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Johnny Oro Review

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JOHNNY ORO (1965)
Cast:
  • Mark Damon
  • Franco de Rosa
  • Ettore Manni
  • Valeria Fabrizi
  • Giulia Rubini
  • Andrea Aureli
  • Pippo Starnazza
  • Loris Loddi

Director:

  • Sergio Corbucci

Music:

  • Carlo Savina

Johnny Oro

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Johnny Oro, Sergio Corbucci's third western, was made immediately before the groundbreaking Django, but released afterwards. Corbucci abandoned the project before it was completed, leaving it to others to finish the movie. This decision might have harmed his chances overseas: Johnny Oro was backed by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who were very unhappy with the final product. For one thing, the film was too short when Corbucci left. Apparently it was Manolo Bolognini, the producer of Django, who shot several additional scenes, most probably to avoid legal problems (1).

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The bounty hunter Johnny Jefferson Gonzales kills three Perez brothers when they leave church after the wedding of the oldest brother. He spares the fourth and youngest brother, Juanito, because he has no price on his head. Juanito assembles a gang of Mexican outlaws and renegade Apaches and swears revenge. Johnny Oro has been thrown in jail for the use of dynamite in a town where fire arms are not allowed, and Juanito threatens to raid the town if Johnny isn’t handed over to him. Most townspeople leave town, only the sheriff and his family, plus an old man stay behind to defend the prisoner …

The film is clearly inspired by Howard Hawks Rio Bravo, but also makes a wink at the first Ringo movie, A Pistol for Ringo. The working title was Ringo cavalca ancora (Ringo is still riding) and Johnny Oro would become Johnny Ringo in most export versions. The sheriff is still a person worthy of some respect, and there’s a very ‘Hawksian’ character, an old drunkard, who feels at home in prison, and therefore immediately breaks a few windows when he's released (so it's perfectly legal for the sheriff to lock him up again). But some details, like the unusual alliance of Mexicans and Indians as baddies, and the gold coveting hero, are definite steps towards the bizarre world of some of Corbucci masterpieces, that would establish his name as one of the genre's most original directors.

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The Italian theme song tells us Johnny is not interested in women, for his only love is gold: "Non gli importava dell'amore a Johnny Oro, il suo unico amore era l'oro" (To Johnny Oro love was unimportant, for his only love was gold). For this reason his gun, his spurs and his cigarette holder are all made of gold. Some have suggested that the character anticipates the more carefree genre icons like Sartana and Sabata, who would take over from the tormented avengers a few years later. His habit to call his horse with a whistled tune, would be copied by Gianni Garko in 10.000 for a Massacre (in which Garko plays a whimsical bounty hunter called Django). But above all, the ever smiling, elegant and haughty Johnny Oro seems to anticipate the more sophisticated, well-dressed characters in Corbucci's later movies, like the Polish mercenary Sergei Kowalski (The Mercenary) or the Swedish gun-runner Yodlaf Petersen (Compañeros). Like Johnny Oro, Kowalski and Peterson are self-obsessed, greedy personalities, but unlike Johnny, they develop a social conscience, which eventually turns them into persons dedicated to a cause. Johnny Oro does not evolve. His only cause is, and will ever be his love for gold. Like some cartoonish characters who never grow older or feel any existential angst, he seems to exist in a universe beyond time and place: to explain his unique predilection, we're not given any psychological or social reason, but instead are told he was born in a goldmine. This puts him in line with Asterix' friend Obelix, who owns his superhuman strength to the fact that he fell into a cauldron with magic potion when he was a small boy.


Alex Cox called this movie the first Italian western to attempt self parody, to treat the western as pop art. I guess that is exactly what Corbucci's art is all about, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Basically the spaghetti western is pop art, a throwaway form of a more dignified genre, but the very best outings managed to transcend their own modesty, and become high art. This is not yet the case with Johnny Oro. The first twenty minutes, with the shoot-out outside the church and the killing (by Juanito) of the bride, priest and altar man of the shotgun wedding, are very good, but afterwards it quickly loses focus. Johnny, the intended hero, spends more than twenty minutes in jail and thereby becomes, more or less, a supporting character in his own movie. Not very much happens until the explosive finale, with Johnny (literally) blowing up the villains (and part of the town). However, there are a few inspired moments, such as a wonderful scene in which Damon, not wearing his famous golden gun, is surprised by three musical opponents, who are hiding their guns in their instruments: before they're able to shoot, it's their turn to be surprised by Damon, who uses dynamite to blow them away. On the plus side there's also a nice (if somewhat typical) score by Carlo Savini, a wonderful costume and production design (by Carlo Simi).


Reportedly Corbucci wasn't very happy with the idea to introduce Indians into the script. They had chosen Apaches because they were Indians without feathers and the traditional Apache outfit wasn't difficult to suggest with a few lengths of cloth. But Corbucci had asked his personal friend Giovanni Cianfriglia, who had a sort of Indian look, to play Sebastian, the Indian leader. The problem was that Cianfriglia spoke with a broad Lazio accent and the effect was hilarious, so they had to hire an extra voice actor. Corbucci and Damon got along very well, and when Corbucci was offered the Django project, he wanted Damon for the main part, but producer Bolognini and his wife Nora would convince him to take a young Italian actor, Franco Nero. Damon turns in a decent performance, but with his droopy moustache and Engelbert Humperdinck face his presence is a little disorienting. Johnny Oro is not a great movie, but it’s interesting within the context of Corbucci’s career. Several story elements would pop up in later movies: the gun-free town in The Specialists, the besieged town and the double-crossing citizen (in this movie the bar keeper) in Navajo Joe, and the killing of defenseless people, notably priests and women, in many of his films.


--By Scherpschutter

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