Re-examining one of the bleakest films to emerge from the Euro-Western boom of the 1960s.
Notably the lone French entry in the Euro-western boom – though in fact an Italian co-production, allowing it to still have authentic spaghetti western credentials – Cemetery Without Crosses is also something of an oddity amongst the endless series of films that emerged between the mid-1960s and early 1970s. While in many ways – and certainly at superficial first glance – this is another slavish homage to/imitation of Sergio Leone, the film is nonetheless a unique, morally ambiguous and (even by the standards of the genre) deeply cynical revenge drama where people continually do stupid things – much as they might in real life – and very little works out satisfactorily, either for the protagonists or the viewer. The result is an oddly frustrating yet unquestionably fascinating film that is certainly flawed, but nevertheless an interesting and worthy addition to the genre.
Director Robert Hossein also stars and this is perhaps the major flaw in the film, as he really doesn’t cut it as a ruthless killer. It’s not that his performance is bad as such, but he simply doesn’t look the part and is a distraction throughout. Then again, he might be perfectly cast if we look at his character as less of a hero – pr even anti-hero – and more as an opportunist who enters a bad situation and makes it worse. A Franco Nero or Clint Eastwood would not have been suited to playing someone so ultimately pathetic.
He’s Manuel, a man with a mysterious and decidedly under-written past, possibly as a gunfighter, perhaps as a gambler – the film is rather thin on character development and we never quite understand his motives, especially as he initially turns down a request from Maria Caine (Michele Mercier) to help her avenge the death of her husband, who we see in the striking black and white opening scenes being chased down by the Rogers, a family intent on land grabs even if it means lynching people like Caine and burning down his home.
Yet no sooner has Manuel turned down the pleas of what we quickly assume is a former lover than he is engaged on a complex and luck-dependent plot to infiltrate the Rogers, kidnap the family daughter and hand her over as a hostage to Maria and her two brothers, who rape the girl as an additional punishment. Maria agrees to hand her over in exchange for a decent burial for her husband, but things become increasingly messy and complex and both sides set out to take revenge for the actions of the other, a feud compounded by Manuel’s apparent inability to return the girl efficiently to her family.
As gritty Euro westerns go, Cemetery Without Crosses is certainly one of the grittiest – while not as dramatically sweaty and brooding as Leone’s films, it certainly builds an atmosphere of heat, dust and despair, with much of the action playing out in a dilapidated ghost town. And the film has a lack of morality that is fascinating – there are no good guys here, to be honest, even though the film initially plays that division out through the eyes of Maria and Manuel. Her husband, as it turns out, was no angel, and when Manuel kidnaps the daughter Johanna (Anne-Marie Balin) and leaves her to be raped by the two brothers – who, notably, as shown to be as cowardly, corrupt and sleazy as any western villain – it becomes obvious that he is no admirable hero. Quite why he decides to help Maria take her revenge is never quite clear – it could be something as simple as the fact that she has paid him. In fact, it would be just as easy to see this story playing out from the point of view of the Rogers family, facing violent revenge after carrying out a spot of frontier justice against an unsavoury criminal. No one in the film seems even vaguely decent as a human being, though the most sympathetic characters are the two women – Johanna hardly deserves her fate, simply for being part of the wrong family, while Maria is at least driven by a righteous – if ultimately misguided and blind – need to see her husband’s body respected, even though her means of achieving that mark her down as ultimately being as bad as everyone else in this sorry tale.
While Hossein has perhaps miscast himself, he certainly directs the film with style, giving the film an impressive western style, and the rest of his characters are impressively played by the cast – which is all the more impressive given how thinly drawn most of the characters actually are. And the sense of moral ambiguity that pervades the narrative is matched by a visual bleakness and a stripped-down approach – there are large chunks of the film without any dialogue, often in the most pivotal moments (a meal with the Rogers mixes unease, absurdity and eventual comedy in a way that keeps the viewer on edge, while the ‘punishment’ of Johanna is drawn out and painful, even though we never actually see what happens to her).
The idea that revenge is a never-ending cycle might not be especially original, but it is one that is all too often ignored in westerns for the sake of the story and audience satisfaction. Not so here, as the cycle continues to the final shot, with no sense that anyone is winning here as the film closes with a repeat of Scott Walker’s magnificently strident theme song. This is the thinking person’s western, and all the better for it.
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