French Revolution: Fernando Cerchio’s Mutiny at Fort Sharp (1966)
Save for a handful of notable entries, the cavalry never really found its place within the spaghetti western. It is not hard to fathom why. More often than not, at least within the context of the American western film, the cavalry was seen as a paragon of virtue; a division of military might beyond reproach, immune to the corruption and/or deficiency which so often plagued fledgling local law enforcement. It almost became a genre standard that, no matter what threat had befallen the protagonists, the cavalry would turn up to save the day just in the nick of time, no questions asked, the sound of the bugle call and the waving of the flag an aural and visual shorthand for justified intervention. In film, the last-minute arrival of the cavalry almost came to signify a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card for any scenarist or scriptwriter struggling to close a picture, the genre having seemingly patented its very own deus ex machina.
But such heroic optimism, however distorted or idealised, was never a welcome bedfellow to the cynicism so vital to the European western. Owing to that, the cavalry always felt a little out of place in the realm of the spaghetti western, akin to something of a naïve joke. And so, much like the tiresome romantic subplots which crippled many an American western, the notion and presence of the cavalry never really survived the distillation process that the genre underwent during its continental transplant. So, too, the native American Indian as de facto villain. By the time the European westerns hit their stride, Hollywood had already begun its long-form apology to the Native Americans, offering reparation for years of casual cultural demonization by way of a series of films which sought to instate a long-overdue complexity and humanity to the indigenous people. Films such as Broken Arrow (1954, Delmer Daves) and Apache (1955, Robert Aldrich) had not only attempted to recast the savage Indian as noble brave but had also begun to explore the inherent hubris and aggressive racism so essential to the notion of Manifest Destiny. (The fact that both those films’ leading Native American characters were played by two Caucasian actors – Jeff Chandler and Burt Lancaster, respectively – perhaps demonstrates that, whilst the intention for cinematic cultural redress was admirable, Hollywood wasn’t quite ready to ante up and go all in.)
As such, the spaghetti westerns which did incorporate both the cavalry and Native Americans as integral narrative components often felt – and still feel – a tad regressive compared to their later, south-of-the-border set brethren. But these films are certainly not without merit and stand worthy of cautious reappraisal. They are too-often forgotten, dismissed, or banished to early entry status; occupying that peculiar no-man’s land which served as a proto-spaghetti test site, the period of 1961–1965 standing as the era of slavish American replicas and/or bland cinematic xeroxes. Even now, that era of marginalised entries is still regarded by many fans as something to be wary of; a no-go zone still contaminated by the fallout of painful growth and shaky reinvention, before the form found its own distinct personality via a cool detachment. (There remains, of course, the osmotic emergence of the Italo-western proper via the popular series of German/ Rialto Winnetou films, so maybe there is a very credible argument to be made that the Native Americans were always an intrinsic part of the genre since conception, after all?) But even then, a select few Cavalry & Indian-themed spaghetti westerns slipped through the net, appearing well into the Golden Age of the European western, blissfully out of date and fashion.
Fernando Cerchio’s 1966 film Per un dollaro di gloria/ Mutiny at Fort Sharp is one such film. Fort Sharp arrived relatively late in the day for such thematically outmoded fare, perhaps, but it remains a tough and sincere entry in the SW cycle. For the sake of full transparency, I actually deuced this picture with another early Native American epic, El Hombre de la diligencia/ Fury of the Apaches (José María Elorrieta, 1964), with a look to doing a compare and contrast piece. Both films were surprisingly sturdy and persuasive; equally entertaining if ultimately opposed in their politics. Fury was/is an excellent action pic, with an intense and highly aggressive lead performance by the American actor Frank Latimore, and yet remains a more traditional action piece (although no less entertaining for it, and – as said film currently has no review here on the SWDB – something I’d like to explore in more detail as its own entry).
