Saturday, March 20, 2010


At first I was just going to review Ruggero Deodato's first essay into cannibal cinema, which I saw for the first time earlier this month under its exploitative nom de video Jungle Holocaust. I had a backlog of other films to write up, however, and in the meantime I read venom5's survey of Italian cannibal and related horrors at his Cool Ass Cinema blog. In it, he noted that the pioneer film of the cannibal genre, Umberto Lenzi's Man From Deep River (as yet unseen by me) was a retelling of A Man Called Horse, the movie that made Richard Harris an unlikely Western star. That point provoked me to ponder the differences between the American wilderness genre and its Italian counterpart -- counterpoint may be the better word. It occurred to me while thinking about it that Indians never factored much in spaghetti westerns. I've never seen one in which they play the noble-savage role (with increasing emphasis on noble) that became common in American films. You see Mexicans more than Indians in Italian westerns, at least in my experience. The absence of Indians is understandable, I suppose, since American moviemakers are playing out issues from their nation's recent past that have no parallel that I can think of for the Italian moviegoer. Yet Italians seemed to have a distinct idea about aboriginal cultures, or at least their exploitation producers did, and it's profoundly different from the prevailing American idealization of Natives. Arguably it extends to profoundly different ideas of nature itself and the possibility of achieving harmony with it.

So I decided on a comparative approach, matching the Deodato with an American counterpart. I happened to have one at home: Richard C. Sarafian's Man in the Wilderness, starring none other than Richard Harris. It actually isn't the ideal film for comparison, since its Indians are rather peripheral to its story, but there are a few moments with surprisingly exact counterparts in Last Cannibal World, leading me to wonder whether Deodato was commenting on or parodying Sarafian.

Man in the Wilderness is at the least a case of truth in advertising. It consists mostly of Richard Harris in the wilderness. He's Zach Bass, a member of a peculiar trapping expedition circa 1820. The trappers are hauling a big boat through our title wilderness, intending to ride it down the Mississippi. It's a powerful eerie image to open the film with, and its progress gives us a visual jolt whenever we see it, but it promises a stranger, more interesting film than Sarafian actually made.

John Huston and his ship-on-wheels often seem to be part of a different, more surreal or sinister film than Man in the Wilderness, but that's where they're stuck.

The trouble begins when Zach is mauled by a bear in a nicely staged scene with some nasty wound effects. By the time his comrades have shot the bear down, Zach is at least half dead. It tells you about the influence Italian films have had on me when I assumed, when one of the trappers says, "At least he left us some meat for the rest of the journey," that the trapper meant Zach, not the bear. I realized my error quickly. The chief of the trappers, Captain Henry (John Huston) is concerned mainly with giving Zach a Christian burial before they move on. Since Zach is still alive, he details two men to stay with him until he dies, then bury him. He gives them two days; if Zach's still alive then, they should kill him, bury him, and rejoin the main group. Harris is uncommunicative but conscious enough to hear this.

Two days later, it looks as if Zach is actually getting better thanks to the minimal patching up he received. Orders are orders, however, -- except when Indians are close. The two trappers, one unwilling to kill Zach in the first place, chicken out and skedaddle, abandoning the still gravely hurt man in the middle of nowhere. From here the film consists of Zach's slow recovery, from dragging himself to a watering hole to regaining the use of his legs, from scavenging in rivalry with wolves to trapping and hunting on his own. For variety's sake we're treated to flashbacks that reveal Zach as a sullen, undemonstrative fellow. We see him as a child getting rapped repeatedly on the knuckles for refusing to answer the question, "Who made the world?" One of this film's problems is that we can't tell from this scene whether little Zach is a precocious agnostic or clinically dense. In later life we see him about to abandon his pregnant wife, but not without telling the child in her womb that he wishes them both the best despite his belief that it's foolish to be born in such a world as ours. Later yet, we see him return to find the wife dead from childbirth and his son a toddler tended by Zach's mother-in-law. Our hero was content to leave things that way, reluctant even to greet the boy. We're rooting for a real winner here, but rooting for him to do what?

