money after stealing two million bucks just three years prior? Second, this implies the entire gold heist was part of some master scheme, doesn’t it? In other words, they must have somehow caused the ship to wreck, because its not like many villages just normally have millions of dollars of gold sitting around. However, if the Council somehow caused the wreck, how did the villagers end up with the money in the first place?
My head hurts.
Also, this is a classic example of one of those deals where if the villain just ignored the hero, he’d get away scot-free. Finley’s down in Mexico, and has made himself scarce for the past three years. It’s only because men are sent to kill him that he learns of the scheme in time to thwart it. The result, of course, is that Finley heads back to California to stop his brother, or half-brother, or adopted brother, or whatever the hell he is. Seriously, when are these guys going to learn to leave well enough alone?
Cut to the Hacienda, where Paulo is, in fact, meeting with the Council. “We all know who is behind these outrageous taxes,” he fumes. Yeah, you’d think. I mean, it’s probably whatever officiating body has levied them. That’d be my guess, given nature of taxes and all. However, in this instance, Paulo lays the blames at the feet of the “Circle K Ranch and the American Cattleman’s association.” Apparently, he’s got quite a beef with them. (Man, that’s good comedy!) The central idea is that they want to tax the Dons out of existence and grab their land. Again, I feel the film’s being a little schizophrenic here. The opening narration went on and on about how the Spaniards exploited the Indians. Well, if their wealth is ill gotten, should we really be that concerned if somebody else comes along and steals it from them in turn?
“We cannot cry because we backed the Mexican government and lost,” one guys notes. This is pretty much the key point, I’d think, but it gets set aside pretty quickly. In any case, this conversation would seem to mark the time period as between 1848, when the U.S. took California from Mexico, and the Civil War. Right? Somebody, a little help here.
In any case, it’s admitted that they are currently nearly bereft of funds. Paulo maintains he can supply all they need. This heartens his amazed father, Don Santiago, who apparently knows nothing of his son’s earlier crimes. Or something. We hear a lot about this guy, but this two-second appearance is all we see of him. In any case, after the meeting Paulo’s flunky Maltese congratulates him on winning the Council’s backing. Their good mood is dashed, however, when word arrives that Finley is planning to return.
Here we learn that it was Maltese, not Paulo, who sent men to kill Finley. Ah, the Overreaching Flunky, the Villain’s bane. Good help is so hard to find. Apparently Paulo is meant to be the Tragic sort of villain, since he maintains that Finley would never act against him. Maltese disagrees, speaking of Finley’s softness. “You meanâ€¦his conscience,” Paulo sadly rebuts. (Wow!) Maltese’s true motivation is confirmed a couple of seconds later. He goes to visit Eula, and we see that he’s madly in love with her. Of course, she’s still true to Finley’s memory, despite knowing nothing of why her husband left. Also, Maltese being a mere henchman is too far below her station, anyway. In any case, she pointedly ignores his attentions.
Eula is played by Barbara Carrera, here appearing in her first movie. Her role here garnered her a Golden Globe nomination for Best New Performer—Female*. Sadly, she would lose to superstar Marilyn Hassett, who won for her acclaimed performance in the prototypical Damaged Woman tearjerker The Other Side of the Mountain. (Boy, the Golden Globe people sure can pick ’em!) Ms. Hassett also beat out Stockard Channing in the critically reviled The Fortune and Lilly Tomlin for her film debut in Nashville. All Carrera, Channing and Tomlin got in the end were successful acting careers.[*Future Ken: Having now seen the entire film, I find myself flummoxed by Carrera’s nomination, even given the legendary weirdness of the Golden Globe nominating committee. Eula is barely in the film, has comparatively few lines, and the bulk of Carrera’s performance involves looking pensively beautiful. She certainly pulls that off, but you still have to wonder how her work here warranted the nod.]
We cut back to Finley, following along with him as he rides past entirely too much scenic background. Yes, the area where they shot the film is utterly, drop dead gorgeous. Whatever. Let’s get on with it. Eventually we do, thankfully, as we cut to a saloon of the sort seen only in movies, full of rowdy cowpokes and dancing girls and whatnot. At a craps table we see none other than Chorika, who is currently taking wads of money from a group of men that includes a dude with a hilariously anachronistic Gabe Kaplan ‘fro and ‘stache. Chorika’s manner of speech, meanwhile, remains firmly rooted in the 20th century.
One guy is a tad suspicious of her luck, however. He smashes open the one die she’s been using, which proves to be loaded. She flees from the crowd, along with Gabe Kaplan Guy, who we learn is a confederate of hers, and instantly Offscreen Teleports from the middle of town to a deserted beach. There she finds herself surrounded by some irate cowboys. Of course, they deserve to be a little pissed, you’d think, given that she was cheating them out of their money. However, we of course then learn that the cowboys are (surprise) racists, so that puts Chorika back in the catbird’s seat, morally speaking.