In contrast, Mutiny at Fort Sharp is a little more textured and far more confused in both its morality and as to whose side the film is on, so the decision was made to focus solely on Fort Sharp. It is also a far more violent and visceral experience – always a plus for any hardcore SW fan. The film opens with some of that funky, SW-patented rotoscoping that us Euro-nuts go wild for. James Bond fans can keep their ultra-elaborate, Maurice Binder-designed title sequences and John Barry score; I’ll take a crude, rotoscoped outlaw galloping into shot and firing his pistol to the tune of Carlo Savina over that stuff any day of the week. Indeed, Savina’s drum-heavy score will become integral to the plot itself further down the line. Oscar winner and American import marquee-name Broderick Crawford is top-billed. That must have seemed quite a coup for Cerchio, but Crawford’s presence is both blessing and curse. Crawford never seemed fully committed during his European stint, at least not as much as, say, Cameron Mitchell or Joseph Cotten (although Crawford at least looks more comfortable here than he did in Vittorio Cottafavi’s 1960 peplum, Goliath and the Dragon).
The film takes place – we are informed via some crawling screen text – in 1864, during the Maximillian conflict, where French troupes are frequently sent to Mexico, but would ‘occasionally wander too far North, and find themselves mixing it up with Americans and Native Americans.’ At the titular fort, the stationed Confederate troops are saying goodbye to their families, who are being moved out on the orders of one Colonel Lennox (Crawford) to ensure their safety against an encroaching Navajo war party. It is not an overtly promising start to the film, cloying and sentimental. This is the Fordian angle at play; the sanctity of family and community, even a community hemmed in by fortified fencing. The wives protest said evacuation, citing insufficient military protection on the trail. But Lennox appears from his office, stubborn and wholly unreasonable; he has no time for such concerns, even though his own wife is among the departing party. It’s a hell of an introduction, painting the colonel as an instant bastard. Broderick’s character is not only established as a racist (he hates the Native Americans), a xenophobe (he hates the French) and a misogynist (if he doesn’t quite hate women, he certainly deems them inferior to men), but a misanthrope to boot (he hates everyone). Lennox also informs the viewer that, in addition to the Confederate families, there will also be some French military prisoners in transit. Denying the wagon train a heavier escort, he sends them on their way. Spaghetti westerns would often come to value a specific object as shorthand motif, a visual link to shared histories or proven relationships, often shown in flashback (influenced, no doubt, by the pocket watch in For a Few Dollars More, 1965), and here it’s a small doll dressed in Confederate grey uniform, which a soldier hands to his young son as good luck charm for the journey. The camera lingers on the boy, Michael, who looks absolutely terrified as he clutches the doll. As well he should, it turns out, as the film then crash-cuts to a shot of that very same doll, now cast into the dirt and stained in human blood. It’s a jarring gut-punch, and with it, the film changes both tone and direction at the ten-minute mark.
A French soldier picks up the doll and surveys the carnage. The women and children of Fort Sharp are dead, massacred, it would seem, by the Native Indians. This is a remarkably – and unexpectedly – visceral scene, vividly rendered in gruesome detail. As violent and ethically bankrupt as many of the spaghettis were, building their reputation on diminished heroism and easy gunplay, they were never particularly bloody. Mutiny at Fort Sharp proves a welcome exception to the rule. Emilio Foriscot’s camera pans over the carnage, taking it all in via his Techniscope frame, the filmmakers seemingly intent on telling it how it was, practically rubbing our faces in the aftermath: A young boy has an arrow protruding from his back. A woman has a cleaver embedded in her torso. Spears stand upright in flesh. All wounds are bloody and messy. The French soldiers spot some of their own men amidst the carnage. ‘They never had a chance,’ notes Captain Claremont, the film’s ostensible lead. Conferring with his second in command, the French officer makes burial their priority, instantly marking him as far more humane – and thus more likeable – than Crawford’s American equivalent. But before this can happen, they themselves are attacked by the Indians, and more men are killed. Claremont is shot in the leg by an arrow. Hemmed in and unable to cross the border (‘We’re caught between the Indians and the southerners,’ Claremont tells his men), the surviving soldiers head for the sanctuary of Fort Sharp, perhaps the lesser of two evils. (In a nice touch, the French surmise that this is a tactical manoeuvre on the Navajos part – they are pushing the French cavalry North, into hostile territory).
Mario Valdemarin proves a terrific presence as the French Captain. Whilst SW fans rightly adore the familiar roster of faces which populated the genre, it’s refreshing here to have an unfamiliar – yet highly effective – actor in the lead. Handsome and dependably cool, Valdermin is slightly reminiscent of Garko (never a bad thing). The decimated French battalion seek refuge in a nearby town (the very place the fort’s families were en route to), but which, they discover again, has been wiped-out by the Indians. Again, Cerchio does not spare us from such horrors: the camera pans down the main street, documenting the carnage, the place littered with fresh corpses, mutilated and painted in blood. The entire town has been burned to the ground and destroyed by the marauding Navajos. Claremont and company happen upon two survivors in a dilapidated saloon: a young woman named Brenda (Elisa Montés), and her Apache friend, Keoma (Spanish actress Lina Yergos). Brenda has been wounded during the attack, and almost succumbs to unconsciousness, but is brought back to life via a snifter of Napoleonic cognac courtesy of the French army. It’s a nice touch.
Minutes later and the determined Navajos attack again. The viewer cannot help but marvel at both their strategy and persistence. But the French manage to repel them, at least for the time being. Left with no choice, Claremont and his men seek asylum at the titular Fort Sharp, quite rightly reasoning that even American hostility is better than being scalped. And so, they arrive, exhausted and starving, although Crawford – warm-hearted altruist that he is – refuses them entry until they have taken down their French flag. Crawford seems too old for the part, not to mention somewhat overweight. His performance at first seems slightly non-committal, as if this great actor is merely going through the motions. As interpreted by Crawford, Lennox appears unreasonable and slovenly, when what was needed, perhaps, was a presence fiercer and more demented. Clearly there for some kind of international marquee-name value, he’s not miscast per se, but rather uninspired. (I can’t help thinking what somebody like, say, the mighty Lee J. Cobb might have done with the role.)
At this point in the film, the steady tattoo of Navajo drums appears on the soundtrack, and there it will remain for the duration of the film, unnerving the viewer as much as the soldiers it is meant for. More akin to diegetic sound than supportive score, this warning tattoo plays out like the deguello from Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) and/or The Alamo (John Wayne, 1960) – a continuous reminder of the ever-present enemy threat. It works gangbusters.
The humane Claremont asks for a doctor to tend to Miss Brenda (both her and Keoma are along for the ride), but Lennox is unsympathetic. Far more helpful is Doctor Foster, the fort’s drunken medic, competent and charming. Foster is played by Italian actor Umberto Ceriani, another unfamiliar face to spaghetti fans but – like Valdemarin – a refreshing and charismatic presence, nonetheless. But when Foster lays eyes on Brenda, a romantic musical cue informs us of either a shared history or likely romance. It ain’t subtle. But before the film is derailed by such unwanted fluff, the Navajos attack again. Claremont and his men assist the Americans in their defence, until Lennox and his indefatigable pride orders the French to stand down, telling them that their intervention is both unwanted and unnecessary (a line which may now ring comically hypocritical given certain foreign policy). The Indians eventually retreat. Lennox reluctantly agrees to release the French prisoners so long as they help keep the estimated 3,000 Navajos at bay. Fernando Cerchio and his co-writer, Ugo Liberatore, seem very interested in the tactical minutiae of warfare. They frequently have characters discuss attack strategies and suitable defence ploys. Such dialogue should be tedious – show us, don’t tell us, as the old axiom goes – but such banter actually proves surprisingly involving, like a peek behind the military curtain.