The trappers continue on their way but take a detour while the Indians dither over whether to attack them. Captain Henry grows obsessed with Zach, believing like many of his men that their colleague is still alive and most likely powerfully pissed off at all of them. Having a ship in his picture with John Huston as its captain is Sarafian's way of begging for comparisons with Moby Dick, but screenwriter Jack DeWitt gives Huston little to work with. The old man has a striking costume and a proven presence on film, but he isn't sufficiently villainous or crazy to get us anticipating a showdown between him and Harris. That's a good thing, I suppose, since that showdown is an incredible anticlimax that leaves you wondering what the point was of it all.

Sarafian's wilderness isn't a benign place. It tests people, but like many wilderness films it seems to argue that the hero's ordeal has a positive or purifying effect. The location work is the film's strongest suit apart from the imagery of the ship on land. Harris's performance is almost entirely physical. He has little more than a dozen lines of dialogue in the whole picture, it seems, but he does invest his role with nonverbal expressiveness. Apart from Huston, the trappers (including James "Scotty" Doohan) are a nondescript bunch. The Indians notice Harris's existence occasionally, but usually leave him alone because he wears some sort of Indian sign. Henry Wilcoxson is their chief, which rather limits their ability to represent natural authenticity. He has a big scene with Harris in which he talks entirely in untranslated native language. There are no initiation scenes of the kind that made Man Called Horse notorious. There is, however, a moment in which Indians teach Zach Bass about humanity, and this is where I found an evil echo in Last Cannibal World.

On his road to recovery, on the trail of the trappers, Zach comes across an Indian woman by a riverbank. She's there to give birth to a baby. Our hero watches raptly, and the sight inspires the flashback to his first and only sight of his son. His eyes appear to ache with sympathy for the mother as he suddenly and clearly misses his own child. This feeling grows stronger as he sees the father lovingly claim the new baby and take the mother home.This sets up what the writer wants to be the payoff of the final confrontation between Harris and Huston, and while you can see what his point was, it's still an anticlimax, and a fatal one for this sort of film. Still, we have to note this one moment when the taciturn, solitary white man learns the value of family from "savages."

In Last Cannibal World, Robert Harper (Massimo Foschi) is on the run from his cannibal captors somewhere in the Philippines when he pauses to espy a similar sight. While the Indian mother in Wilderness is fully clothed, the Cannibal mother is as naked as most of the rest of the cast. With louder birth pains she brings her baby into the world. Like the Wilderness mother she bites through the umbilical cord. She then throws the baby into a river, presumably to be eaten by an alligator.

Apart from scenes of violence against animals (which Deodato denies shooting in a video intro to the Shriek Show DVD), this business with the baby is the most appalling part of a pretty appalling film. Deodato's primitives have no family values that we can notice, and maybe no values whatsoever. Their collective feasts of human flesh or fresh-killed alligators are free-for-alls that see fellow tribesmen fighting each other for the best bits. They seem to be envisioned as sub-human; one civilized character claims that the tribespeople don't even have a language. This is meant to be more alarming to the audience because, while the American wilderness films are set in the past, the Italian cannibal films take place in the present.

Harper's sojourn among the cannibals is in no way purifying. Quite the opposite; he ends up raping the native woman (Me Me Ly) who helps him escape a captivity intended to fatten him up into alligator bait. When one of his civilized colleagues reunites with him, he thinks that Harper is going insane. In the thematic climax of the film, Harper faces down his last pursuers by ripping the heart from one he's just killed and tucking into it as a form of intimidation. I was reminded of this a little when in Wilderness Harris chomps on a hunk of raw meat he'd just cut from a still-quivering buffalo after beating wolves away from the body. That moment is meant to make you a little queasy, but the Deodato scene is far more horrific and powerful because Harper has turned cannibal not from necessity, but out of pure viciousness. It represents his victory over the cannibals but also his final descent into savagery, his eventual return to civilization and his reported marriage and retirement to Mexico notwithstanding.