She mouths off to them, which doesn’t seem the wisest strategy, all things considered. Still, you know, as a member of a discrete insular minority, it’s all good. In any case, she’s saved from harm when, in a simply amazing and unforeseen turn of events, Finley comes riding by. Here the Lead Bad Cowboy does the “What do you want?” honors, whereupon Laughlin rubs his face just like he did in Billy Jack right before he kicked some redneck ass to save an Indian girl. Boy, this guy’s artistic well just never runs dry. Anyway, Finley then does the “I don’t want to kill you” thing, which always puts him in a spot where he has to kill somebody. He even offers to look the coward, if that will get his opponent to back down, which of course it doesn’t.
This was the whole thing that made the Billy Jack movies so successful with hippies, many of whom craved violence as much as anybody while pretending otherwise. Laughlin played into this by giving them an essentially pacifistic dude, one who would even sacrifice his honor to avoid violence. But then, you know, They–the capital ‘T’ sort of ‘They’–would force it upon him anyway, because They’re all white and evil and all, and then he’d have to kill himself some rednecks*.[*Of course, the general idea of a man trying to put a violent past behind him, only to be forced to use his deadly skills, is a venerable trope in movie Westerns. It’s a central theme of many of the genre’s greatest classics, ranging from Shane to Unforgiven. What makes Laughlin’s take on the idea so insufferable is the sheer amount of navel-gazing his characters indulge in before accepting their fate. Even so, the concept, while still overly labored, remains less irritating here than it would prove to be in the increasingly self-satisfied Billy Jack pictures.]
Sure enough, events follow the predictable course. Finley turns to ride off, but naturally the guy is even willing to shoot him in the back. Finley turns and fires after the guy draws and blam! However, the sequence doesn’t look right, and through the miracle of home video you can go back and confirm what the problem is. See, they apparently they didn’t film coverage of Finley shooting his gun from his horse. Therefore they insert a quick close-up shot of his pistol being fired, but one that clearly was filmed indoors.
Man, that’s sloppy, especially for a film with a fairly hefty budget. This is especially funny because they went to the trouble to ‘artistically’ shoot the guy’s body falling backwards into the ocean. After he takes the bullet, we see him flying back—and, oops, you can see the rope used to pull him for the effect! We then shift to a shot taken by a camera positioned underwater, which captures him as he crashes into the water from overhead.
Oh, and Chorika and Gabe Kaplan Guy escape in a convenient nearby stagecoach, one occupied by none other than Jacques. Boy, it’s a small world.
It was round about this point that I really began looking at the clock and wondering why the hell there was still well over an hour of movie left. Said ponderings were swiftly reinforced when we cut to a pensive looking Paulo sitting before a fire and ruminating. Eula enters, inspiring her brother to have a truly pointless fifteen-second flashback to her and Finley’s wedding day. He then informs her that Finley has returned to the area. Before she can process the information, however, he moreover tells her that if Finley does come home, he (Paulo) will have to kill him.
Next is a scene with Maltese leading the raiding party guys from earlier in the movie. They’ve returned to the abandoned Goleta, which—surprise—looks exactly the same as it did ‘three years’ ago. I guess they’re waiting to ambush Finley. Or something. Anyway, Eula rides through in a carriage and I couldn’t make out heads or tails out of what was happening.
Meanwhile, some Racist White Cowboys (pardon the redundancy) are in the middle of a town molesting a screaming, tied-up Chorika. (??) They’re all a’hoopin’ and a’hollerin’ and such, as they strip her down to her slip and tie her behind a horse which then drags her through a muddy street. Just a day in the life of Racist White Cowboys, I reckon.
Then Finley appears again, and saves her again. This provides for yet another display of his amazing skill with a sword, which is inevitably followed by his having to kill three gunmen despite his ludicrously ostentatious efforts to avoid violence. (Of course, during the period where he steadfastly refuses to draw, they don’t just shoot him, which would seem much more likely.) Seriously, did we really need to see him twice over save Chorika, attempt to avoid killing somebody, and then be forced into doing so? Is this why Laughlin felt his movie had to be very nearly two hours long? Because every moment of it was pure gold and not a second of it could be sacrificed?
It perhaps strikes the reader that this is merely the carping of an ill-natured reviewer. C’mon, you may be thinking, is it really that bad? Well, let me put it another way. We’ve yet to hit the film’s halfway point. Despite this, the scene described above is not only, in essence, an exact replay of a scene we’ve already seen, it’s an exact replay of a scene we’d just watched less than five minutes earlier.
Here, at least, something different occurs as the scene ends. Finley looks around and sees Eula staring at him from her carriage. He approaches her sloooowly—I mean, why should this be different?—which is shown via his reflection in the muddy water at this feet (?), andâ€¦.we cut away.
