Between 1968 and 1974, Charles Bronson occupied an ambiguous position in the movie business. In Europe and much of the world, Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time in the West had made the veteran character actor a real star. But Leone's film had flopped in the U.S., and Bronson would not really become a superstar in his homeland until Michael Winner's Death Wish appeared six years later. Nevertheless, global demand for Bronson meant work for him in Hollywood. Winner was an important part of Bronson's American build-up, directing him in The Mechanic, The Stone Killer and this Spanish-shot western before the team struck paydirt with their urban-vigilante tale. The title role in Chato's Land seems relatively thankless from an acting standpoint -- Bronson has no more than a couple of lines in English, and not many more in Apache -- but the film anticipates Death Wish in its emphasis on revenge, albeit in a manner designed to disturb rather than gratify American audiences.
Chato's Land is the story of a posse's pursuit of a half-breed who killed a racist sheriff and the breed's turning of the tables on his pursuers. Chato shot the sheriff to save himself from summary execution for the crime of drinking in a white man's saloon. As he flees the scene, Gerry Wilson's screenplay takes its time introducing us to the members of the posse. Most prominent and flamboyant, at first, is Quincey (Jack Palance), a former Confederate soldier and more recent U.S. Army scout and Indian fighter. His donning of his old Rebel coat is a sign of bad new, especially given when this movie was made, but Palance's performance is one of many ways the film defies our expectations. We expect him to play a racist fanatic leading the posse to doom, but while Quincey certainly sees the hunt for Chato as a nostalgic chance for fresh military glory, the film is very much the story of his disillusionment. Compared to many of his fellow westerners -- especially the crew led by Jubal Hooker (Simon Oakland), Quincey comes across as an intelligent, moderate and ultimately weak man. The hunt evolves into a power struggle between Quincey and Jubal, in which Jubal's unrelenting hatred for Indians and the loyalty of his kinfolk give him advantages that outweigh Quincey's experience and wisdom. Along with these, the posse picks up a number of people, played by a formidable gang of character actors, who join with different degrees of enthusiasm -- many have work to do on their land -- but a common sense of communal obligation to fight Indians. One family refuses to join, their barechested patriarch chasing the posse away at gunpoint. He makes such a forceful impression that you expect to see him again, but you won't. His sole purpose in the film is to show us the only way anyone could avoid what's to come.
Chato doesn't go out of his way to kill his pursuers. In the first half of the film, he's only interested in getting them off his back. If he can do that by sabotaging their water supply or scaring off their horses, fine. He just wants to get back to his family and back to work catching wild horses. He makes it, but the posse, helped by a half-Yacqui tracker, never falls too far behind. While Chato hunts horses, the posse finds his wife. Jubal's boys are determined to rape her, while Quincey and the others who are plainly appalled by the idea find themselves powerless -- or simply lacking the will -- to stop the atrocity. A posse is not an army, Quincey concedes, and his uniform gives him no special authority over Jubal or his kin. When the rapists stake the wife out naked to insult and lure Chato into an ambush, Quincey insists on covering her with a blanket, but Jubal's crew won't have it. As it happens, Chato creates a distraction that enables him to free his wife, but his partner in the horse business is killed in the fighting. He now has two offenses to avenge, and now he fights to kill.
Along the way, Wilson and Winner have tempted us to differentiate between the real scumbags like Jubal and the men with remnants or rudiments of decency like Quincey. Viewers are likely to divide the posse into those they want to see die and those they'd rather see live. The problem is, Chato doesn't differentiate. As far as we know, he wants to see the whole posse dead, not knowing who did or didn't rape his wife. As the hunted becomes the hunter and the fiftysomething Bronson strips down to wiry, loinclothed virility, the movie becomes a stark, unsettling parable of collective responsibility. If the first half of the film was a fairly familiar Vietnam metaphor, the second half is a nightmare of revolutionary retribution, a rage and a reckoning that'll spare no one. It belies the logic of the traditional western, which is spelled out in lines lifted nearly verbatim from John Ford's The Searchers about how an Indian will only keep after something for only so long, while the American will keep at it to the bitter end. In Chato's Land it's the Indian, the breed -- the Other -- who is unrelenting, just as the posse turns upon itself. The film grows unpredictable as the confrontations we've been long expecting -- Quincey vs. Chato or Jubal vs. Chato -- are denied us, until we're left with the two most sympathetic or least offensive members of the posse, one of whom is killed with sudden bluntness, falling face-first into a fire. The film closes with one man desperately stumbling through hopeless terrain as Chato watches like an impassive, implacable pagan god.
Bronson doesn't have to do much more than be a presence here, but to be such a presence at his age, at that time, is an impressive feat. Among his antagonists, Palance clearly stands out with what may be one of his best performances, but the ensemble that includes Oakland, James Whitmore, Richard Basehart, Richard Jordan and others is uniformly interesting, each developing a distinctive personality grounded in the life he left behind. Some, like Oakland and Jordan, are over-the-top monsters, but that's necessary for the film to have its effect by making other characters more likable but no less vulnerable.
Chato's Land is an American western filmed in spaghetti territory, and maybe a director who is neither American nor Italian is ideally suited to split the difference, combining the brutality and stark landscapes of the spaghettis with the American commitment to more rounded character development and an introspective quality characteristic of the Seventies. The film may look Italian to an extent, but Jerry Fielding's score reinforces its American essence. Audiences in 1972 may have cheered Bronson on here as they would when Death Wish played, but Chato's Land is, in a sense, a more politically correct vigilante movie and a more honestly disturbing one for daring Americans to imagine themselves, to the extent that they identify with any of the posse members, as targets for a revenge that isn't fair, but might be just.
Notice how the trailer makes the posse look like complete aggressors, leaving no hint of Chato's original offense. It comes from the VideoDetective website.