Two Directors + Two Climaxes = Massacre at Grand Canyon
“You know my father” – Wes (Jim Mitchum)
A lone rider and his horse sit against an azure skyline. The actor playing the cowboy is the son of a Hollywood legend, as the close-up will testify. The same features, instantly recognizable and uncannily redolent of film royalty, but the visage is fresher, unworn, somewhat untested. The handover had begun, the torch passed down from old to new, youth inheriting what the old guard must inevitably surrender to time. Much like father and son, so too the genre. And so, we arrive here, in the early 1960s, on the vast, open expanses of the former Yugoslavia, teetering on the precipice of something special: the birth of the spaghetti western proper. We’re not quite there yet, but here is another vital step on the path toward glory.
Massacro al Grande Canyon/Massacre at Grand Canyon (1963) doesn’t get much love. Its reputation – what little exists – rests mainly on the question of authorial signature. Is it Albert Band’s film? Or is Massacre a Corbucci picture? I don’t think it matters. (Other, far more knowledgeable commentators than myself have speculated tirelessly on this subject, with the general consensus being that this is likely a Corbucci joint. At the risk of playing contrarian, I’m going with Band. Despite the odd Corbucci flourish, Massacre feels far more tonally attuned to Gli Uomini dal passo pesante/The Tramplers, Band’s 1965 follow-up, than, say, I Crudeli/The Hellbenders or Gli Specialisti/The Specialists.) In this age of renewed accessibility and critical re-evaluation, Massacre at Grand Canyon is deserving of a second look. It’s certainly no pantheon entry, nor could it even be described as wholly good, but the film – whoever it belongs to – offers many points of genuine interest and remains a fascinating proto-Spaghetti.
The prologue means business, the film opening in fine style, as Wes Evans (Jim Mitchum) finally tracks down the Slade brothers, the remaining two killers of his father. The film effectively, then, begins at the end. The climax of an unseen adventure. It’s an interesting doorway into the picture, and begs a couple of interesting questions: Where has Wes been? For how long? What action befell him along the way of his vengeance trail? Why weren’t we privy? Those answers would, no doubt, make for an entertaining prequel. But it’s here – at the end of our hero’s journey – that the viewer is thrown into the picture, and thankfully it’s all action: a man is tossed through a door, ripping it off its hinges. Shots are fired, errant bullets striking objects as gunmen scatter. Men are killed. Some pretty rousing stuff. The opening credits promise much, too. Apart from Big Jim Mitchum, the film has Giorgio Ardisson and the perennially underrated Giacomo Rossi-Stuart in support. A young Andrea Giordani, too. Benito Stefanelli is Master of Arms. Maestro Gianni Ferrio is behind the score. Future Poliziotteschi-wunderkind Stelvio Massi is the camera operator. Rod Dana sings the tolerable theme song. (Dana would later star in his own SW, Tanio Boccia’s 1966 film Uccidi o muori/ Kill or Die). Would-be Trinity-helmer Enzo Barboni is the DoP. And as per that gorgeous, familiar logo at the opening of the film, Massacre is a Titanus production, so we know it has some serious money behind it (no factory-line quickie here). As far as recognizable genre talent goes, that’s a damn good line-up by any standard. Against all odds – and contrary to popular opinion – I think the film lives up to that roster, more or less.
The film begins proper. Band, or Corbucci, and Barboni like to place their camera low and shoot from below, elevating Mitchum to giant status, the actor Tall in the Saddle. Mitchum is dubbed, which is distracting if not disastrous. Those familiar with Mitchum, Jr. and his subsequent B-Movie career will know that not only did he look like dad, but so too did he sound like the legend. Thus, the applied voice is more ill-fitting than usual (if memory serves, Jim provided his own voice for the English dub track of The Tramplers). Mitchum’s filmography is neither robust nor particularly distinguished, but there’s a few hidden jewels tucked away in there. Standouts include a strong central role in the middling war film Ambush Bay (1966); headlining the excellent 1976 hick-in-the-city thriller Trackdown; the heroic, beleaguered cop in the grubby exploitation flick Blackout (1978); and a nicely judged cameo in Monte Hellman’s much-loved ode to car culture, Two-Lane Blacktop (1971). Best of all is the 1977 bonkers gonzo-thriller Ransom, which – in true spaghetti style – has more alternative titles than it does lines of dialogue (aka. Maniac! aka. Assault in Paradise). The cast of Richard Compton’s film is as insane as its rambling plot: as well as Mitchum, there’s Oliver Reed, John Ireland, Paul Koslo and Stuart Whitman. It’s well-worth seeking out.
