Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears Review
From The Spaghetti Western Database
Deaf Smith and Johnny Ears (Los Amigos)
The only spaghetti western by director Paolo Cavara, best known for his shockumentory Mondo Cane (1962). It’s a fairly entertaining entry in the subgenre of spaghetti westerns featuring an unlikely pair of heroes. The story is set in the 1836 Texas, just after it had won its independence from Mexico. Anthony Quinn plays a deaf and mute gunslinger, called Erastus “Deaf” Smith, who works as a spy for governor Sam Houston, while Franco Nero is cast as his comical sidekick and ‘ears’ Johnny, a Mexican of dubious descent (to prostitutes he says he’s from Spain, but apparently that’s what they all say!).
The two friends are sent on a mission to investigate the rumors of a possible uprising of Texans who are opposed to Sam Houston’s plans to bring Texas into the United States as a constituent state. When they arrive at the MacDonald place, to talk to the owner, they find the whole family slaughtered, including women and kids, by a group of fanatics, led by a religious maniac. Knowing that this zealot can’t be the true mastermind behind the uprising, Smith & his Ears continue their investigation, but their job is complicated by the romantic jaunts of the latter: When visiting a whorehouse, Johnny falls head over ears in love with one of the prostitutes and tries to persuade her to leave the business with stories about a gold mine.
History buffs and Texans might be aware of it, but to most others it will come as a surprise that Quinn’s character of the deaf spy was based on a historic character, who owned his knick-name “Deaf Smith” (Deaf to be pronounced as Deef) to the fact that he had lost his hearing due to a childhood disease; however, according to some sources the hearing loss was only partial and he was not a mute (1). There are no traces of a partner delivering an extra pair of ears, so Nero’s character was most probably made up entirely. The script, based on a story by two Hollywood veterans, Harry Essex (The sons of Katie Elder) and Oscar Saul (Major Dundee) is well-constructed and quite lively but it doesn’t dig deep into the matter of Sam Houston’s plans or the motivations of his opponents; there are a few rumors about German fundings an dictatorship, but that's about all: this is not a political movie.
Originally it was intended to be an action spectacle spiced with some tongue-in-cheek humor - modeled after Corbucci’s Zapata westerns - but the producers wanted it to be more light-hearted. The result is an odd mix of styles; the massacre at the MacDonald ranch is quite graphic and the grand finale, set in an army fort, is equally energetic and brutal, but in-between we get a lot of scenes with Nero in comical overdrive. As we all know, Nero can be very effective when playing a cool, taciturn hero or an ultra-cool, sophisticated and cynical mercenary, but in this movie he has a shot at slapstick, yelling, jumping around, playing a type with two ears but no brains at all: he falls in love with a whore but is shocked when he finds out she has costumers. That’s not cool, that’s plain stupid. Quinn, on the other hand, is excellent as the handicapped spy and director Cavara cleverly illustrates his situation by presenting the scenes shot from his perspective without sound; those moments are very functional, giving us, for a moment or two, the idea that we are Smith, and are deaf. Nero’s comedy capers don't pay off, but there’s a funny reference to his Django days when he’s confronted with a machine-gun and doesn’t know how to handle it!.
Los Amigos isn't bad, but like most spaghetti westerns of the first half of the Seventies with a decent budget and a good cast, it misses this je ne sais quoi when compared to the movies from the glory years; it's still okay, but the magic is no longer there. And I had the idea it would have been better if they had followed the original plans and omitted the slapstick. The score by Daniele Patucchi is, like the movie itself, a mixed affair, alternating dramatic moments with more upbeat themes; The Ballad of Deaf and Ears, sung by Ann Collin, reminded me a little of the spiritual rock operas from the period, such as Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. The film best reviews went, for all the good reasons, to Tonino Delli Colli’s magnificent cinematography of the Spanish landscape.
- (1) Erastus "Deaf" Smith http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsm10 ; on his wiki page ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaf_Smith ) it is stated that the loss was only partial.