California Review (Scherpschutter)

From The Spaghetti Western Database


California is part of a short cycle of Italian western known as the Twilight Spaghetti westerns. Made in the second half of the Seventies, they gave the Italian western a last upswing, a decade after the glory years of the genre (*1). They also served as a homecoming for some for some of the genre's most illustrious names: in Keoma Enzo G. Castellari directed Franco Nero, in California Giuliano Gemma was reunited with director Michele Lupo, eleven years after their collaboration on Arizona Colt.

California is set in the final days of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. The inmates of a Unionist prison camp are given a week to find work or leave the state. A young officer, Willy Preston, who wants to walk all the way home to Georgia, imposes himself on a veteran called Michael Random, a man with no particular place to go. The two steal a horse but are trapped by the owner in a ghost town: Willy is shot in the back and subsequently hanged. Michael travels to Georgia, to tell the boy's parents about his death and is offered a job on the Preston ranch. The events seem to take a happy turn when he and Willy's sister Helen fall in love, but there is no escape from the misery of that damn war ...

Like Keoma, California was partly shot in the neglected and ramshackle western towns of the Roman studios that had produced dozens of westerns each year in the previous decade. Legendary set designer Carlo Simi also used the El Paso set near Almeria - destroyed by a hurricane in early 1977 (*2) - to create a perfect background for what would become one of the most low-spirited, depressing movies in the history of the genre. Most Twilight Spaghetti westerns are more serious and defeatist than the Italian westerns from the previous decade, but California is exceptionally downbeat and grim, notably during the first half, with the ex-POWs trying to stay away from bounty hunters looking for Southerners with a price on their head. The film takes a more classic turn after the romantic interlude on the Preston ranch, but it remains a pessimistic movie.


California has generated some mixed comments, but Giuliano Gemma was almost unanimously praised for his performance. His character of the forlorn war veteran is a more jaded, crusty version of the homecoming war veterans he used to play in the previous decade. In California he plays a character who has no home, not even a proper name: California is a knickname from his gunfighter days and he picks the name Michael Random from the back of a tobacco box (How random can you get?). Gemma's character seems partly modeled after John Wayne's Ethan Edwards from The Searchers, the veteran who is bound to 'wander between the winds' (but in the second half he seems closer to Shane). Thematically there are some similarities to Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales, released one year before, but the movie is also a comment on the semi-anarchic state the Italian Society went through when the film was made. The period is known in Italy as gli anni di piombo, the years of lead (*3), and was marked by a wave of terroristic acts by both left-wing and right-wing paramilitary groups.

Most westerns from the Twilight cycle are more graphically violent than the movies from the previous decade, but the violence in California is unusually gruesome: people are shot in the back, and instead of traditional shootouts we get executions, with people falling on their knees and praying for their lives before being shot. The post-Civil War society depicted here, is a lawless, barren land, in which innocent people are at the mercy of bloodthirsty militias and the hunters can become the hunted overnight. Even the fisticuffs, usually of a good-natured kind in Italian westerns, are brutal and savage. As said the movie generated some very mixed comments. Personally I think California is the best of the twilight westerns, along with Keoma, but it's also a movie that tries to look more important than it really is.'s cinematography, in the style of Vilmos Zsigmond, with lots of scenes taken against the light, and Gianni Ferrio's emphatic score - a plaintive harmonica alternated with pumped-up synthesizer sounds - contribute to the idea of a movie that tries a little too hard.


  • (1) For a good description of the Twilight Spaghetti westerns, see: Kevin Grant, Twilight's last gleaming, in: Any Gun Can Play, p. 345-347, or: Jean-François Giré, Le Dernier Feu, in: Il était une fois le western européen, p. 328-331
  • (3) For Gli Anni di Ferro/The Years of Lead, see:
    • (The original title of German film by Margarethe von Trotta mentioned in the article (called Marianne and Julainne in English) is Die Bleierne Zeit, which means The Leaden Times)

Director: Michele Lupo - Cast: Giuliano Gemma, Miguel Bose, Raimund Harmstorf, William Berger, Paola Bose, Chris Avram, Claudio Undari (Robert Hundar), Romano Puppo, Malisa Longo, Dana Ghia, Franco Ressel, Tom Felleghy, Alfio Caltabiano, Diana Lorys - Cinematography: Alejandro Ulloa - Set Design: Carlo Simi - Music: Gianni Ferrio

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Simon Gelten
Simon Gelten is a long time contributor to the SWDb. "I'm not as old as Tom B. but I'm working on it. I hope to catch up with him by the end of the next decade.", he says. Simon saw all movies by Sergio Leone and several by Sergio Corbucci in cinema, most of the time in Eindhoven, the city where he was born. Currently, Simon is living in Turnhout, Belgium. Simon is active within the database as both Scherpschutter and his alter ego Tiratore Scelto.