Having avoided being killed by a gang of gunmen, Wes returns home and meets the one-legged character of Fred (actor unknown – if anybody can identify this performer, please let me know and I will update/amend this article). Hindsight tells us this must be a Corbucci touch, such was the master’s fascination with physical mutilation (although Band would have Mitchum become the amputee in The Tramplers, with the character of Hoby Cordeen losing an arm, so maybe Band, too, showed equal interest in the real-world cost of heroism). Fred points out a grave dedicated to his missing leg. “I brought it back and buried it there,” he explains, conjuring one hell of a macabre image, darkly amusing. Crushed hands, scalpings, severed vocal cords, missing limbs (see also Mario Adorf in The Specialists) – how Corbucci loved to maim and mark his characters (if, indeed, this was his scene).
Wes rides back into his hometown. The whole environment convinces. Giuseppe Ranieri’s set design is on-point. Mitchum looks good in the saddle, confident and at ease as he cuts through town. We learn from the town sheriff, Cooly (Rossi-Stuart), that Wes has been gone for two years. The prolific Rossi-Stuart was rarely utilized as a lead, which is a shame. Always a welcome presence in any film, his defining roles might be as the heroic doctor in Bava’s classic Gothic horror Operazione paura/ Kill, Baby, Kill, (1966) and as Vincent Price’s former friend, now vampiric antagonist in The Last Man on Earth (1964). We learn that Wes’ sweetheart, Nancy, has married Tully Dancer (Giorgio Ardisson) during his absence. Tully is the meanest member of the Dancer clan, who – in true spaghetti style – are in the midst of a violent range war with the Whitmore family. Both factions want ownership of Red Grass Valley, and Wes will inevitably find himself caught in the crossfire. But, in true screen cowboy fashion, Wes is a former lawman who has had enough of the gun. He wants to be a cattleman. The town Judge and Sheriff try to convince him to pin on the badge once more, but our hero’s newly broken heart forces him to move on. Band and Corbucci’s idea of romance is as twisted and as bitter as their morality; it’s the very best kind of romantic subplot, love just another battlefield to tear a man apart or pock his soul with scars.
In the next scene, a drunken lout attempts to high-kick Wes in the jaw but is thrown to floor. This triggers an excellent saloon dustup. Mitchum handles the physical stuff convincingly – it’s all him, not a single shot where the actor appears doubled by a stunt man. His subsequent B-Movie career proved a good match for his ragged, cinderblock persona. Wes then retreats to his former home. How many times have we seen the lone cowboy return, his former residence covered in dust and buried beneath a stratum of spider-webbing? But there’s real feeling here, a palpable loneliness backed by Ferrio’s solemn score. In fact, as a whole, the film feels more thoughtful than your average Italian oater. Wes’ confusion and lamentation about having lost both his woman and time supports much of these early scenes and creates the film’s austere backbone. Massacro al Grande Canyon is a naïvely sombre film, and I find myself drawn to its clichéd conviction, applauding its focus. I know many commentators are ambivalent to this film at best, dismissive at worst, but the film’s acknowledged failings are so well handled by an expert cast and crew that the picture somehow manages to conjure a genuine sincerity, nonetheless.
Confronted by Nancy, the wounded Wes is awkward and snarky. Rightly so, Nancy tears a strip off our hero before the scene slides into rote exposition. Thankfully, Ardisson, as likeably smug as ever, turns up to save the scene from becoming overly saccharine. Ardisson had begun his career in Pepla (including two with Mario Bava: Gli invasori/ Erik the Conqouror and Ercole al centro della Terra/ Hercules in the Haunted World, both 1961) before flirting tentatively with the European western. He eventually found his metier in the Eurospy filone, and a fistful of decent Gialli.
Ardisson works for his own wealthy but ailing father, Eric (Eduardo Ciannelli), bedridden as if ravaged by his own material avarice. Cue much boudoir plotting between the Dancer patriarch and his sons. Eric’s condition is unexpected. It’s another nice (Corbucci-esque?) touch. In a scene of encroaching ambush, the director(s) cut back and forth between thunderous hooves on the approach and the silence of the titular canyon and those who wait to attack. These riding scenes are visually exciting, matched by the sight – and sound – of countless rifles being cocked. Good riding sequences often go underappreciated in the western film, I think. We, the fans, tend to take them for granted – it’s just horses running, right? But a perceptive director and talented DoP were often able to capture the taut musculature and driving energy of such movement, convert it successfully to film as visual adrenaline, and such is the case here. Barboni and his young apprentice Massi work wonders here with the horse action.
The titular massacre which follows is well-crafted and staged with fair elan. (Note that the title is a complete misnomer: there is no Grand Canyon here, only ‘Butte Canyon’, which surely ranks as the funniest piece of tautology since Kirk Morris visited the Scottish village of ‘Loch Lake’ in Riccardo Freda’s Maciste all'inferno/Maciste in Hell ). The warring factions of Dancer and Whitmore exchange gunfire in an extended, thrilling sequence. Bullets pang off rockface, spitting clouds of dust and debris. Seeking the advantage of high ground, men climb the steep incline and take cover behind jutting stone; for once, there exists some form of logical strategy here, in a genre where many filmmakers were happy to have their actors merely point and shoot. The wounded and dead roll violently down hostile terrain, bodies bouncing with loose shale, the stuntmen fully earning their pay cheques.
Keen to see an end to the bloodshed, Wes halts the carnage by waving a white flag. He demands Tully take him to his father. There follows an effective moment of suspense, wherein the viewer isn’t sure as to whether Tully will acquiesce or ignore the plea and initiate further gunfire. Dwarfed by the impressive canyon, the men disband like ants. The film makes superb use of those spatial dimensions.
Looking to establish a modicum of peace, Wes is granted access to the bedridden Eric. They talk whilst Tully rocks in a chair and Giordani (as the younger, more innocent Clay Dancer) stands in the background, looking moody or perplexed. Band fills the frame well, positioning his actors with an obvious and effective specificity. Wes formulates a plan, looking to take Clay hostage. Mitchum’s character is no mere gun thug; he’s a tactician, forever one-move ahead of the other characters. Mitchum has often been criticised for his underplaying, those sleepy eyes giving nothing away with regard to contained emotion, but that laconic impassivity suites the character of Wes here. When Ardisson’s men threaten him, Wes remains unphased; their guns have nothing against his unflappable cool. But if our hero’s weapon is his brain, then Eric opts to fight via money, his weapon of choice being his chequebook. The senior Dancer is even willing to sacrifice his youngest son in order to reach his objective. Violence, intellect and commerce: viable threats, all.
Back at the sheriff’s office, Cooley is cleaning his dismantled pistol. He appears to have spent an equal amount of time feathering his trademark blonde pompadour, too. Wes talks again of his father, and – once again – the viewer can’t help but think of the actor’s real-world connection. Was this by design? Did the screenwriters mean to conjure the memory of Jim’s more famous father in an effort to tie their film to its more legitimate lineage? Probably not, but it’s a fascinating and singular thing to ponder.
Next scene, and Mitchum beats the shit out of a lackey. He pummels the poor bastard into submission and then carries him to the Sheriff’s office. They bind him and gag him, and then the film does something rather technically remarkable. Band – or Corbucci, or whoever – and Barboni have the camera lift off Mitchum’s captive and concentrate on the stone wall of the cell. The camera then climbs the wall, all rippling grey rock, until we meet a twilight skyline, the scene having transitioned seamlessly from cell to canyon wall in a moment of imaginative transition. One suspects the hand of Massi here. It’s a minor visual indicator, nothing flash, but it works wonderfully. Sometimes derided for their cookie-cutter manufacture, the spaghetti western was always able to surprise on a technical level, depending on who was behind the film.
By this point the plot is needlessly convoluted. There are so many factions looking to deceive that the tangled narrative threatens to confuse. Nancy is almost raped, but Mitchum arrives and beats the villain into an unconscious state before carrying him off. This is the second time we’ve seen Wes carrying a man over his shoulder, and this time it almost raises a smile. Is he stockpiling his enemies, removing them from the equation one-by-one? The answer, it would seem, is yes: moments later, we are shown three men tied and gaged in the jail cell.
The film lands at its climax. Wes and Sheriff Cooley are pinned down in the lawman’s office. It’s a classic siege showdown. The armament of both factions is clear and forceful: Ardisson and his men have pistols, whilst our heroes are brandishing Winchesters. There’s an excellent close-up of Mitchum, face in profile as he presses his body up against the wall, peering out through a barred window, the frame split in two, a bravura display of depth perception. Crouching low, Cooley takes up a pistol in each hand and begins to fire alternately, going all John Woo some twenty-odd years before John Woo became a cultural short-hand for creative cinematic gunplay. The door to the sheriff’s office opens, revealing nothing but smoky darkness and an eery stillness worthy of a Hammer horror. This is all good stuff – atmospheric and suitably grim. The gang approach the law office in unison, convinced they have killed everybody inside. Again, Band places his villains well within his shot, making good use of the Panoramico frame.
Cooley is shot and killed. Wes stands over the body of his fallen friend, the melancholy skyline behind him an expansive, mournful blue, the shot seemingly captured during the so-called magic hour. Massacre really is a beautifully photographed film. ‘He was a brave man,’ says the mayor as the townsfolk congregate. A concise yet accurate sentiment, as good as any eulogy. Mitchum crouches low over the body, his grief understated but plain. ‘The only one in this town,’ he replies. This is a welcome scene; too often in many spaghetti westerns, the death of a key character is simply washed over or ignored, as if such a narrative turn should only be seen, not felt. Band does well to not only include this moment of genuine pathos, but to highlight it so remarkably with that mournful dawn canvas, all of it played out in a single shot, as if the filmmakers knew they might lose the light at any given second. It’s a brilliant sequence, as exciting as any moment of action rendered in the film.
There is more gunplay back at the canyon, but this feels slightly superfluous. It looks suspiciously like it was shot at the very same time as the earlier massacre. It plays too familiar; we’ve seen this locale before, with near-identical action, so why repeat it? Luckily, Band intercuts this with Wes leading a charge with his incoming rescue. Wes and Tully fire at each other, their horses turning stressfully at all the noise and conflict. There’s a terrific dummy death, as one of the men plummets to his death from atop a butte. Band’s keen eye to detail extends to Wes as marksman. Wes takes great care with a couple of shots, lining his pistol carefully against his intended target before pulling the trigger. Again, this plays much better than merely having your actor point and shoot in the general direction of the enemy. Mitchum and Ardisson glower at each other for a couple of seconds before Tully takes off and Wes gives chase. The scale here is impressive. The frame is packed with some fifty, sixty men, reminding the viewer that Massacre has a fair budget at its disposal.
Massacro al Grande Canyon is also a film of small yet impressive invention. Take that final chase. Not content to merely cut back-and-forth between trampling hooves, the director has Ardisson drag a sagebrush ball of fire behind his horse, setting flame to the land as he rides, no doubt hoping to slow the gaining Wes. As noted before but worth repeating here, Mitchum Jr. appears to be an excellent rider. Thrown from his wounded horse, Wes is saved from execution by Fred, the one-legged war veteran. Even in victory, Mitchum looks non-plussed. The film’s coda sees Clay Dancer about to be hung in front of his ailing father. Wes intervenes, carrying the body of Ardisson, one dead son substituting another (‘The right son’, say Wes). Clay is released, escorting his grieving, frail father back to the homestead. Wes tells the now-widowed Nancy that he is staying in town, and that he will be donning the sheriff’s badge once more. Dubiously, the film seems to suggest that, with his broken heart now mended, Wes is happy to return to a life of violence. I guess a man craves corporeal balance; the heart and flesh are both capable of inflicting terrible pain, but, ideally, at least in the wild, wild world of the spaghetti western, never at the same time.
This is the second climax of the film for Wes, following the opening, and the least satisfying of the two. At the end of his earlier vengeance cycle, he emerged tired, lost, without incentive. This second point of closure is more traditional: having slaughtered the villains and seen justice prevail, Wes is reunited with his true love and has been reintegrated successfully back into society, the tin star repositioning him as integral cog within the fragile machinations of community. He is no longer the bitter, lone gunfighter. That’s a shame. The best spaghetti westerns retained their cynicism to the final frame, rightly dubious of the so-called ‘happy ending’. Another point, Band. Corbucci, the eternal pessimist, knew that the end for his heroes meant uncertainty and penance, the scarring of the physical and the psyche alike. If – of course – they were (un)lucky enough to survive.
Obviously, this article stands as a positive reappraisal. Yes, the film often feels like a rigid facsimile of the standard American western, but I think we, as fans, must get past the notion of that being a bad thing. The early aping of the American western by the European filmmakers should be celebrated, surely? The films that came prior to Fistful’s artistic influence – and enviable profit incentive – were often high-risk anomalies, shot by directors like The Marchent’s and Mario Caiano who demonstrated a clear affinity for the genre, and whose films were – I would argue – much more lovingly produced than most which merely fell off the factory-line conveyor built after the zeitgeist had begun proper.
Massacre also feels like the first part of a minor, unacknowledged trifecta of films linked by key talent. As we have discussed, Massacre at Grand Canyon is a work credited to Albert Band and Sergio Corbucci, ratio unknown. It stars James Mitchum in the lead role. Band would go onto direct The Tramplers, an excellent adaptation of Guns of North Texas by Will Cook. Guns of North Texas is a solid little 1958 pulp paperback western, fast and extremely enjoyable. The film adaptation is a literal translation from novel to screen, much dialogue included. It works – the film is something of a rough gem and remains massively underappreciated. Band’s film stars Joseph Cotton as a deranged Southern patriarch looking to rebuild the South in the wake of the American civil war. It co-stars Gordon Scott, Franco Nero and one Jim Mitchum. One can only assume that Band enjoyed working with Mitchum, Jr. on Massacre to have him star in his following picture. Corbucci, meanwhile, would go on to director The Hellbenders. That 1966 picture is slowly encroaching on masterpiece territory, worthy of discussion alongside Corbucci’s more well-known classics. It stars – and stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Joseph Cotton as a deranged Southern patriarch looking to reconstitute the South in the wake of the American civil war. But whereas The Tramplers was a recognizable American western in Euro-dress, The Hellbenders is 100% pure Corbucci, uncut. Dark, disturbing and cruelly hilarious, The Hellbenders is more evocative of Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) than any traditional western, what with its focus on a psychotic family’s murderous collusion and grasping need to control. The Hellbenders is fucking insane, grimly delirious, and I only see its reputation growing more steadily in the coming years. So, the key personnel behind Massacre at Grand Canyon would splinter off and create two excellent (albeit tonally divergent yet thematically identical) Italian Westerns in The Tramplers and The Hellbenders. If said lineage is perhaps too tenuous to form a loose, unofficial trilogy of sorts, then those three pictures at least make for a fine triple-feature and remain inextricably linked in this viewer’s mind.
Gianni Ferrio’s score is a tough nut to crack. It’s not bad – on the contrary, some of the more melancholy cues are remarkably effective – but for the most part it feels ill-judged. Too jaunty, too upbeat, just too wrong for what’s unfolding on screen. Ferrio was a superb composer and contributed many of the finest scores to some of the most interesting spaghetti westerns, but this doesn’t rank amongst his best work. (At the risk of pissing off many hardcore fans, I must confess that, much as I love Morricone’s trendsetting work within the genre, I feel other composers ultimately surpassed him with regard to becoming integral to the spaghetti western experience as a whole: Ferrio, the brilliant Francesco De Masi, Bacalov, Riz Ortolani, A.F. Lavagnino, Carlo Savina, Carlo Rustichelli, the prolific Stelvio Cipriani and the superb Piero Piccioni to name but a few – but that’s a whole other opinion piece.) Last released by GDM on a 24-track CD, Ferrio’s Massacre score struggles to play cohesively beyond the parameters of the film it accompanies.
Finally, that phenomenal poster art. The gunfighter’s stance, pistol aimed, gun-belt all loose and casual, death splayed out through the centre of those poised legs, the chaos of war rendered live in the background: all classic motifs of the genre, distilled into one perfect piece of pulp advertising. If the film itself doesn’t come as close to capturing all that is great about the European western, Massacro al Grand Canyon might – at the very least – be a better spaghetti western than most remember.
Note: This article is based on a print currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime UK. The (restored?) picture quality is excellent, far surpassing the much-loved Koch and Wild East DVD versions. Said version retains its original Panoramico aspect ratio of 1:85:1.