Cut to Jacques riding through Goleta. Paulo’s men run out from hiding, presumably thinking him to be Finley. Upon seeing that he isn’t, Maltese calls his underlings off and questions him. Jacques explains that he may have info Maltese would be interested in, should he care to cough up some money, andâ€¦we cut away.
Eula is in a hotel room, relating to Finley how much she’s missed him, etc. Laughlin, it should be noted, has ever been enamored of the written word, especially when writing scripts. Therefore Eula is given a hunk of verbiage to deliver, putatively allowing us keen insight into her very soul. That dispensed with, she tells him that she wants them to just run away together. She’s brought money along and everything. (This, we learn, was provided by Paulo, who sent his sister to Finley in an attempt to avoid a confrontation.) Of course, Our Hero has got to save the innocent and all that sort of thing, so it’s no go.
To my horror, it’s now time for another flashback, as Finley finally tells Eula what happened that Fateful Day in Goletaâ€¦ (And yes, the screen indeed shimmers and wavers as we segue to the past.) Finley arrives in Goleta as the villagers are being herded together, as we saw before. Pulling up, he sees Frewan and orders him to stop the slaughter. Frewan can’t, however, as it was *gasp* Paulo who ordered these actions. Oh. Wait. We already knew that part.
However, we do get a pretty damn funny bit where the hulking henchman sneers, “Ask Padre Gregor!” Here the camera cuts up the hill, where we see a man in clerical robes. This figure then receives a close-up, one that shows him turning away from the village in shame. Following this, we immediately cut to a Zooming Severe Close-Up of Finley’s shocked expression. In sum, this perhaps ten second sequence is pretty much a textbook example of the term ‘overdirected.’ Adding to the humor is the idea that we’re to be shocked by the treachery of a character who we’ve never seen before. (Nor will again.) Gasp!! Not Padre Gregor!! How could it be?!
Suddenly one of the Indians tosses a knife, which hits Finley of all people. Isn’t that always the way? Our Hero instinctively reacts by shooting the guy, who picturesquely tumbles down a hill in super-artistic slow motion. “Now your hands are as bloody as ours,” Frewan crows, although none too convincingly. Shocked, Finley attempts to make amends by saving the fleeing bride from the procession. Before he can do so, though, Maltese shoots her in the back. Arms spread wide, she falls over towards the camera, also in artistic slow motion. Slo-mo: It’s the filmic technique that keeps on giving!
Finley wheels about and confronts Paulo, accusing him of planning to massacre the villagers all along. Paulo cops to itâ€¦wait, we knew all this stuff, too. Paulo remains unapologetic. “Without this gold we cannot pay the illegal taxes the American have put on us with Spanish blood,” he maintains. And yes, that’s an exact transcription of what he says. I don’t know what it means, either. Anyway, Finley naturally agrees about the EEEvil ‘Americans,’ but still can’t condone the murder of all these innocents. By the way, wasn’t he hit by a knife a minute ago? What happened with that?
The flashback continues at length, explaining things we’d already been forced to figure out on our own a while ago. In the end, Finley is provided with yet another opportunity to display his acute moral sensitivity, blabbing on about how he can’t live here any longer, knowing that the money that was clothing and feeding him was stained with the blood of the innocent, blah blah blah. Things end as they did before, with Finley leaving to draw attention away from the man who’d always been a brother to him.
Eventually the flashback ends, as Finley explains to Eula that Paulo is planning to do the same thing all over again. (Unfortunately, she doesn’t ask why her brother can only plan robberies that subsequently require the massacre of an entire village.) Even after hearing this, however, she still asks Finley to leave with her, to turn his back on Paulo’s actions, as he had before. Finley not only refuses, but launches into a soliloquy about how he too died that Fateful Day in Goleta, etc. and so on. The scene ends, eventually, with tears; his, hers and mine, as I sat there thinking, for the love of Mike, get on with it already!!
Finley rides into Goleta, and quickly finds himself surrounded by a score of men, including Maltese and Frewan. From a nearby balcony, Jacque looks on as well. Finley tells Maltese that he wishes to speak with the Council, but Maltese instead calls for his death. At this the assembled men all draw the swords they’re all carrying, a concept that is becoming increasingly ridiculous. Look, this is America. Enough with the swords, just shoot him, already! But no, we get an extended action sequence with Finley hacking and shooting his way though a large number of Faceless Henchman. As someone who’s seen a number of the movies featuring Zatoichi, the blind swordsman who regularly ginsus up twenty or thirty opponents at a go, I wasn’t all that impressed.
Finley rushes into a house and cuts down some men who tried to ambush him. This led to an odd moment when Maltese orders, “Hold your fire, men! He’ll only pick us off one by one if we go in there.” I myself couldn’t help noticing, however, that the building Finley’s entered is shoddily constructed from thin wooden planks. If they were to fire through the walls they could blow him apart without endangering themselves in the least. Conversely, they could just set fire to the place and burn him out.
