Johnny Hamlet Shakespearian Review

From The Spaghetti Western Database

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  • < Quella sporca storia nel west
  • 1968
  • Dir: Enzo G. Castellari
  • Cast: Andrea Giordana, Gilbert Roland, Horst Frank, Françoise Prevost, Stefania Careddu, Gabriela Grimaldi, Manuel Silvester Serrano, Franco Latini, Ennio Girolami, Pedro Sanchez, Giorgio Sanmartin
  • Music: Francesco de Masi


Note: This is a special review. Some parts of it are in the first place aimed at those who want to know more about the relation between the movie and the play it was based upon. Therefore both movie and play are discussed in detail, resulting in a text that is overrun with spoilers. It might also be a bit too pretentious to some visitors' liking. If you jump the Shakespeare part, you'll have a more common review. Still, if you prefer a more straightforward movie analysis, please check Phil H's excellent review. You can read it right here - Scherpschutter


Introduction

It is often said that Shakespeare would have made a great western if only he were born several ages later. He knew how to write a compelling story, had excellent villainy, and would not hesitate to kill off nearly his entire cast to please his audience. His most famous play, Hamlet, seems the blueprint for a revenge western, as if the Bard had read a study about a genre that would flourish several hundred years after his death. Essentially it's the story of a young man who returns to his hometown after the death of his father, only to discover that the old man was killed and that his mother has newly married the main suspect, the young man's uncle. It was Sergio Corbucci who came up with the idea to transport the story from Denmark to the Far West. His choice for the part of Johnny Hamlet was Anthony Perkins. But the project was taken from him - much to his discontent - and offered to Franco Rosetti, director of The Dirty Outlaws (El Desperado), who refused it, and subsequently to Enzo G. Castellari, who accepted it, and also co-wrote the final script with Tito Carpi and (co-producer) Francesco Scardamaglia.


The Plot

A confederate soldier, Johnny Hamilton, returns home after the Civil War and discovers that his father has been killed. While visiting the grave, and thinking about who could be the culprit, he is attacked by two local thugs, Guild and Ross. He is saved by an old friend, Horace, who tells him that his father was killed by a Mexican bandit called Santillana, and that his uncle Claude has already revenged him. Johnny finds out that his mother has married Claude shortly after the death of his father and starts to doubt whether Santillana really is the guilty person, especially when evidence starts to show up that the bandit is still alive. His uncle Claude and Santillana have stolen a load of gold that Johnny's father had assembled for the sake of the Confederacy, but Claude has embezzled the loot afterwards, and told his partner in crime that it was lost. Johnny manages to put the two man up against each other, but in the meantime Claude has killed Johnny's former girlfriend Emily and put the blame on the young man. In accordance with the customs of the region Johnny is crucified (!) by Emily's father, who's also the sheriff. His mother starts to repent but is accidently shot when she has an argument with her new husband. While Claude and Santillana take on each other, the heavily wounded woman tries to rescue her crucified son ...


Spaghetti western versus Shakespeare

For about two-thirds of the movie, the scripts follows Shakespeare as closely as desirable. Names have been changed , some characters are missing, but the story is rather similar, with only a few drastic changes made, usually for obvious reasons. Hamlet is a play about the vicissitudes of life and the question whether we should try to influence them actively of not. In other words: must we accept our personal fate or try to change it? << To be or not to be, that is the question; whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune / Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them ? (1) >> Hamlet is a so-called renaissance man, slowly shaking off the chains of medieval philosophy that saw man as an impotent subject to a God deciding over his destiny. Like most intellectuals of his time Hamlet/Shakespeare had read

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Michel de Montaigne's Essays, shortly before translated into English, and was strongly influenced by them. Hamlet is nearly constantly wavering, and concludes, at one point, that conscience (2) has made us aware of our finiteness (we make the journey to << The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn (3) / No traveler returns >>) and thus makes cowards of us all. Of course the spaghetti western is not the ideal background for complicated philosophical knots : in one of the first scenes of the movie, Johnny kills two gunmen who have been stalking him. We immediately understand that this is a man of action. The appearances of the Spirit of Hamlet's father, so central to Shakespeare's intentions, have been turned into events more acceptable to us modern viewers. To Shakespeare's viewers, the apparitions of recently deceased persons, so-called wraiths, were realistic events. The first appearance (in the play not witnessed by Hamlet but by Horatio) is now a dream sequence, while the consecutive appearance, in which the Spirit orders Hamlet to kill his uncle but to save his mother, is turned into a contemplative moment, taking place on a graveyard, located inside a large cave. In the play Hamlet has doubts about the identity of the Ghost: still adhering to his Christian faith (like most people of his time, in spite of the Renaissance), he must decide whether the Ghost is really the Spirit of his father who has come back from the Purgatory (and is telling the truth) or was sent by the Devil (and is trying to deceive him). In accordance to Renaissance ideas, he tries to find conclusive evidence by running a test, the famous play within the play in which the murder is represented by the performers, and Hamlet checks the reactions of the public. It has been tried to render Hamlet's inner struggle by raising doubts about uncle Claude's guilt, by introducing a subplot of a Mexican bandit, who allegedly has killed Hamlet's father and subsequently was killed by Claude. This works quite well, but in return the entire Polonius-Laertes-Ophelia story-line is missing, leading to some complications in the script. Needless to say, I suppose, that the crucifixion sequence is not Shakespearian. In the play Hamlet is (mortally) wounded by Laertes, the older brother of Ophelia/Emily, who holds Hamlet responsible for the death of his sister and father (who is accidently killed by Hamlet). While the two men are having a swordfight, Queen Gertrude accidently drinks from the poisoned cup intended for Hamlet. There's no sign of Laertes in the movie, and the sheriff is a poor substitute for Ophelia's father Polonius (and he is killed much later). While Laertes and Hamlet are having a swordfight, Queen Gertrude accidently drinks from the poisoned cup intended for Hamlet. In the movie she dies at the feet of her crucified son. Hamlet kills his uncle by piercing him with his sword and - to be absolutely sure - forcing him to drink from the poisoned cup too. In the movie Claude is shot and choked by the gold-powder covering his face after Johnny has perforated the pockets in which it was kept with his bullets.