Lennox hypothesises that Wichita, the Navajo leader, is attempting to wear down the fort via a series of small-wave attacks which will likely continue. During this conversation, Claremont learns that the massacred convoy that his battalion stumbled upon in the desert belonged to Fort Sharp, and he informs Lennox that his people are all dead. Lennox asks that Claremont and his men remain silent, knowing that such an ugly revelation would likely kill all morale within his own unit. The French captain reluctantly agrees. This is a key moment in the film with regard to conflicting personalities, and it forces the viewer to pick a side. As unpleasant and self-serving as Lennox is, I found myself siding with the character in this moment, supporting his decision, which further blurs the already murky boundaries between good guy and bad.
There then follows the mother of all intercontinental dustups, as the French take on the Americans in a mass brawl (all over cigars, no less). As chaotic as all this is, it serves a purpose; isn’t just a semi-comical bout of fisticuffs to reconnect with a flagging audience. These men are tired, anxious, pent-up and on-edge. With their woman gone (read: dead) and sex not a viable alternative as pressure release (when was it ever in a spaghetti western?), violence is the only logical outlet for their mounting frustrations. Of course, the only person who doesn’t recognize this is Lennox, who duly strips and ties the two named instigators to a post, leaving them to bake beneath a torturous sun whilst those ominous drums continue. (This form of punishment seems ridiculous: surely these men would serve better on active duty or deployed in battle? If the fort is expecting further attacks, then one would assume any Colonel worth his salt would want every man available to help defend the outpost. No sooner has Lennox/Crawford begun to win the viewer over by way of empathetic rationale, he then pisses it away by allowing personal pride to override all common sense.)
By this point in the film, any seasoned viewer might reasonably join the dots with regard to plotting, and expect both factions to come together, overcome their cultural differences and defeat the rampaging Navajos. And whilst a grudging respect does materialize between the soldiers, Crawford remains an absolute prick until the bitter end, with no real redemptive arc to speak of. This is to the film’s benefit; too many times in cinema do we see a character atone for his or her sins all too easily, and in trite fashion, before the end credits roll. The regular absence of such extenuatory transformation is a key leitmotif of the spaghetti western, a genre in which bad men and anti-heroes are unhampered by such things as conscience or penance.
Further to this, I think Cerchio’s film does much right. There is a great scene where a Navajo infiltrates the fort dressed as a Confederate soldier under the cloak of night and sets about slaying a handful of grey-coats before being shot dead by the wily Sergeant Miles (Julio Peña). In keeping with the film’s brutality, Lennox then pitches the Indian’s bloodied knife back into its owner’s torso. There is also further examination of racial prejudice amongst the soldiers, wherein they provide Miss Brenda with dinner, but refuse to feed her maid, Keoma ('No way. We don’t feed Indians', says a Confederate soldier). This elicits a distinct sympathy from the viewer, not only for Keoma herself but also, more daringly, her people as a collective. Like most casual racists, Lennox even fumbles his own generalized, unfounded hate, telling Brenda that Keoma can, ‘Go outside with her own’, even though it has already been established that Keoma is an Apache, not a Navajo.
By the hour mark, one might reasonably assume that the film is gearing up toward a Last Stand mega-battle a la Fury of the Apaches. But the film makes another hard turn, and the Indians are never seen again. This will make or break the film for many viewers, given that the spaghetti western is, in its purest form, an action-driven genre, but for me, personally, I like where the film went. Instead, Mutiny at Fort Sharp further complicates the internal animosity within the fort by having one of the Confederates accidently come across young Michael’s bloody doll whilst attempting to find a match for a stolen cigar. (Why one of the French soldiers bothered to keep the doll goes unexplained, other than to serve as said plot point.)