Amazingly, though, my strategic skills prove to dwarf those of the bad guys here. “There are other ways to force him out,” Maltese observes. At this point it begins pouring rain, perhaps to explain why they don’t decide to burn him out. Even so, I found the situation pretty funny, what with all these guys sitting on their hands until they can force their one opponent outside. Especially since, as I’ve noted, they all have guns. Instead, we get the obligatory bit where two guys try to sneak into the house—one, inevitably, via the roof—and are quickly taken out. Given that the bad guys have a sizable numerical advantage, and that Finley’s actions would be limited by the fact that his movements would be restricted by the walls around him, it seems the logical thing to do would be to rush him en masse. He’d undoubtedly get the first several guys through the door, but there’s no way he’d get all of them. Of course, then the film’s hero would be dead, so never mind.
We cut from the, er, siege, to the bar we saw earlier (I assume), where the boisterous cowboys are again whomping on Gabe Kaplan Guy. Frankly, I was hoping they’d kill him, if only so that we wouldn’t have to worry about such a useless character popping up again. However, it turns out that Finley (or, as it turns out, perhaps Jacques) has cleverly given GKG a cover story to tell the cowboys, about how the Spanish are assembling in Goleta before staging a raid on the fabled-but-never-seen Circle K Ranch. Being gullible rednecks, they’d come into the village all a’ridin’ and a’rompin’ and in the confusion Finley would be able to escape. Or something like that.
Back in Goleta, the rain stops. In the blink of an eye Maltese’s men magically produce an apparently self-lighting burning hay wagon, which is rolled into the house. (Good thing for Finley that it started to rain earlier, or he’d have been dead long before the cowboys showed up.) The place goes up incredibly quickly. Meanwhile, Jacques tells Maltese that, for a price, he’ll take Finley on mano a mano, thereby presumably saving the lives of several of his men. Maltese agrees and his lackeys run out of sight.
Jacques calls into the raging conflagration, from which Finley has yet to emerge. Finley, of course, accepts the challenge and emerges to face his foe. Just then the cowboys appear, all a’ridin’ and a’rompin. This distracts Maltese and his men, and Jacques reveals that he’s on Finley’s side and helps him escape. C’mon, you didn’t think a black dude in a Tom Laughlin movie would be a bad guy, did you? Anyhoo, there follows a long gunfight sequence in which many men on both sides get shot down. The deaths are OK, though, because the white guys are racists and the Spanish guys are murderers.
Maltese returns to the Hacienda to report his failure to Paulo. Following this, we watch as the next robbery is planned. “[The ship carrying the gold] will leave Monterrey,” a henchman explains, “try to make it through the rocks and reach the open sea by tomorrow evening.” Now, California has an awful lot of shoreline, so I’m not sure why these gold shipments are always sent via a route that requires bypassing ship-threatening rocks to get to “the open sea.” I’m sure there’s a good reason, though, because otherwise it’s just really stupid. Paulo, although haunted by their actions—because he is, after all, a Tragic Villain—orders the operation to go forward.
Believing that Jacques is still in their employ, Maltese brings him in to meet Paulo. This provides the opportunity for some comic relief to be perpetrated. For instance, Jacques excitingly notes that he’s never met the son of a Spanish Don before, and asks, “What do I call him? Little Don, or Don, Jr.?”
Cut to Finley, in a hut with Chorika and Gabe Kaplan Guy. She’s applying a Wise Indian poultice to Finley’s burns, when suddenly Finley is roused to action by hearing some crows cawing. Drawing his pistol, he covers the door, which opens to reveal Jacques. Then we see Paulo being informed of Finley’s location. He gathers some men and rides out, as Eula looks on forlornly.
Back to the hut, as Jacques explains that he’s been hired on to assist with the robbery. (Why they would need him, especially as he’s a guy they’ve only just met, goes unexplained. I think it’s because the script requires it.) He tells Finley that he’s been ordered to build a big bonfire on the promontory near Goleta, although he doesn’t know why. Finley explains that Paulo plans to use the fire to lure the gold ship in on the rocks. So why doesn’t the ship leave port in the daylight, when they could actually see the rocks? “[The ship] is going to try to avoid pirates by sneaking safely out into the sea during the dark of night,” Finley explains. Gee, too bad the U.S. Government didn’t have a, whatchamacallit, Navy or something, with which to escort the gold.
Oh, wait. We did. Hmm, that’s weird.
Here’s what I don’t get. If they plan to lure the ship onto the rocks at Goleta, then why would the plan requires the oft-mentioned slaughter of another bunch of innocent villagers? Goleta, as has been established many times over at this point, has lain abandoned since the earlier massacre.
