Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Somebody Warn the West..."

After covering the last Fred Williamson Western Adios Amigo, I figured I'd cover two of Fred's earlier Western entries, which have become infamous if only for their titles.

It appears to be proof of just how much of a comeback the Western had had thanks to the European set that this blaxploitation flick got off the ground a year before Fred starred in perhaps his biggest hit of the era with Black Caesar, and the fact that Fred was coming off his run on the groundbreaking and tender TV series Julia (1968-1971) that The Legend of N*gger Charley (1972) made it to the big screen.  And people at the time were no more comfortable with the title than they are now. The story concerns a slave blacksmith who's given his freedom by his dying master only to have it revoked by an abusive heir. In a fit of rage-fueled revenge, Charley kills the heir and escapes to the West with his two compatriots, Tobey and Joshua. They're pursued by a fugitive-slave hunter and his posse, and after confronting them in a western town shootout, they're hired by a farmer to rid himself of a crazy outlaw preacher and his gang.

Sound like too much for one movie?  Well, simply put: it is. Any one of the three acts of the story could've been enough for a decently constructed movie, but as it is, it just kinda ends up as a structural mess. When Charley and gang have the shootout with the slave-hunter in the middle of the movie, it seems as though that would be the end except that we're given a whole new storyline that doesn't have enough time to be set up properly for their to be any kind of tension before it's all over.  As it is, it's an adequate if disjointed piece of entertainment. Fred is his usual charming self. D'urville Martin is competent comic relief.  And for being on the lower end of the genre, it's not a wholly bad looking film (although the print I saw was awful). And both villains, the slave hunter and the outlaw reverend both seemed ripe for being entertaining villains if only either of them had enjoyed adequate screen time or development.

In the end, Legend was either successful enough or demand was still great enough, that Paramount (yup, the big movie studio paid for both of these movies) put Fred back in the saddle for The Soul of N*gger Charley (1973) the following year. This time Charley's mythos has spread through the West, and when he comes across a murderous band of former Confederates capturing former slaves to take to a new slave state in the Mexican wilds, you know damned well Charley's going to put a stop to it. This bigger and badder affair features a Quaker community, crazy Confederates, a big train robbery of $100,000 in gold, and more bandidos than you can shake a six-shooter at.

As a story, Soul is a far more cohesive affair that dumps you right into the action with an opening massacre, but occasionally stalls out with unnecessarily long riding sequences. A good twenty minutes could've been stricken from the run-time merely by cutting to the chase so to speak with many of these long vista rides. Still and all, it doesn't quite gel into a great Western as their are still a sizable number of gaps in logic and in both movies, there's a tendency to hit jags of unnecessary and out of place moments of melodrama. And again, there was a lack of development on the part of the villains. Primary villain, Colonel Blanchard is adequately crazy and creepy, if his crack squad of soldiers seem appallingly inept much of the time, but it almost feels as though it needed more of just how awful the evil new Confederacy they were building was going to be. I suppose it's like what I call "Nazi Shorthand", meaning that if you make an obvious villain/s the villain/s you don't have to waste time developing him, her, or them. And while most of us are all too familiar with the evils of the slave plantations, the movie barely answers what that would look like in the north of Mexico.  In any event, a superior effort, if lacking a bit of the vitality, to the original.

(Sorry folks, couldn't find any trailer to go with these.)