Last Cannibal World hearkens back to Man Called Horse in its ritual humiliation of Harper, who is stripped naked, has his penis fondled by curious or contemptuous natives, and is pissed upon by children. In the wilderness films you can construe this treatment as a kind of breaking down of the defective "civilized" personality before the hero can be built up as a better, more natural man. In Deodato's film there's no room for idealistic fantasy; Harper's story is an ordeal of degradation from beginning to end, which he survives only by becoming more savage than his oppressors.

Massimo Foschi is made to fly like an eagle (or an airplane) by the literal cavemen of the Last Cannibal World. Below, an eagle resents the comparison.

Critics have been speculating for nearly forty years about the roots of the Italian fascination with cannibals. If the cannibal films are a response to the American wilderness films they can be seen to some extent as a grim satire on American noble-savagery. I don't know if the notions about noble savages popularly identified with Jean-Jacques Rousseau had much influence in Italy, but I do know that Italians were little exposed to aboriginal peoples compared to other European powers that had more extensive colonial empires. Maybe they had no colonial guilt to drive them to idealize the primitive, and maybe they had a stronger sense of original sin than other nations that immunized them against noble-savage idealism. I have to defer to the experts on this one.

I've long been a defender of Deodato's magnum opus, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and having now seen Ultimo Mondo Cannibale I can definitely say that the later film is an advance on the earlier one. Holocaust is often taken as a satire on "Mondo" moviemakers, but in the context of Deodato's career it could also be an act of self-criticism, or willful self-parody. While holding no illusions about its cannibals, Holocaust takes their side, to an extent, against its predatory filmmakers. That's progressive compared to Last Cannibal World, but just about anything would be. More so than Holocaust, the earlier film is one whose power must be acknowledged in spite of, or perhaps because of the profound feelings of loathing it may provoke. It taps into an atavistic fear that most people had hoped to forget, or might prefer to experience in the sublimated or (strange to say) euphemistic form of the flesh-eating zombie film. Did the cannibal films fill a perceived void left by some supposed denial at the heart of the wilderness films? It depends on how you see the wilderness films, and how you see the wilderness.


venoms5 said...

Excellent, thought provoking post, Sam! You should definitely check out Lenzi's MAN FROM THE DEEP RIVER. It's a strikingly well made movie despite the more grim sequences wrecking havoc with the more dramatic moments.

Indians did feature into Italian westerns, mostly the earlier entries up to 1965. Some other later films featured them, too, such as the SW musical(!) RITA OF THE WEST (1967). Gordon Mitchell plays an Indian tribal leader in that one.

Anonymous said...

The "Man in the Wilderness" is actually based (loosely) on a true story. I forget the name of the mountain man portrayed by Harris, but he was mauled by a bear and left for dead by his two companions, whom he spent a good deal of the rest of his life hunting down for leaving him with no supplies, no rifle, no equipment other than a canteen of water.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Fantastic post, Samuel! I'm not a fan of the cannibal subgenre (nor of westerns, particularly), but this made for fascinating, informative reading.

I do remember seeing A MAN CALLED HORSE at one point back in the day--it was probably my first experience with "suspension" scenes on film. Of course that device would reach its apex with Miike's ICHI THE KILLER and Coffin Joe's EMBODIMENT OF EVIL, imo. ;)

Samuel Wilson said...

venom5: Juxtaposing beautiful outdoor footage with gruesome doings seems to be part of the point of both genres. Since I like Lenzi's Eaten Alive! (as a guilty pleasure, at least) I'd be willing to give Deep River a chance. As for Indians in Italian westerns, their relative absence probably also has something to do with the spaghettis' focus on gunfighters. Indians aren't exactly prominent in American gunfighter movies, either.

Crhymethinc: The movie did not improve upon history. The real events as you describe them sound like the film I expected to see, but the movie that was made wants to renounce revenge at the end after serving up some pretty brutal violence until then. I suppose someone thought that was a profound decision, but the execution was a botch.

Vicar: I guess there's a whole new article to be written on the global suspension genre, but I need to see more movies first!

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