Monday, November 11, 2013

THE TRAMPLERS (Gli uomini dal passo pesante, 1965)

April 1865: the Confederacy has surrendered and Lon Cordeen (Gordon Scott) has come home to Texas. In his home town the war isn't over. He arrives to find his father Temple (Joseph Cotten) hanging an abolitionist. Abolition and reconstruction aren't what Temple fought for, so he refuses to recognize them. He hopes to use his extended family to enforce his will, but Lon has a different idea. He's internalized the idea that a new order should prevail. For him, that new order takes the form of rebellion against his father. This is a formula for Instant Santayana: by refusing to accept the consequences of the war, Temple Cordeen provokes a war within his own family. Taking Lon's side are his sisters, one of whom loves a man ("Frank" Nero) of whom Temple disapproves, as well as his impressionable, hotheaded brother Hoby (James Mitchum). Meanwhile, the daughter of the hanged abolitionist yearns for revenge on the Cordeen patriarch. She's a wild card who puts the possibility of reconciliation out of any Cordeen hands.

In The Tramplers, Gordon Scott comes home from war to find no peace.

The imminence of a new order is inscribed in the casting of Albert Band's film. Released in Italy four months before Django made Franco Nero a global star, it places the young actor in a subordinate role, but also leaves his character one of the last men standing as the Cordeens annihilate each other. The future of the west belongs to Nero, at least as far as Italian cinema is concerned, but Gli uomini dal passo pesante was a vehicle for Gordon Scott.

A lifeguard turned movie star, Scott may not have been the greatest Tarzan, but no one can dispute that he starred in Tarzan's Greatest Adventure. That 1959 is a legitimately fine action film, and the first since Edgar Rice Burroughs's own productions to let Tarzan speak with the fluency Burroughs gave him. Scott, who had acted Weissmuller style for several earlier films, rose to the occasion with forceful performances in Greatest Adventure and Tarzan the Magnificent before trying his luck in Italy in peplum films. By 1965 it was time to adapt to the new craze for westerns, and Tramplers was Scott's second stab at the genre after a film in which he played Buffalo Bill. Tramplers was also his last western -- he made two Eurospy movies before retiring -- and it must be admitted that Scott loses something the more clothes you put on him. He seems shrunken and doesn't really stand out the way he should in his western costume. However, his diminished appearance helps sell Lon Cordeen's war-weariness, while at the same time Scott invests the character with a dangerous sense of entitlement early. There's something unpleasantly arrogant yet riveting in the way Lon thrashes a poor relation he considers unworthy of sitting at the family table. We know it's payback for the man knocking Lon down in town on the day of the hanging, but we can also assume that the man's telling the truth when he says he didn't recognize Lon at that time. There's more to the beating, and Lon's insistence that the man pick Lon's hat off the floor and put it on Lon's head, than that. It's an obvious challenge to the patriarch's authority, as if Lon isn't merely appalled by Temple's renegade atrocities but also impatient to take the old man's place as head of the clan in a new society. It's probably no accident that Lon eventually hooks up with the abolitionist's daughter, even though the screenplay (adapted from Will Cook's novel Guns of North Texas) doesn't really build up any relationship between them until the end.

Scott is upstaged not just by a hammy Joseph Cotten (though not by the deferential Nero) but by James Mitchum's Hoby. Lon's hothead brother ends up more like a spaghetti western character after losing an arm; the injury only exacerbates the character's vicious streak, showing us how Lon has unleashed forces he can't really control, though Mitchum manages to keep the character sympathetic by having him struggle with his violent impulses. These actors' prominence in the picture marks Tramplers as a film from the period when the Italians were still trying to imitate the story and character arcs of American westerns (see also Sergio Corbucci's pre-Django Minnesota Clay). Director Band and co-adaptor Ugo Liberatore were smart (if not economical) to base their film on an American novel, since it's the story and the performances rather than any innovative visual style that will keep people interested in the picture. Tramplers is watchable but ultimately neither fish nor fowl, lacking both the thorough craftsmanship and conviction of the prime U.S. westerns and the stylistic daring of Band's Italian peers. Its juxtaposition of Scott and Nero illustrates a fork in the road for spaghetti westerns, although (with no offense to Gordon Scott) it also makes Tramplers look a little like a dead end.

No comments: