The Hellbenders Review
The Hellbenders - (See Database Page)
Corbucci had a love-hate-relationship with most of the people he had ever worked with. When Manolo Bolognini (the producer of Django) proposed a new project to him, to be executed in the last months of '66, he was still at odds with the producer, and therefore accepted another offer, made to him by Albert Band (the original director of Massacro al Grande Canyon) (*1). Some think this was not a wise decision: Band held strong control over the material and the result is a film that - for most part - doesn't really feel like a Corbucci movie.
The film opens with a renegade Confederate officer and his three sons stealing a shipment of Yankee gold in the aftermath of the Civil War, butchering the entire regiment transporting it. With the money the officer wants to revive the Confederacy, somewhere up North, across the Hondo River. While traveling through hostile country, the money is hidden in a coffin, and an alcoholic prostitute is hired to serve as the 'dead man's widow'. When the woman is killed by Cotton's crazy, over-sexed son Jeff, the group is in need of another 'widow'. She is found at the card table, when Cotton’s 'good son' Ben saves her life after she was caught cheating.
The elaborate sequence in which the Yankee regiment is slaughtered was probably inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965): The regiment is attacked while crossing a river, the water under the horses turning red as a result of the excessive bloodletting. The scene is less exploitative than some of the showdowns and torture scenes in Django, but while the violence in that movie was marked by a surrealistic - or even slightly cartoonish - nature, the violent opening of The Hellbenders is clinical and cold-blooded. It’s also so strong that the rest of the movie pales in comparison, even though Cotten and his men are under constant threat of discovery. Most scenes are tension-filled (rather than action-filled) and tension is not what this director does best.
The story is partly based on a novel by William Cook, Guns of North Texas, that had also served as a source of inspiration for Band’s previous film, The Tramplers, also starring Joseph Cotten. The story of the stubborn Southern officer who doesn’t want to give up the fight, must have appealed to Corbucci as well, but he most probably saw it as an allegory on fascism and Mussolini's Empire in the North, in the last stages of WW II (*2). With the emphasis on both 'cause' and 'family', it definitely has become an 'Italian’ tale. Cotten knows that his crazy son Jeff will put the cause in jeopardy, but cannot decide to send him away; Ben, the good son, knows that his father's cause is reckless and will probably lead to the downfall of the entire family, but cannot say goodbye to him. Both feel this strong loyalty to cause and family (often interchangeable conceptions): it may be a bad cause, but it's our cause, cosa nostra.
The Hellbenders is often overlooked, even by some of his Corbucci’s fans. It is different and it is most definitely interesting, but there are too many scenes that don’t quite work, until Corbucci hits the right cord (again) in a quite abrupt, but well-prepared and well-executed finale. The characters are a bit difficult to relate to, but performances are strong. Brazilian actress Bengell is tremendous as the woman sowing discord among the family members, and there are nice cameos for spaghetti regulars Aldo Sambrell (as a Mexican bandido) and Al Mulock, as a crazy beggar who kills the group's horses, causing - indirectly - the dramatic finale with its outburst of rage and frenzy.
Dir: Sergio Corbucci - Cast: Joseph Cotten, Norma Bengell, Julian Mateos, Gino Pernice, Aldo Sambrell, Al Mulock, Angel Aranda, Maria Martin, Claudio Gora, Benito Stefanelli, Enio Girolami - Music: Ennio Morricone
- (1) Marco Giusti, Dizionario Del Western All'Italiana
- (2) Soon after the allied invasion of Italy, in June ’43, Mussolini was arrested. But Germany invaded the country, and Mussolini was re-installed. In the Nazi-occupied northern part of the country a fascist state under Mussolini was founded, with the small town of Salo (near the Garda Lake) as capital. A Civil War broke out and it took almost two years to dislodge Il Duce from his position.