Cerchio seems more invested in the interpersonal machinations than filming an all-out war. In a touching scene, the boy’s father demands to know where the doll came from, convincing (deluding?) himself that the boy must have given it to the French to help assuage their own loss. It is Claremont who sets the American soldiers straight with the truth. Again, whether the time was right to do so depends upon the viewpoint of the audience. There follows a shocking and totally unexpected scene. The Confederates, impotent and consumed with blind hatred and a justifiable grief, pull Keoma from her lodgings and stab the defenceless Apache with their rifle bayonets before shooting the poor girl dead (and in the back, no less). Again, this is all done in-camera, with that bright red blood so prevalent in genre cinema at this time. Albeit a brief sequence, it’s a disgusting and sobering depiction of mob mentality and an unchecked, communal impotence.
Lennox knows that the men now blame him, both for sending their families to their doom without sufficient escort, and for withholding the truth. The titular insurrection is now starting to look like a dead certainty, and the enemy outside may no longer pose as greater threat as the enemy within. As much as my misgivings were with Crawford at the beginning of the film, by the final stretch he has inhabited the part of immovable bigot quite nicely, and whilst the viewer has little sympathy for his personal plight, the film does seem to delight in daring the viewer to empathise with him (he too, has lost a wife, let us not forget). He even goes as far as to deny his men’s request to bury their families; again, this may seem outwardly callous, but is his decision not also that of a decent leader, one wanting to preserve his own men’s lives?
At this point, Lennox begins his descent into Col. Kurtz territory proper. He kills one of his own men for questioning his order. The lush Doctor Foster talks with Brenda, swigging on whiskey and fantasizing of murdering Lennox for the good of the fort before riding off into the night. All the while those drums continue. (There is no current release of Carlo Savina’s score, but if there was one suspects much of the runtime would be dedicated to said beats.) Lennox remains convinced that the American forces will rein supreme, more-or-less inviting further attack. At one point, in a hilariously callous sequence, a Navajo party arrive to deliver a message. Lennox responds by shooting the point rider dead and then having his men kill the rest of them. The message is from the great Navajo chief Wichita, who vows to let the Confederate soldiers leave the fort alive on the condition that Lennox himself surrenders. Again, any reasonable military leader might be willing to sacrifice his own life for the good of his men, but Lennox is not that man.
With Doc Foster now gone, the film flirts with a tentative romance between Claremont and Brenda, but Fort Sharp wisely side-steps this unwanted subplot. Instead, the film takes a harder-edged look at male-female relations. Brenda is held at gunpoint and threatened with rape by SW regular José Canalejas (as an unnamed Confederate, at least as far as I was able to discern). Whilst this is a despicable act, throwing a pretty Southern belle into an environment the equivalent of a maximum-security prison was bound to have such adverse effects. Claremont intervenes, and an impressively choreographed sword-and-pitchfork fight ensues, short but well-executed. ‘You’ve got no reason to play hero to this little tramp,’ snarls Canalejas, before Claremont beats the living shit out of him.
In the final stretch, and in the absence of a satisfying physical coda, the drunken Doc Foster returns, having ridden off to bury the slain Confederate families. Lennox, of course, whilst appreciative of him having buried his wife, orders his men to execute Foster by firing squad. The men refuse as a collective, their rebellion final. Doc Foster informs both Lennox and his fellow soldiers that there are now no more than ten Navajos remaining outside the fort, that Lennox has been fooled, that pride and paranoia have guaranteed the fort’s defeat. Lennox attempts to kill Foster himself – threatens to kill everyone! – but is disarmed by Claremont, who then takes command of the fort. Under Claremont, the soldiers finally head out and make their escape. By this point, Lennox is a raving lunatic, reduced to nothing but empty military rhetoric and violent delirium; the lowering of the Confederate flag finally pushing him into the realm of full-blown insanity.
The fort is destroyed via dynamite. The soldiers begin their trek, during which time Lennox submits to his own hallucinations; he charges at one such phantom and dies by his own sword. Neither army has gained any strategic advancement or secured any notable victory; only the shared objective of survival has been achieved. Roll credits.
