Pre-Stagecoach (1939) Hollywood used to differentiate between historical adventure pictures and westerns. Given it’s set in 1746, before there was such a thing as a revolver or repeater rifle, so a complete absence of gunslingers, this falls squarely into the former camp though its format displays western credentials. A tad top-heavy with religious allegory, “miracles,” peasant piety and an Ennio Morricone score mainlining on the celestial, nonetheless it manages to achieve a character-driven narrative and some powerful action sequences.
However, it’s a lengthy set-up. Outlaw Leon (Anthony Quinn), on the run from Mexican troops, takes refuge in a church. As punishment for giving him sanctuary Fr Joseph (Sam Jaffe) is expelled to the abandoned church of San Sebastian in an equally abandoned village. Ringing the bell to attract parishioners only alerts bandits who kill him. Donning his garb, Leon is mistaken for a priest by Yaqui leader Teclo (Charles Bronson) and strung up crucifixion style. But he’s rescued by villagers who almost elevate him to sainthood courtesy of a couple of accidental “miracles.”
Enjoying his newfound status, but still attracted to peasant Kinita (Anjanette Comer), he directs the parishioners to build a dam to flood the fields to assist in corn-growing. Teclo objects to challenges to his authority and burns down the village. The villagers turn against Leon, and although initially intending to vanish, he decides instead to blackmail his mistress, the wife of the local governor (Fernard Gravey) who agrees to supply him with weapons. Leon builds a fortress to withstand the expected attack setting up a very engaging climax in which the dam plays a critical role.
A modern audience might expect a sturdier narrative rather than one that seems to shift at whim, not helped by Leon’s indecision. And it’s too slight a vehicle to carry the political points, the state of Mexico at the time, the settlers vs. original occupants (i.e. Native Indians) scenario, the problems facing half-breeds (Leon and Teclo both), but it’s better at exploring the power of the church, the worship bestowed on any priest who turns up, regardless of how ill-suited he appears. The occasional comic sequence, banter with an architect, negotiation with a Mexican colonel, seems out of place.
On the other hand there is a truly mesmerizing performance from Anthony Quinn (Lost Command, 1966) as a womanizing low-life who happens upon redemption, so deep does his impersonation of a priest go that he can’t bring himself to touch the compliant Kinita, who is aware of his true identity. Switching between shiftiness and godliness at the drop of a hat and deriding villagers for their lack of character his turning point comes when he realizes he has fallen into the same trap. That he emerges as a wily man of conscience is no mean feat.
The other big bonus is to see someone at last recognize Charles Bronson (Once upon a Time in the West, 1969). Here he is given cinematic status, camera pitched up at his face, and allowed to eliminate the growl and monosyllabic delivery that has been his wont in lesser roles. He’s a rather decent villain at the end.
There are a couple of inconsistencies. Teclo wants villagers to take to the hills but on the other hand somehow to spend enough time tending the corn that come harvest time he can steal. And it’s a bit too neat how he falls into the dam trap.
All in all, enjoyable and very under-rated primarily, i suspect, because people come at it expecting a western rather than a historical film in the adventure vein. But it’s elevated by the intriguing narrative, the questionable hero, Quinn’s performance and the introduction to a new-look Bronson.
Frenchman Henri Verneuil (The Sicilian Clan, 1969) does well to probe so many issues for an audience probably expecting something more straightforward. James Webb (Alfred the Great, 1969) wrote the screenplay based on novel by a William Faherty, a Jesuit priest. In the book, the hero was a soldier who became a priest rather than an atheist opportunistic outlaw.