13 March 2010

Movie review: Kill Them All and Come Back Alone

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968)
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Starring Chuck Connors, Frank Wolff, Franco Citti, Leo Anchoriz, Gianfranco Cianfriglia.

I’ve decided to interrupt my series on the Westerns of Sergio Corbucci for the moment and turn my gaze on a few other Italian Westerns, and perhaps some of the stateside ones that influenced them (I'm thinking mostly of Vera Cruz). I have reached the middle of Corbucci’s filmography at this point, with three more movies to go, so it seems the appropriate time for an intermission.

First, I present you a movie from the peak years of the Italian West, 1967-1968, when the film industry of Italy produced over a hundred westerns. And this is one of them: Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (Ammazzali Tutti e Torna Solo).

Let’s be honest, a title like Kill Them All and Come Back Alone puts genre junkies like us into heat. We know it can’t be as good as its title, but if it can deliver even half of it, the “Kill Them All” part perhaps, then it’ll be worth it.

And it is worth it. And no, it doesn’t fully live up to its title.

The Magnificent Seven was an enormous hit in Italy, and had a large influence on many of its Westerns. Kill Them All and Come Back Alone takes the concept of a team of specialists on a mission, each man with his own defining skill/stereotype, and adds the cynical self-interest of the Italian Western. Team work when you need it, back-stabbing and double-crossing when you don’t. I’m sure The Dirty Dozen from the previous year—also a success in Italy—wasn’t far from the filmmakers’ minds either.

The leader of this team of pros is Clyde MacKay (Chuck Connors), a guy who—uhm, actually I’ve just told you all I know about him. Like most of the figures in the movie, he’s a physical type, not a developed character with backstory and psychological baggage. The Confederate Army hires him to steal a Union shipment of gold hidden among sticks of dynamite at a large outpost on the far western front. MacKay handpicks five ruthless and skilled men to do the job with him. Hoagy (Franco Citti) is the crack-shot. Kid (Alberto dell’Acqua) is an acrobatic psychopath who loves to leap on people from enormous heights. Bogard (Hercules Cortes) is built like a steam engine and can snap folks in two. Deker (Leo Anchoriz) loves explosions and wields a primitive version of a bazooka. And Blade (Gianfranco Cianfriglia, acting under the name Ken Wood) is the half-breed Indian who likes to use . . . well, you figure it out.

The film’s fifteen-minute action prologue, which provides all you need know about the entire cast, displays the band doing an “audition” for the job by breaking into the headquarters of the Confederate leaders who plan to hire them. Apparently, the Confederate States of America is fine about having job applicants beat the hell out of their own soldiers. The team gets the job. Colonel Lynch (Frank Wolff, a U.S. expatriate actor who appeared in many Italian films) then gives MacKay secret instructions to bump-off his compatriots once they grab the gold: “Kill them all and come back alone.” We have a title! Play the music and roll the opening credits!

Even when they don’t have an overt agenda, like A Bullet for the General, Italian Westerns usually have interesting subtexts. But Kill Them All and Come Back Alone has none. It’s all about action. The movie passes up no opportunity for a fistfight or shootout. A dialogue scene can hardly run for a minute without turning into a prolonged smackdown, with fists landing to the thunderous sound of sides of beef slapped together and run through an echo chamber.

The action is all pitched at the exaggerated level of the Italian Western; it isn’t as artfully or violently done as in a Sergio Corbucci film, but there’s so much of it that it hardly matters, and it’s executed with a good deal of creativity (some very unusual objects gets used for weapons). Knives, dynamite, machine guns, and fists, fists, fists—Kill Them All and Come Back Alone is almost ADD when it comes to action. It’s as if director Enzo Castellari feels it is a sin to waste any screen moment where one human could try to kill another human. I find it almost impossible to write about individual action set-pieces, because they blend into each other. The attack on the Union stronghold starts and stops and starts for a continuous forty-five minutes, like movements in a symphony only broken up by the conductor clearing his throat. I should really refer to the “dialogue set-pieces” instead, since action is the norm. There’s not much memorable about the dialogue however, since it exists only to provide the leanest information possible. The sole line that stood out for me is from the Confederate general, upon hearing of a small victory: “Do you see how gloriously we are losing this war?” That’s probably the closest the movie ever gets to expressing something aside from bang-pow-whack-boom!

There is a plot, just enough of one to keep the film rolling along during the five minutes total when things aren’t blowing up or people getting slugged, stabbed, crushed, or shot. It’s the standard double-crosses in the quest of gold that we know from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are twists and turns, and then stuff starts blowing up again. The performances are perfunctory. Everybody looks right for his role, and that’s all that’s necessary since character development is limited to dying. Chuck Connors has a tan, he’s leathery, and he squints. Wolff has an enjoyable time playing a rare villain part. The rest of the cast are stuntmen, for obvious reasons. There, we’re done with the actors.

Conducting all this mayhem is Enzo G. Castellari, one of the major Italian genre directors. Aside from Westerns, he has also directed espionage, war, horror, science-fiction, sword-and-sorcery, and crime films. His 1978 war movie The Inglorious Bastards was an influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, although despite its title the recent movie isn’t a remake. (Castellari has a cameo as a Nazi general in both movies.) Castellari’s other Westerns include Any Gun Can Play, Johnny Hamlet, Payment in Blood, and the Franco Nero-starrer Keoma, which is arguably Castellari’s masterpiece and the last superb Italian Western. Castellari knows action, and his pacing is unrelenting. He isn’t a director out to waste your time, that’s for certain.

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone isn’t a great Italian Western, but it’s a good one. There isn’t anything on its mind except entertaining you with numerous scenes of men in big blow-em-up and smack-crack action. It succeeds at this modest goal, and what else would you want from an exploitation action flick?

The movie is available in Region 1 from Wild East on a fine widescreen anamorphic DVD. It includes an interview with actor/stuntman Gianfranco Cianfriglia, who plays Blade. He doesn’t say much specifically about Kill Them All and Come Back Alone, but he has no shortage of stories about the glory days of Italian genre cinema and his work on Steve Reeves films and as a stuntman for Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci even wanted him originally to play the title role in Navajo Joe.

This is the end title song of the film, along with a montage of things blowing up: