California - Wild East Productions
From The Spaghetti Western Database
California (1977)- Reviewed by Michael Hauss
Giuliano Gemma the star of CALIFORNIA, plays quite possibly the last “man with no name,” character in the history of Italian westerns. Well, he has a name, make that two names, a fictitious one, Michael Random, which he borrows from a popular tobacco, and a name that he had been referred to in his days, before the civil war, when he was a notorious gunslinger, California. Long gone is the affable, clean-cut, hero of his early westerns, Gemma’s character presented here is a hardened man, who must resurrect his dead persona in “California,” to save the one he loves, from the last bounty hunter standing, and return to the family, which had welcomed him into their fold.
One of last great Italian westerns produced in the twilight years of the genre, along with Four of The Apocalypse (1975), KEOMA (1976),Mannaja and another Gemma project Silver Saddle (1978). This film mirrors Gemma’s 1965 western Blood for a Silver Dollar (Check out my review here, BLOOD FOR A SILVER DOLLAR - WILD EAST) at times, in its disbanding of confederate soldiers after the end of the civil war, and the disdain, and hopelessness that the losing soldiers faced both psychologically and physically, as they tried to make their way in a hostile country, still divided by hate and violence. Michael Random, who adopted that alias, selecting the name from a passing wagon carrying a box of Michael Random tobacco, when asked by a young soldier named William Preston (Miguel Bose), his name. Willy insists on following Random, even inviting him to his home in Georgia, after Willy discovers that Michael has no place to go and no family. Michael continually tries to take leave of Willy, until a bond is eventually built between the sensitive, naïve Willy and the gruff, seemingly insensitive Michael, that bond intensifying as they witness and feel the effects of prejudice and hate, as they make their way through the war-torn land, that’s swarming with bounty hunters, who are tracking down confederate soldiers with bounties on their heads and killing them and anyone else that stands in their way. The Bounty killers led by the ruthless, Rope Whitaker (Raimund Harmstorf), are working secretly for a General, who is a future presidential hopeful. It seems that when given the option to take the wanted in dead or alive, it always ends with the bounties dead, and many times the cold-blooded killings cause a public spectacle, with many witnesses, to these heinous executions in the name of law and order. A Colonel Nelson (Chris Avram), who has first supported the bounty killers, must eventually issue orders to stop the bounty killers, after they have gone too far… placing prices on their heads to stop the senseless killings.
The pairing of Willy and Michael gives the film a buddy picture feel, that ends with the death of Willy, by the hands of a vigilante family, who had blamed Willy of killing one of their own during the war. The death of Willy is also a death to innocence and naivety… Willy, after surviving through the war and even being awarded a metal for bravery… is shot in the back, and then hung from his neck, by the family who while aggressive, ultimately were trying to find out what happened to one of their kin, the war had ended, but it was still raging inside them. Michael decides to travel onto Willy’s parent’s home to take the metal that was a source of pride for Willy. The family while in shock and in dismay, welcome Michael into their home, and a romance develops between Helen (Paola Bose), the daughter of the Preston’s and Michael, which ends when the bounty killers led by Rope Whitaker, take Helen hostage, after the Colonel has trapped them in a town and called the sheriff and his men together to apprehend the gang. Helen, is their only escape, from the town. Michael is wounded in the town during the ensuing choas, and returns to the Preston home and straps on a six-shooter and grabs Willy’s rifle... as he prepares to leave, Mr. Preston (Willian Berger), tells Michael, “Son, even if you don’t find Helen… come back to us!” Michael promises to come back, with Helen. The leads to where Whitaker has made off to with Helen are leading nowhere for the local sheriff and Nelson, but Michael after retrieving the wanted posters for the three wanted men from the sheriff’s office, assures Nelson that, “They’ll be a price on my head if I don’t find the girl… for killing you!”
In an adjoining town, Full (Franco Ressel), the proprietor of a gambling establishment recognizes Michael and addresses him as “California,” and tells him many men are out there who would love to make a name for themselves by killing him, to which California replies, “A name doesn’t last, unless its backed up with a gun.” After Full informs California the whereabouts of Gary Luke (Romano Puppo), one of the wanted bounty killers… Full says, “Oh by the way California- I heard you fought in the war!” To which California replies, “yes… and I was killed.” California, tracks down and kills Whitaker’s last two sidekicks Gary Luke and Eric Plummer (Robert Hundar), and learns in the process that the girl is at Whitaker’s hideaway, which is a closely guarded secret, as Whitaker keeps that private. Whitaker is impressed with California’s killing of the two men, and with a rifle pointed at him, offers to cut California in on a robbery. Thus California, must form an uneasy alliance with Whitaker, so he can figure out, how to get to the hideout, and free Helen.
This film directed by Michelle Lupo is a swan song to the genre, as it had almost completely died out. It rolls out the “man with no name.” character one more time, and had taken the bounty hunters and turned them from the anti-hero’s that populated the early Leone westerns, and had them the embodiment of evil, and made them look as if they were the last of their kind, the end of the era if you will… of men hunting men down for a price on their head. Rope Whitaker, a bandit at heart, feels that the bounty killers will never die off, but, this film has the end in its sights for not only the bounty killers and the California persona in the cards, but, also for the whole genre.
The film is a beautifully directed affair and the cinematography is outstandingly performed by the legendary Alejandro Ulloa, whose brilliance can be seen in, but, not limited to such films as; SUGAR COLT (1966), THE MERCENARY (1968), KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE (1968, Ammazzali tutti e torna solo), COMPANEROS (1970) and SONNY AND JED (1972,La banda J. & S. cronaca criminale del Far West) . Director Michelle Lupo is reunited in the old west, here with Giuliano Gemma, whom he directed in the early Italian western Man from nowhere, the pair also teamed up on the 1973 film, AFRICA EXPRESS. Lupo cut his directing teeth on a fistful of peplum’s before directing his first Italian western which was a Franco Franchi and Ciccio Ingrassia comedy-western called FISTFUL OF KNUCKLES, which was followed closely by Man from nowhere, in 1965. Bouncing around through various genres, Lupo near did make a noticeable impact in any one genre, ending his directorial career with a few Bud Spencer comedies, including; UPPERCUT, BUDDY GOES WEST and BOMBER, which was also his last directional effort… Lupo would die just seven years later, at only Fifty-six years old. The score by Gianni Ferrio, is a wondrous accomplishment, a synthesizer laden track, that was the flavor of the day in many Italian horror films, and would have fit easily into one of those. When you are seemingly burying a genre, as this film seems intent on doing, the horror tinged score is quite fitting. Ferrio, did a number of scores for Italian westerns, including; [[Blood for a Silver Dollar, WANTED (1965), The Dirty Outlaws (1967), Sentenza di morte (1968) and Lo chiamavano requiescat Fasthand aka Fasthand (1972)
The acting in the film is top-notch, led by the versatile Italian born actor Giuliano Gemma, who was the first Italian star of the Italian westerns, when his two films A PISTOL FOR RINGO and Ritorno di Ringo aka THE RETURN OF RINGO ( Both 1965), made him a bona-fide star of the genre. Gemma, became trapped in the clean-cut, western hero stereotype, within the genre, which he did not shed, until his two later films SILVER SADDLE and CALIFORNIA, let him vary from the norm... and presented him as still a morally correct man, but a man who had demons, and was laden by a spotty past. Gemma was very versatile, appearing in a number of genres, and could be counted on for a fine performance, regardless of the genre, just a few of Gemma’s many noteworthy films include; Prezzo del potere, Il aka THE PRICE OF POWER (1969), CORLEONE, THE WARNING and TENEBRE. Gemma would die in a car accident on October 1, 2013, and had worked right up to his demise, the last years filled with mostly roles on Italian television. The Willy Preston character is played by Miguel Bose, born in Panama, who besides an actor is a renown Latin American singing star of the past forty years. His real-life sister Paola Bose, plays his sister in the film, and is a former actress and model. The German born actor Raimund Harmstorf, almost steals the show in his portrayal of Rope Whitaker. Harmstorf, is best known for his roles in the 1972 film CALL OF THE WILD, starring Charlton Heston and also another 1972 film, BLACK FRIDAY. The great William Berger is also around in the small part of Mr. Preston, Berger also played in another great late in the cycle Italian western KEOMA.
The print used by Wild East Productions is a real beauty, and virtually flawless, with great audio. Pair this film with the hard to find RAMON THE MEXICAN, and you have the best home media release of 2017, so far, in my book!
You can order it directly from http://www.wildeast.net
- Thanks as always to the spaghetti western expert Tom Betts for his help on this review.