Finley makes a diorama of the surrounding area in the sand, so as to illustrate the plan. The idea is that the ship leaves Monterrey and travels down a river that empties into the bay around them, between a bluff on one side and Goleta on the other. The bay is filled with treacherous rocks, however, which must be avoided to reach the open sea. There’s supposed to be a fire lit on the bluff to help the ship steer to safety, but if the fire is instead lit on the Goleta promontory, the vessel will surely wreck itself on the rocks. Again, this is retarded. Why isn’t the gold being sent from San Francisco, or some other port lacking these hazards? This is especially unlikely given that the government has already lost a previous shipment in the same area. A shipment worth, need I repeat, two millions dollars! Hell, we bought all of Alaska from the Russians for seven million.
Also, as the ship emerges from the river into the bay, the bluff would be situated to port and the Goleta promontory would be their starboard side. As these are fixed geographical positions, wouldn’t they think it strange that the fire would be on their starboard side? Would they really still blindly steer towards it? This whole thing is stupid.
Meanwhile, I guess the innocent villagers we keep being told are to be massacred are fishermen hired to boat out to the wreck and retrieve the gold. Which frankly doesn’t make them entirely innocent to my way of thinking, but anyway. Then, to cover up the whole thing, Paulo’s men will slaughter the fisherman and everyone in their village. You might think the fishermen would be suspicious of taking the work on, given the way the entire village of Goleta disappeared following the last shipwreck. Still, that’s the idea.
Back in the hut, Finley is explaining that he wants Chorika to go for help. Suddenly, shots are heard and bullets start flying through the hut’s wooden walls. Gee, good thing the bad guys didn’t think of that idea before. Chorika and Gabe Kaplan Guy are sent out through a rather convenient trap door, although for some reason Jacques hangs around with Finley. Oh, wait, it’s because Jacques is a “federal spy,” which Finley, naturally, knew all along. “It’s a dirty job,” Jacques admits (what, foiling gold robberies?), “but it beats the hell out of picking cotton!” You got to love that authentic period dialogue.
Despite the fact that we’ve already seen bullets fly through the walls, the bad guys counterintuitively decide to rush the hut with their swords, albeit in small enough numbers that Finley and Jacques are able to slice them up as they enter. However, when the two try to escape, a net drops on them and they are captured. Then the bad guys shoot them into teeny, tiny littleâ€¦oh, wait. They don’t. Hmm, that’s odd.
Meanwhile, Paulo’s men, of which he really seems to have quite a few, kidnap the fishing village they need to fetch the gold from the wrecked ship. At this point we are treated to the huge double doors of a church opening wide, revealing Paulo and with a large crucifix looming above him in the background. My guess is that the composition of the crucifix was considered to be symbolic, since filmmakers think pretty much any shot with a crucifix in it is symbolic or metaphorical or something. Here, I suppose, it’s we’re meant to be struck by the ironic contrast between this symbol of Good and the evil that Paulo’s up to.
Paulo gives a big speech about how he hates what they’re about to do, but that they’ve been left no choice, etc., and so on. Been there, done that. Speaking of ironic contrast, Paulo speaks of having to save “our land.” Here the camera plays over the faces of the Indians they’ve kidnapped. Get it? It was originally their land, and Paulo’s people took it from them just as the “Americans” are taking it from the Dons. Wow, it makes you think.
Stuff happens. Jacques is dragged behind a horse as punishment for being a spy, the families of the fishermen are herded into the church to act as hostages, Eula is lurking unseen in a hut, etc. Then we cut to some old-growth forest (?), where Finley has been suspended on a rope high up in the in the air. Paulo arrives for yet another reiteration of his “You must commit evil to survive in an evil world” spiel, and to for about the tenth time plead with Finley to take Eula and leave in peace. Yep, there’s not an ounce of fat on this baby.
Yet again, Finley vows he’ll either save the villagers or avenge their deaths. Here a resigned Paulo draws his gun and puts a bullet between Finley’s eyes. Oh, wait. He doesn’t. Hmm, that’s odd. Instead, he shoots the rope Finley’s suspended by. Our Hero crashes painfully to earth, while Paulo orders some henchmen to “weight him and drop him into the sea.” What, you thought he’d just shoot his nemesis while he was helpless?
With Finley safely bound, two guys haul him to the shoreline. They are shocked, however, to find Eula standing in their path. I actually felt sorry for them, because hey, are you going to want to tell the boss you had to shoot his sister? Caught between a rock and a hard place, they are forced to set Finley free.
Revealing a further penchant for needlessly complicated deathtraps, we see that Paulo has had Jacques bound to the as yet unlit pyre that will be used to draw the ship into the rocks. Everything is in place; although what they don’t know is that Finley is even now scaling his way up the blind side of the Promontory. I’m not sure how he got there in the first place, but there you go. A patrolling Frewan nearly sees him, but Jacques distracts the miscreant by calling him a faggot. Considering Jacques’ current circumstances, I thought that was pretty funny. (Well, I’m sure readers in England will get it.) In any case, Frewan comes over and knees Jacques in the groin for his troubles. We cut to Finley watching helplessly as Jacques is worked over. For some damn reason, his reaction shot is filmed in slo-mo. (!)