So, what to make of Cerchi’s picture? It’s a film which builds and builds toward a well-earned climax, yet the film denies the audience a satisfactory pay-off, at least in terms of fireworks and action. That does not feel like a decision influenced by lack of budget, either. Mutiny at Fort Sharp seems determined to go its own way, beginning with its erring on the side of the French army, who ultimately achieve their objective (survival) whilst the Confederates do not (they are defeated). The ending is witty and ironic; the sight of the barking-mad Lennox advancing toward an imagined enemy is both hilarious and pitiable. The pacing is excellent, the film trimmed of all fat, and there are no scenes which feel draggy or superfluous. In a genre built (mostly) on comfortable plotting, familiar tropes, and predictable action beats, Mutiny at Fort Sharp stands as something a little different for the more adventurous SW fan. I remembered the film fondly from a first-time viewing some years back, it held up strongly when revisited for this piece, and I look forward to seeing it again sometime further down the line. It’s no hidden classic, but it’s a well-crafted and sincere picture with much to say about individualism versus the state (a theme more integral to the Italian peplum, perhaps, than the Euro-western – see the Cerchio connection below).
Another interesting aspect of the film is its apparent anti-militarist stance. This is not a film where uniform and rank necessarily equate to an obvious honour and/or competency. In that regard, the film is reminiscent of some of the great anti-war films such as Attack! (Robert Aldrich, 1956) and Yesterday’s Enemy (Val Guest, 1959) in its depiction of fighting men at the mercy of incompetent superiors and poor military decision making – the corrupt interior far more dangerous than any adversary. Crawford’s character is a tyrant, pure and simple. In fact, Colonel Lennox ranks alongside Temple Cordeen and Colonel Jonas – the characters so memorably played by Joseph Cotton in The Tramplers (1965) and The Hellbenders (1967), respectively – as deranged Southern fighting men who just don’t know when to quit.
The film overall has a decent pedigree. Spanish filmmaker Eduardo Manzanos was a prolific producer, writer, director and documentarian. As producer and screenwriter, he contributed to a number of notable spaghetti westerns, including 7 pistole per un massacre/ Seven Pistols for a Massacre (1967); Uno straniero a Paso Bravo/ A Stranger in Paso Bravo (1968); the polarizing acid-western Mátalo! (1970); and the Fabio Testi-starring Anda muchacho, spara!/ Dead Men Ride (1971) to name but a few. Incidentally, Manzanos was also scenarist and co-writer (along with Alberto De Martino) on another highly entertaining cavalry/fort-set entry, the 1965 film Gli eroi di Fort Worth. The director, Fernando Cerchio, isn’t as readily identified with the European western, however, having only helmed one other genre entry, the Peter Lee Lawrence vehicle La morte sull'alta collina/ Death on High Mountain (1969). He does a fair job, competent and unshowy, although it’s clear that the western is not necessarily his genre of choice. (Cerchio is perhaps best known for his work in the historical peplum; an extended, beautifully remastered cut of his celebrated 1961Egyptian epic, Nefertite, regina del Nilo, starring Vincent Price and Edmund Purdom, was recently released on blu-ray in Germany.)
An interesting – albeit unsubstantiated – side note is that Italian actor Nando Gazzolo allegedly provided the voiceover narration in the Italian language version of the film. Gazzalo was, of course, the memorable villain Ken Seagull in Carlo Lizzani’s brilliant spaghetti western Un fiume di dollari/ The Hills Run Red (1966), and also appeared in Alberto De Martino’s Django spara per primo/ Django Shoots First that very same year.
‘Everybody will talk about the heroes of Fort Sharp,’ whispers the deluded Lennox with his last dying breath. In reality, you get the feeling that very few will speak about the men of Fort Sharp; incident and deed scrubbed from history in favour of easier victories and more readily rewarding achievements. The same might be said of Cerchio’s underrated film itself.