Mannaja Film Review
A (very) late genre entry (See Database Page), featuring Maurizio Merli - best known for his portrayal of commissioner Betti in a series of poliziotteschi - in his only spaghetti western appearance. He is a bounty hunter knick-named Blade because of his superior skills with a hatchet (*1). In the film's notorious opening scene we see him persecuting an outlaw through a misty swamp and disarming him by chopping off the man's shooting hand with his hatchet. Being unable to collect the bounty in the mining town of Suttonville, Blade accepts the offer to track down Debra, the daughter of the mine owner, a religious puritan called McGowan. Debra was allegedly kidnapped by bandits, but in reality the abduction was carried out by the mine owner's corrupt associate Voller, as part of a conspiracy to take over the control of the town ... Blade is captured and buried up to his neck in the sand to be blinded by the sun, but the final confrontation with Voller's men takes place within the mine, where the temporarily blinded Blade has the advantage ...
Sergio Martino only directed two westerns (the other one being the rather flippant Arizona colt returns), but he was involved - as production manager or screenwriter - in a couple of other well-known genre entries, among them the twin movies 10.000 dollari per un massacro and Per 100.000 dollari ti ammazzo. Some melo)dramatic story elements of these movies seem to have made it to the script of this one. With a hero who goes blind and a villain in a wheelchair other classic genre entries will come to mind. The script is very serviceable, even if there are a few inconsistencies: Blade seems to have no affair in Suttonville other than collecting a bounty, but all of a sudden this mine owner turns out to be responsible for his father's death. Was it an afterthought to redeem Blade's character? Otherwise Blade would have been as greedy and ruthless as every other character in this downbeat, often nihilistic movie. The only positive character is the tart with the heart Angela (who falls for Blade but - significantly - won't see the end of the movie).
Mannaja is often compared to Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma, released one year before. The movies share a flamboyant visual style and a distinctive score by the De Angelis Brothers. Castellari used the dilapidated sets of the Roman film studios to suggest a torn-apart post-war society; in Mannaja, artificial curtains of fog are used to hide the bad state these sets were in (*2). Keoma was rooted in Shakespearean drama and medieval folk tales and the religious and pagan symbolism added a mythical dimension to the story. Mannaja was described as apocalyptic and some have discovered a couple of Biblical references in the 'Snake song' (*3), but the flamboyant and referential style seems rather artificial, often merely decorative. At the same time Martino's film is less pretentious and better paced than rather protracted Keoma and both the opening in the swamp and the finale are good examples of crossover scenes, introducing grim and graphic horror elements into the spaghetti western genre.
Merli's axe-wielding character was of course modeled after Franco Nero's halfbreed Indian Keoma, but he's a new type of hero, a Viking in a western setting; if they had made the film a decade earlier, he would have created his own myth in a series of sequels. To my surprise I liked the score by the brothers. Yes, I even enjoyed those deep, deep, incredibly deep vocals (*4).
- (1) Mannaja or mannaia is the Italian tem for the axe used by the executioner:
man•nà•ia/ sostantivo femminile
L'arma con la quale il boia troncava sul ceppo la testa di un condannato alla decapitazione.
In the Italian language version Merli explains, showing his hatchet: "Qualcuno mi chiama Mannaja, perché dicono che so usare bene questa..." (I am called Mannaja, because they say I know well how to use this ...)
- (2) Marco Giust, Dizionario del western all'italiana
- (3) http://dec.is/mannaja/; italian spaghetii western Antonio Bruschini underlined the apocalyptic elements in the story in an interview
- (4) According to Tom Betts, the vocals are by Cesare De Natale :
Dir: Sergio Martino - Cast: Maurizio Merli (Blade), John Steiner (Voller), Sonja Jeannine (Debra), Philippe Leroy (McGowan), Martine Brochard (Angela), Donald O'Brien (Burt Craven), Salvatore Puntillo, Antonio Casale, Enzo Fiermonte, Enzo Maggio, Nello Pazzafini, Claudio Ruffini - Music: Guido & Maurizio De Angelis (the song 'Snake' was composed by Dandylion and the De Angelis Brothers)