Cut to later that night. The Spaniards are waiting to put their plan into effect. Finley, meanwhile, is himself still lurking around until the right moment. Suddenly we cut to a toy boat bobbing in a studio tank, and the cry goes up to light the bonfire. This is apparently what Finley’s been waiting for, although it seems a bit late. In any case, he slices up and shoots down a number of Paulo’s men before blasting Jacques free of his ropes. Freed, Jacques himself grabs a sword and also engages some bad guys, too. I’m telling you, the more they use the sword thing, the less I’m buying it. On the other hand, his and Jacques’ proficiency with firearms is so exaggerated that the constant sword fighting might be the more realistic element.
Meanwhile, Gabe Kaplan Guy and Chorika—remember them?—have somehow gotten into the church in which the villagers have been herded, trying to convince them that they’ll all be killed if they don’t fight back. Then it’s back to more action stuff, with bad guys by the seeming score falling to the heroes’ bullets and blades.
Around this juncture, Finley appears in the church. Frankly, I think this is impossible, as it’s entirely across the bay from where we just saw him. How the hell did he get over there, with a jet pack? Anyway. Told that the villagers refuse to fight for themselves, he orders Chorika to set the church on fire. This not only forces the villagers to flee, but provides a fire on the correct point for the ship to follow. [Plus, as Jabootu Minister Carl Fink points out: “It also is Symbolism–remember the anti-Mission rant in the intro? Now the Church burns to save the very descendants of the Indians it oppressed.” Wow!]
Meanwhile, Jacques is trying to pull down the false bonfire. Frewan tries to stop him. Being a Name Henchman, he’s given a fairly elaborate death. First he takes a bullet, then goes over a cliff to fall to the rocks below. Actually, when he falls from his horse he doesn’t appear to be anywhere near a cliff. Well, that’s the magic of editing for you!
We cut back to the church. As it’s now going up in flames, the villagers actually begin to move out of it. Not the most proactive lot, I must say. They dub in screams to imply their panic, but I couldn’t help notice that a number of the extras were smiling widely, apparently quite pleased to be in a movie. Paulo notices the second fire and angrily orders it put out, although I don’t see how the ship’s crew, who apparently don’t know port from starboard, would know which one to sail towards.
Back to Finley, who’s killing still more henchguys. He’s whacked several hundred of them by now, I think. OK, that’s exaggerated. To be accurate, he’s killed dozens and dozens of guys, not hundreds and hundreds of them. Eventually we get the scene where it’s him and Maltese. This isn’t exactly suspenseful. I mean, it’s not even the big showdown, which will obviously be between Finley and Paulo. Even so, it’s a bit funny when, following a lengthy set-up, Maltese is dispatched in about two seconds.
Meanwhile, we witness what is easily the film’s most entertaining scene, as the annoying Gabe Kaplan Guy takes a sword in the gut whilst protecting Chorika. Sadly (not to mention inexplicably), Laughlin fails to present the movie’s one truly life-affirming moment in his beloved slow motion. As he breathes his last, however, GKG takes his attacker with him over, that’s right, the side of a cliff that wasn’t there a second ago.
Stuff. Jacques manages to undermine the false bonfire, which handily plunges into the water below and is instantly extinguished. Immediately after this we see the toy ship making its way safely to the open sea. The evil plot is *yawn* foiled.
The saved Indian tribe holds a ritual ceremony of thanks, or something of that sort. Chorika and Eula are both there also, waiting for the characters who actually have stuff to do to do stuff. Paulo appears and warns his sister that he will be seeking his revenge on Finley. Well, duh. It might not make much sense for him to seek Finley’s death at this point, but obviously the film can’t end until Paulo’s been kacked.
Paulo rides to a scenic clearing and waits. Finley soon appears in the distance, and of course takes an agonizingly long time to get into position. Cripes, just get on with it. But no, they have to yak at each other first and engage in time-wasting stunts. For instance, Paulo twice draws on Finley and fires at him. The second time, a bullet grazes Finley’s shoulder. This is standard, as the villain always has to have the upper hand, so that the hero’s triumph is even more, er, heroic.
Eventually it comes down to swords, thus explaining the film’s title of The Master Gunfâ€¦uh, anyway. This scene as well goes on for longer than it strictly needs to, and with Finley taking further wounds. I don’t want to blow the shock surprise ending, butâ€¦Finley kills Paulo. Oops, sorry. We then cut to a shot of Eula looking sad, but it’s from earlier in the movie, when she was dressed differently. Who the hell edited this thing?
Of course, we could just end the movie here, or rather, no we can’t, because it’s a Tom Laughlin movie and thus we have to have The Message verbally delivered unto us, you know, in case we might otherwise not ‘get’ it. So, for the edification of those too wise to actually watch this film themselves, here you go:
Jacques: “It’s all so stupid*. The great gunfighters, just a bunch of dumb apes killing each other off, so somebody else can get rich.”[*I hear ya, buddy! Also, I think the “somebody” he refers to is the White Man. You know, like Tom Laughlin, who got rich making films filled with scene after scene of bloody mayhem.]
