The film with a title like a football score -- it refers to a signpost at a fork in the road -- is a late mating of the Italian spaghetti western with the American revisionist western. The Italians contributed the script, most of the crew and cast, including action star Fabio Testi, who was top billed on posters in many markets. The Americans contributed director Monte Hellman, whose cult westerns Ride the Whirlwind and The Shooting were contemporary with the spaghettis' golden age a decade earlier; Warren Oates, who needs no introduction to western fans and is top-billed in the film itself; and sex. China 9 is a more adult film in its concern with the call of the flesh than most spaghettis, and for that reason, probably, it feels more like an American film. It feels especially like a revisionist film in its apparent repudiation of violence at the very end, though that comes about, in a part, in a positively archaic manner. It's less an "end of the west" film than an "end of the western," since there's a sense of exhaustion about it that overshadows its positive qualities.
We start with an archetypal spaghetti situation: gunfighter Clayton Drumm (Testi apparently speaks his own accented dialogue in the English version) gets a reprieve from hanging on the condition that he kill a former railroad enforcer whose land (and his stubborness) stands in the way of progress. Matt Sebanek (Oates) knows Drumm for what he is, and the mutual recognition forms the basis for mutual respect. If anything, the fact that Mrs. Sebanek (Jenny Agutter) has the hots for Drumm makes him more reluctant to kill Matt. But when he decides to leave Matt alive and leave the territory, she can't resist one more try, and finally he can't resist. Once Matt realizes what's happened he's ready to kill Drumm and slaps the shit out of Catherine, but she's a fighter, too. She stabs Matt in the shoulder with a kitchen knife and beans him with the housewife's archetypal weapon, the rolling pin. Convinced that she's killed the merely kayoed Matt, she runs off to join Drumm.
Somehow managing to extract the knife -- Hellman shows us his earlier futile effort but leaves the resolution offscreen, Matt gathers his brothers and hits the vengeance trail. Meanwhile, the railroad men send killers after Drumm, who failed to kill as ask, and Matt, whom they wanted dead in the first place. Matt's clan finally catches Catherine and wounds a fleeing Drumm, but as his brothers abuse his wife -- one tries to rape her -- Matt's own anger ebbs. All trails converge back at the Sebanek place, where Drumm and Matt team up to wipe out their pursuers before having their own showdown.
A brilliantly shot scene conveys how Drumm and Matt are men apart. Before everything goes bad, Matt's brothers come to his place for a party. The brothers set up some bottles for target shooting and are pretty bad at it. While we see them fire away ineptly, we see the two real gunmen quietly going about some business. Later, as the extended family sits at a picnic table for some music, we can see Drumm and Matt discussing the former's plans -- he has told Matt he's moving on -- in a far corner of the screen. Overall the film is nicely shot by Giuseppe Rotunno, who had The Leopard on his resume and would move on to All That Jazz between Fellini gigs. Pino Donaggio's score leaves something to be desired, sounding a little too contemporary for its own good. Hellman, who directed some of Oates's best performances in Two Lane Blacktop and Cockfighter, gets dependably good work from here, while Testi struggles for credibility between his accent and his designation as beefcake but manages somehow to project the right attitude of weary arrogance. In the end, there's something too good to be true about Clayton Drumm. In the climactic gunfight he actually shoots Matt's gun out of his hand like a Saturday matinee singing cowboy. Matt is chagrined and a little disgusted, telling him that soft-hearted gunfighters -- Drumm is sparing Matt's life, you see -- don't last long in this territory. The final twist to the story is that Matt takes his own advice to heart. He keeps his wife but quits everything else, burning his house down after they pack their goods on a wagon instead of holding out against the railroad. These end notes of reconciliation and renunciation seem like a betrayal of the hard-eyed realism of the revisionist westerns and the cynicism of the spaghettis. It's arguably valid on the film's own terms but it still looks like giving up, and it looks less like Matt giving up on his land than the filmmakers giving up on the western. Appropriately enough, this was just about the end of the line for the Italian western, while the American genre was in such a virtual dormancy that attempted revival films of the Eighties like Silverado would look like historic events. China 9, Liberty 37 signifies two directions a traveler can take, but the film itself, good as it often is, looks like a dead end.