"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Shalako (CIN, 1968)

Head them off at the pass, old boy

Marcus Stiglegger (external link), a German film studies person, on his blog says: . “Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema.” .

This is an odd statement. The British ‘Western’ was made countless times, in the shape of all those films about the North Western frontier and fights against Afghans or Zulus or followers of the Mahdi, in wild, far away places, which featured brave heroes fighting natives and wild terrain (with a sub-text, like the American Western, of a mission to ‘civilize’). It was an entirely a suitable metaphor.

Furthermore, the Brits made Westerns – proper Westerns, set in the 19th century American West. Like the French and Germans, the British made some very early Westerns. Fate (1911) is said to be the first Western shot in color. British actors, directors and writers, as well as producers, had a go quite often, and while it has been suggested (by Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns) that Britain’s contribution to the Western has been on a par with that of Switzerland’s to naval warfare, this is unfair. The Singer Not The Song, directed by Roy Ward Baker in 1961, starring august John Mills and a leather-clad, rather camp Dirk Bogarde, is not rubbish (though not very good either), and Shalako (1968) is even rather good.

Brit Stewart Granger made a good fist of Westerns (look at The Last Hunt, 1956, for example) and was a convincing Western hero. Alan Sharp (1935 - 2013) was a fine writer and The Hired Hand (1971) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972) are as good as anything an American wrote. His stuff reminds me of Elmore Leonard. It’s that good.

Of course there were turkeys. Catlow in 1971 was a sort of Brit spaghetti. The Brit team of director Michael Winner and writer Gerald Wilson was hopeless and, even worse, disrespectful to the genre. They were responsible for Lawman (1971) and Chato’s Land (1972), both very poor, despite the first having fine (American) Western stars in the shape of Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. Winner & Wilson just didn't get it, at all, and should have stuck to commercial Death Wish-type pulp. There was also an attempt to cash in the comedy Western with Kenneth More as a frightfully British Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958), directed by Raoul Walsh, no less, which was surprisingly good - unlike Liverpool-born Arthur Askey (1900 – 1982) in the perfectly dreadful Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956). There was even a ‘Carry On’ Western: Carry On Cowboy (1966), like Ramsbottom, toe-curlingly bad.

Mind, as far as Brit sheriffs are concerned, I prefer John Cleese in the excellent Silverado (1985). Michael Winterbottom directed the very fine The Claim in 2000, a remake in Western key of The Mayor of Casterbridge. And look at how good Christian Bale was in the latest 3:10 to Yuma. It was astonishing that the young lad who played the posh colonial public schoolboy in Empire of the Sun could make a convincing Civil War veteran Arizona farmer with grit. But he did. So some excellent British producers, writers, directors and actors.

Shalako was a big British production. It starred three famous British stars of the time: Sean Connery, taking a break from his fifth James Bond movie; Honor Blackman, Cathy Gale of 43 Avengers episodes; and classic posh Brit Jack Hawkins (1910 – 1973), star of countless films where an English gentleman was required. Even Bosky Fulton the baddy was a Brit, from Northern Ireland, and the butler was played by popular and famous English comic Eric Sykes. The film's producer, Euan Lloyd, was English and went on to make Catlow and A Man Called Noon in ’73. Like Shalako, both were based on Louis L’Amour novels. Shalako was in fact one of Louis L'Amour's best books.

I actually like the movie Shalako. Some people are rude about it but in fact Connery made a good Western hero. Shalako is an ex-army colonel, intelligent, well-read, competent, knowing, brave. Connery rides very well. His laconic, slightly Bondish tough-guy approach suits. He does a good job with L’Amour’s hero. Quite surprisingly perhaps, he 'had it' where Western lead roles were concerned. .

And all those Europeans out in New Mexico were entirely believable. Eurocrats did come out to the West in large numbers on extravagant hunting parties and, like Trollope, Dickens and Wilde, to tour, make money and learn about the culture of the wild frontier.

Brigitte Bardot looks, now, dated to the point of ridicule. Her 60s eye make-up and bouffant blond hairdo are hilarious. But there’s no denying the fact that she was gorgeous and of course she was a huge star at the time. In fact Connery and Bardot were probably the sexpots of the late sixties. BB gets a topless scene, of course.

Woody Strode of all people is the Apache chief Chato. Actually he is quite convincing.

L’Amour is a much underrated author. Some people talk of his books as though they were cheap pulp of no literary merit. This is quite wrong. His Western novels were carefully crafted, well-plotted and full of authentic detail. Their characters are quite subtle and subtly drawn.

A pity that Almeria had to stand in for New Mexico, although I must say the scenery is pretty stunning. It’s just that the colors are all wrong. It’s just Europe. And it looks so odd to see Apaches riding over southern Spain. The credits say that the film was made at Shepperton Studios in the UK and “on location”, which is pretty dumb, like saying it was made “in a place”.

Of course the film was made in that late 60s spaghetti heyday when Almeria became more common as a Western backdrop than New Mexico or Arizona did. . Nowadays, they all have to be made in Canada. Actually, that isn’t quite fair. New Mexico is making a comeback. Quite rightly, of course.

The (good, solid) direction is by Canadian Edward Dmytryk. The music is also by a Canadian (Robert Farnon) and conducted by a Scot, Muir Matheson – it’s not very good, in fact, as it is mainly variations on a theme of the title song (by Brit Jim Dale). That would be OK if the title song weren’t mindless drivel.

The cinematographer, Ted Moore, was South African. It was only thanks to North Dakotan L’Amour and LA-born Woody that there was any Yankee input at all. The crew still made a damn good fist of it, though, and Shalako will stand very well as an example of a good British Western. .

There's a double-decker bus leavin' town at noon, Herr Stiglegger. Be on it.



  1. sounds like I'd better watch Shalako,a very good cast I agree.Iwill let you know what I think of the title song...

  2. I will have to watch Shalako.A very good cast I agree and I will let you know what I think about the theme song