In any case, the Indians celebrate the end of the Church that had brought them so much misery (and perhaps salvation, but why go into that?), Finley leaves his gun and sword by Paulo’s grave, and then he and Eula ride into the sunset together. Yep, I think that covers every possible clichÃ©. Good work.
On the other hand, this leads to what is undoubtedly the film’s best couple of minutes. As the two ride off, the picture closes with a bookend shot of the sun setting to match the rising sun that opened the film. Only this time we get to listen to the film’s score and not a long stretch of narration. I have to admit, at least they saved the best bit for last.
What’s most interesting about the picture, perhaps, is Laughlin’s failed attempt to balance his goofier, more commercial side with his drive to make his movies ‘say’ something. One can certainly admire the schlocky B-Movie instincts that led him to crossbreed the Western and the Samurai film. Other movies would follow suite, although they (Red Sun, Once Upon a Time in China & America, Shanghai Noon) generally featured homegrown Asian martial arts masters who have a series of ‘fish out of water’ adventures on the frontier. Of course, there’s also the television series Kung Fu, which preceded The Master Gunfighter by several years.
Had Laughlin been to content to merely entertain his audience, he might have pulled the venture off. Admittedly, even on those terms the result is less than perfect. The American West as portrayed in the Spaghetti Westerns often seemed off key, even alien, but enough so that they almost seemed to be set in an alternate reality. This is largely because they were reactions to the West as portrayed in earlier American films, rather than the actual historical West. A fuzzier copy of a copy that was blurred to begin with, as it were.
However, Laughlin’s homegrown Western is recognizably American. Therefore, its deviations from history loom larger. This holds especially true in the ongoing progression of scenes where everyone proves to be wearing swords. By perhaps the fourth time that antagonists forsake their sidearms to draw upon each other with blades, the conceit has worn comically thin.
As well, the twelve-shot super-revolver idea seems an attempt to add a flamboyantly ‘neat’ twist to the old, established formulas. However, as noted before, the enhanced characteristics of these baroque weapons, which the film spends much time establishing, never prove to have any practical utility to the plot. Shouldn’t there have been a scene where Finley’s opponents found themselves at a disadvantage due to their more usual firearms? You’d think so, but nothing like this occurs.
In the end, Laughlin proved unable to integrate these outrÃ© elements into the standard Western template, something the Spaghetti Western was all but designed to do. If unsuccessful on their own terms, moreover, the rococo aspects of his script are even further undermined by Laughlin’s attempts to make a ‘Film’ rather than just a ‘movie.’ The project might have benefited greatly had Laughlin just decided to let the cheesier aspects dictate the end result. A speedier pace and lighter tone would have almost had to be an improvement on the languorous, needlessly somber movie that he ended up making.
Another aspect typical to the Spaghetti Western that Laughlin fails to master is their often insanely complicated plots. The main problem here is the creation of three separate grounds of characters, none of which are well served here. The Spaniards are given the most screentime, and are certainly the most fleshed-out group in terms of motivation and characterizations, although that’s not saying that much.
The Indians, however, are stick figures, helpless victims who never aspire to be in control of their own fates. Chokira is presumably meant to show their spunkier side, but in the end, she does little to justify the amount of time we spend in her presence. Moreover, the fact that they are primarily victimized by characters with whom the film also sympathizes, is also an area that never quite jells.
In another film, this aspect would be a sign of moral complexity, or at least world-weary cynicism. Laughlin, however, like all conspiracy theorists, tends to see things in stark blacks and whites. The Indians are basically pure, on the one side, with the oft alluded to “Americans” and the Church being the actual agents of evil on the other.
What makes this conceit so bizarre is that we never really see either of the latter entities in action. Mention is often made of the sinister Circle K Ranch, yet we never visit it. And while the corruption of fat cat Americans is the mechanism that drives the Spaniards to commit evil, the only Americans we see are some rather lumpen cowboys. In some ways, they’re judged more harshly for being uncouth racists than Paulo and his men are for committing murder on a grand scale.
Thematic dissonance aside, B-movies buffs will no doubt enjoy the film’s eclectic cast. We start with narrator Burgess Meredith. Best known for playing The Penguin on the old Batman TV show, Mr. Meredith had, at this juncture of his career, appeared in many fetid travesties. These include such renowned turkeys as Hurry Sundown, Skidoo, The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go, Beware! The Blob, The Sentinel and The Return of Captain Nemo, among several others. Luckily, his reputation revived after playing irascible yet lovable boxing coach Mickey in the Rocky movies. Nearly two decades after that, he again won new generations of fans as Jack Lemmon’s irascible yet lovable father in the Grumpy Old Men pictures.