Evaluation

I think Johnny Hamlet is a fair version of Shakespeare's play, although the movie only occasionally breathes a Shakespearian atmosphere. Its strength lies undeniably in its visual style. It proves that Castellari had developed a strong sense of cute camera angles and rapid zooms at a rather young age. The opening scene, with Johnny waking up on a beach, surrounded by performers, after having a nightmarish dream about his father, is very strong. Even better is the next scene (after the credits), set in the grotto-churchyard, with Johnny thinking about his father's violent death. For this scene Giordana was tied to a very complicated rotating wooden construction that was moved by hand, the camera fixed to its axis. We see Giordana, floating in the air, the world circling around him, while having a sort of hallucination about his father. Both scenes, the first very lively, the second almost hypnotic, render the feel of Shakespeare's gothic story in an imaginative way, but soon afterwards, we're in typical spaghetti land, with a variety of fistfights, gunplay and the familiar extreme close ups. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that. Castellari has added several action scenes to his story, conceived by Giorgio Ubaldi, who would later put his stamp upon the action scenes of the Trinity-movies. Although a little light-hearted at times, they are okay, one shoot-out, involving a ramshackle staircase, a real standout. The outdoor scenes are very fine, especially those with the fabulous mushroom shaped rocks of the Ciudad Encatada near Cuenca Minera (central Spain). Enzo Bulgarelli's costume design is marvelous, adding a distinct visual touch to the already gloriously looking film. Equally impressive is the use of colours: a soft palette of yellow, purple and ochre for the graveyard scenes and a variety of much harsher shades of blue for the arrival of Johnny at his home ranch and the final shoot out, set at night, in the abandoned western town. And still the film wasn't received well initially. Marco Giusti writes in his book that he found it a bit slow-moving and theatrical when he first saw it as a young man. The decision to change the working title Johnny Hamlet into the enigmatic Quella sporca storia nel West, might not have been a wise one. Often inaccurately translated as The dirty story of the West, the title even confuses those who's native tongue is Italian. It literally means That dirty story in the West, the demonstrative pronoun that/quella indicating a particular, well-known story, but if you don't know that the film is based upon Shakespeare's play, you have no idea what story is actually set in the West. But other objections were made, mainly concerning the acting of Giordana and Grimaldi, and - of course - the crucifixion sequence. Giordana is no

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Eastwood for sure, but I think he does his job rather well. He might have been a little young for the part. At least Castellari thought he was, therefore persuaded him to accept a voice actor to make him sound older. Gabriele Grimaldi for the part of Ophelia/Emily was controversial from the start (the producers initially wanted her older sister) but her poor performance is not entirely her own fault. Ophelia is one of Shakespeare's most enigmatic characters. At the same time her madness and the baffling mystery of her death (she is found dead in shallow water) have inspired many poets and painters (4). The trio of writers clearly had no idea with to do with the entire story-line concerning her family, and have thrown in, so it seems, the crucifixion to close some gaps in the script. All poor Gabriele can do, is sigh and cry, and with her brother written out of the story, and her father only popping up now and then (his Shakespearian counterpart Polonius is much more prominent), Castellari & Company came up with uncle Claude killing Emily with Johnny's gun, to create the dramatic impulse they needed to lead the story to its climax. All but Shakespearian, the crucifixion sequence and all complications related to it, seem heavy-handed and out of place. On the other hand, strong visual Christian metaphors are not unusual within the context of an Italian action movie, and the scene certainly makes an impression.


Conclusion

Time has been kind to Johnny Hamlet. It start to appear more and more on people's lists with favourite spaghetti westerns and even Giusti has reconsidered his views. In a previous version of his Dizionario (5) he wrote that << The idea was marvelous (...) but the execution leaves a lot to desire >>. In the most recent version, this has become : << In retrospect, its assets surely outweigh its shortcomings >>. Giordana, in the previous version called << a real disaster >>, is now called << good-looking, but a bit wooden >>, which sounds a bit more benevolent too.


Reviewed DVD: A big hand for Koch Media please. You can find Sebastian's review of this release in English right here. If you prefer to read his review in German, this is the place to be (or not to be, that is of course the question). I have very little to add. If it's allowed to split one hair in two, I would say that colours occasionally are flirting with oversaturation, especially some of those yellow-ochre tints. I would advice English speaking viewers to select the Italian audio (and English subs). The German audio isn't bad, but I found it rather confusing to hear Giordano to be addressed as 'Django'.



Footnotes:

  • (1) Quotations are taken from: Hamlet, Longman Literature Shakespeare, edited by Julia Markus and Paul Jordan
  • (2 ) Conscience should be read here as 'the ability to think and calculate consequences of one's actions', not as 'a moral sense of right and wrong'
  • (3 ) Bourn = boundaries
  • (4 ) The painting on the right, Ophelia in the Water, is by John Everett Millais
  • (5) The older quotations are mentioned by Gianfranco Casadio, in: Se sei vivo, spara! - storie di pistoleri, banditi e bounty killers nel western 'all'italiana? - 2004, Ravenna. The recent quotations are taken from Giusti's latest version of his ' Dizionario Del Western All'Italiana - Milano 2007

--By Scherpschutter

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