Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today, I review the Charles Bronson western Chato’s Land.
Directed by Michael Winner
Screenplay by Gerald Wilson
Tagline: The scream of his victims is the only sound he makes.
What It’s About:
When mestizo Apache Pardon Chato (Charles Bronson) is harassed and challenged in a saloon by the racist local sheriff, he turns and kills the lawman, fleeing into the desert. Ex-Confederate Captain Quincy Whitmore (Jack Palance) gathers a posse to track him down, slowly losing control of the situation and the unruly bunch of men under him.
Why I Bought It:
The 70’s is a great era to drag for hidden gems of westerns, and Chato’s Land is among the best. It’s definitely overshadowed in Bronson’s ouvre by his better known work, and is probably mostly forgotten even among his turns in westerns like Once Upon A Time In The West and The Magnificent Seven. John Landis, who worked in some small capacity on the picture, called it by the numbers, but I couldn’t disagree more.
I love the washed out, ugly, pared down look and feel of Chato’s Land. The Almeria (doubling for Arizona) landscape is ugly, beige, alkali-covered and barren. It really looks hellish, crawling with flies and rattlesnakes. The characters who eke out their living in this place are almost uniformly unkempt and ugly, particularly the posse members, who are cast with some fantastic character actors like Little House On The Prairie’s Victor French, Richard Basehart, James Whitmore, and particularly the loathsome Hooker brothers, Ralph Waite (the father on TV’s The Waltons), Richard Jordan, and Psycho’s psychiatrist Simon Oakland, whose patriarchal Jubal is a standout here. The Hookers are horrific villains. Earl is introduced apparently trying to rape his sister while his brother Elias sits by shaking his head and Jubal takes his belt to him. They’re a pack of wild dogs Quincy calls upon in the hunt, but who end up biting him in the end.
Bronson, when he strips to his breechclout toward the end, looks to be carved out of sandstone, sprung from the land itself. The most significant chunks of his dialogue are spoken in Apache, so it’s a Conan The Barbarian-esque part, with Bronson doing all his acting with his physicality. He still manages to bring a humanism to Chato in the interactions with his son and the gorgeous Sonia Rangan, his wife. Rewatching it though, I wonder at his initial motivation for drinking in the saloon of an apparently notorious racist sheriff (one of the rancher’s sons describes him as a no good hillbilly who got what he asked for later on). It’s apparent the town and its lawman has a reputation, so it feels like Chato intends to kill the man. Why is he in town at all if he has a hacienda with a wife and son in the remote mountains? Why is he making a point of bellying up to the bar? He has a reputation himself as the Mexican tracker in the posse knows him and the horse he rides. One wonders if the movie opens with some kind of climax to an untold story between these two. Maybe Chato and the sheriff had a lot of previous run ins.
At any rate, once Chato guns down the sheriff and rides out of town, the first person anybody runs to is Jack Palance’s Captain Quincy Whitmore, ex-Confederate officer, ex-scout for Tom Jeffords, who famously ran down the Apache guerilla Cochise, and the most able man in town when it comes to organizing a posse.
Palance plays the character pretty much as he’s written, a man eager to relive past glories. The first thing he does when he hears there’s a fugitive killer is go upstairs and don his old Confederate duds. It’s kind of a weird thing to do if you think about it, but it’s a telling character moment. The man sits dreaming of the past. Later, in a dying fever, he curses an enemy commander and several times speaks wistfully about watching tides of gray clad men crashing against lines of bluecoats. He’s never gotten past that part of his life. The character Nye observes that Quincy is ‘chasing down a breed and dreaming of Yankees.’
It seems to be a running theme among the most prominent characters, that they can’t overcome some self-made obstacle in their lives, some obsession or obstinacy which drives them to the inevitable. Quincy must lead men. Jubal must avenge his no good brother. Earl must have a woman. Even Malachie, the most progressive of the bunch must respond to his neighbors’ call, even when he knows it’s probably not right. The inevitability each of them faces is Chato himself, who is the dead that comes with folly.
Yet he’s a surprisingly kindly reaper at first, gently urging them all to drop it and let it go. Chato killed the sheriff, but he has no quarrel with them. When they pursue, he spares the Mexican scout, knowing they will use his abilities to follow his track. He leads them in circles, sneaks in and night and spears their waterskins and canteens while they’re sleeping (sparing them again), shoots their horses, tries everything to discourage their pursuit. I think at one point he even discourages a raiding party of Comanche and Kiowa from tangling with them, telling the hostile Indians the posse isn’t worth the trouble. Returning to his hacienda and speaking to his Apache father? Brother-in-law? He even seems reassured that they will have learned their lesson.
The movie is something like the anti-Searchers, with Palance standing in as a reluctant Ethan Edwards. He even paraphrases John Wayne’s famous line about the Comanche, adapting it here for the Apache.
“Injun’ll chase something until the chasin’ begins to cost too much, then he’ll drop it. That’s how he thinks. Now he don’t plan on somethin’ comin’ after him no matter what.”
When Quincy’s posse lucks upon water and discovers Chato’s hideout while he is away wrangling wild horses, the Hooker brothers and some of the other possemen gang rape his wife. Then of course, Chato strips away his ‘white’ clothes and goes First Blood on them, rescuing his wife, running off their horses, torturing and killing Earl, and mercilessly picking them off one at a time in a variety of ingenious ways (my particular favorite being flinging a live rattlesnake into a guy’s face and watching him expire).
Their intractability has led them to their ends, and not even the mildest among them, who deride the acts of the Hooker brothers but who do nothing but stand by hemming and hawing while they are committed, is spared. Quincy swiftly loses control of the Hookers and Jubal wrests leadership of the posse from him in the wake of Earl’s death, forcing them all into the maw of Chato like a mad Ahab, until Malachie and Brady, the two Scotts rebel. But it’s too little too late.
Chato’s Land feels like a pretty brutal movie, even though much of the violence is implied rather than depicted. It’s tame by today’s standards, but it has an adult hard hearted-ness that make it ring true. As a personal note, it was a huge influence on my own feature film Meaner Than Hell.
I find the score kind of forgettable, but there are some noteworthy sound and editing choices. There are a lot of match cuts in the transitions, a zoom of a belt turning into a horizontal fire log burning, and my favorite, the screams of Chato’s wife turning into the keening cries of horses at one point.
“To you this is so much bad land – rock, scrub, desert and then more rock. A hard land that the sun has sucked all the good out of. You can’t farm it and you can’t carve it out and call it your own… so you damn it to hell and it all looks the same. That’s our way. To the breed, now, it’s his land. He don’t expect to give him much and he don’t force it none. And to him, it’s almost human – a living, active thing. And it will give him a good place to make his fight against us.”
For me, it’s got to be the ending.
Malachie and Brady, the two most reluctant of the posse members, both Scot immigrants, finally turn on Jubal and gun him down.
They immediately turn to the long trek home, short on water. One horse dies on them, but they keep going. Then, at night in camp, a rifle bullet comes out of the dark and leaves Malachie burning on the fire.
The last scene is of Brady, the lone survivor, stumbling on foot through the white, dusty rocks bordering his home, lips cracked and sunburned. He scrambles up an embankment only to find Chato sitting there atop his horse, denying his final escape. He tries to pass, and Chato simply moves left or right, herding him like a wayward steer.
Brady falls back and stumbles into the wasteland as the camera rises into a final, shaky helicopter shot, Chato ushering Brady back into the empty landscape, not lifting a finger to kill him, though his fate is pretty clear.
Would I Buy It Again? Yes
Next In The Queue: Children of The Damned