Ron O’Neal was already a cult icon of sorts for his role as a pimp in the 1972 Blaxploitation classic Superfly. That movie, only the third he had appeared in, remained the high point of his acting career. Striking while the iron was hot, he immediately churned out a forgettable sequel. His next film to hit theaters was The Master Gunfighter.
From there it was downhill fast. He was soon reduced to playing supporting roles in films such as When a Stranger Calls, The Final Countdown and Red Dawn, as well as numerous TV appearances. Perhaps his career low point occurred in 1990, when somebody made The Return of Superfly without even bothering to secure the actor’s return in his trademark role. Mr. O’Neal continues to act, and no doubt spends a lot of time pacing by his phone and praying desperately that Quentin Tarantino calls.
Lincoln Kilpatrick, who played Jacques, was no stranger to the Blaxploitation genre himself, although he never scaled the heights O’Neal briefly reached. His ’70s schlock credentials were further burnished when he appeared with Charlton Heston in both Omega Man and Soylent Green. He also still occasionally pops up in low budget fare, including 2002’s The Stoneman. The IMDB lists intringingly little information on this picture, other than listing a cast that includes Kilpatrick, Pat Morita, Bernie Kopell and Christopher Atkins.
As mentioned earlier, The Master Gunfighter marked the film debut of Barbara Carrera. Following her triumphal role here, she wisely chose to appear in Embryo, the 1977 version of The Island of Dr. Moreau and the late-to-the-party disaster flick When Time Ran Out. Despite this dubious string of credits, she continued to find work. Other titles of note include Condorman, Lone Wolf McQuade, I, The Jury and Wild Geese II. And those are just her better-known titles. Indeed, when one peruses her filmography, it’s amazing that she’s as well known as she is.
Jabootu Ordinance Correspondent Kirk Draught provides information on some real-life (if notably less elegant) analogs to the magical 12-shot revolver:
“I did some digging on the web and found a couple 12-shot revolvers, neither Japanese, one of them double-action.
This pinfire revolver, possibly French, would be VERY distinctive. [Editor Ken: Indeed it is, and it’s not close to the pistol portrayed in the film.]
This handgun, meanwhile, is a more common open-top frame six gun, not double-action, American revolver. It says 2 loads per chamber with separate nipples for each chamber. I’m wondering if they mean “per charge”. That would allow you to stack the loads one on top of the other in the chamber and have the flash from the nipple travel down a hole to ignite the charge in front. The bullet for the second charge would (hopefully) prevent the second charge from igniting at the same time. This is all guess work, but it’s how I would build it if I had to.”
Fellow arms expert Richard Stump also offers information on like weaponry, as well as some thoughts on the film’s depiction of the Catholic missions:
“There actually was a 12 shot revolver manufactured. It was a sidearm for senior officers in the Imperial Russian Navy in the late 1880’s/90’s (far too late for the film). Some were still in use as late as the Bolshevik revolution, although by that time they were more decorative than functional. Designed as much for the possibility of mutiny as ease of use, they chambered 12 .22 calibre rounds and were extremely accurate… for their time. Woefully underpowered for anything but intimidating unarmed sailors, they never found much use elsewhere and are one of the rarest handguns in the world of collectors. They did, however, bear a striking resemblance to a Colt .45 and could be mistaken for that larger gun…
Although they have gained a terrible reputation, mainly from Protestant writers of the 19th century and revisionists of the 20th, the Spanish Missions were havens for the Indians. They ended the near-constant cycle of violence of the Indian tribes, provided shelter and reliable food, and protected them from the actual slavery of the Spanish settlers. The Brothers and Fathers taught the Indians to read, write, do basic math, and at least the minimal skills of a tradesman. Such punishments as mutilation, castration, etc. were certainly never employed. And if corporal punishment was used, this was (as you pointed out) a very different time where floggings and beatings were commonplace punishments for *all* people but the nobility.
This different world was also one where ideas like ‘cultural integrity’ and ‘assimilation’ were unknown. The Priests found a ‘backward’ race who could not read, write, or do math. They had no skills to be anything but ‘savages’ or slaves and existed in a world where they would never be accepted for what they were unless they were savages or slaves. In the context of the times, if the priests of the missions left them as they were they were consigning them to slavery and damnation. Intolerable then, and perhaps now.”
Editor Ken: While many will consider these comments provocative, it’s certainly true that the film, by utterly dismissing the deeply-held religious motives behind the Missions, does debate about them a severe disservice. By today’s lights, it would certainly be considered intolerable to force a religious system upon someone (assuming you really could). However, proselytizing by persuasion and good works is at the very core of Christianity in all its myriad forms, and it seems equally intolerant to hold peaceful conversions against any religious organization, even should one find the notion personally disagreeable.
My sincere thanks, as always, for the selfless efforts of Carl Fink, Jabootu Minister of Proofreading, and Shadow Minister Bill Leary, whose labors made this article suck a lot less than it originally did.