Jonathan of the Bears Review
From The Spaghetti Western Database
Jonathan of the Bears (Jonathan degli Orsi)
An Italian -Russian co-production from the nineties, when the western genre had a brief upswing thanks to Ocar winners like Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. It was filmed in Russia with an international cast. The film was co-produced by Franco Nero (who had also co-written the original story) and financed by Silvio Berlusconi, before he went into politics. It’s not a late spaghetti western, but rather a descendent of the genre, a mix of styles and influences.
The Jonathan from the title is a young boy of Polish descent, Jonathan Kowalski, who befriends a young bear and is adopted by a friendly Indian tribe after he has witnessed how his parents were killed by bandits. As an adult, having become a legendary warrior, looking for his parents’ murderers, he becomes aware of the futility of his inner rage and the vanity of his ambitions. He returns to the people who raised him, determined to lead a peaceful life, but he’s forced to take up arms again when a money-hungry speculator has discovered oil under the the tribe’s burial grounds and will stop at nothing to get to the ‘black gold’.
Jonathan of the Bears is often called the Italian answer to Dances with Wolves (1990), but according to Nero he already had plans (but wasn’t able to finance the project) for an ‘ecological’ western featuring Native Americans before Costner's movie became a hype (1). The story of the orphan who’s adopted by Indians is often closer to Little Big Man, but if the story was not inspired by Costner’s movie, the title most certainly was. The original title Nero had in mind for his movie was Nikita Jones, and it was the co-author of the original story, Lorenzo De Luca, who came up with the actual title and the idea of the little bear (2). Castellari was only brought in very late but still managed to put his imprint on the production. The visual style is most certainly his and he also made some changes to the screenplay.
The first half of the movie tells a story about the spiritual quest of a man raised by Indians, the second half is a more straightforward action tale. The first half is told in flashback style, moving back and forth between Jonathan’s childhood and maturity (Nero literally walking through is own past); in the second half the flashback style and some of the film’s motives are dropped in favour of a lot of slomo violence and truly awful horse-tripping. The different halves are linked to each other by a quasi-mystical conversations between Nero and his foster father, the Chief of the tribe, about "mother earth" and the greedy white man destroying the red man’s way of life.
Nero looks remarkably fit for a man in his fifties and Hess and Saxon are good villains. Casting Native American actors in the lead roles (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman had been in Dances with Wolves as well) was a good idea, but the casting of Mongolian extras as warriors works distracting. Jonathan of the Bears is not a bad movie but it fails to create the magic of Keoma and we’re also supposed to believe that this money-hungry speculator (Saxon) was the last man present at the murder of Jonathan’s parents: he’s identified - in a trick borrowed from Death Rides a Horse - by medaillon he stole from Mrs. Kowalski; what perfectly worked as a dramatic device in Petroni’s movie (because both characters had become friends) feels empty and needlessly contrived here.
- The movie is dedicated to Clair Huffaker and Sergio Corbucci. The name Kowalsi is taken from Corbucci’s The Mercenary, in which Nero plays a Polish mercenary. Nero and Corbucci had fallen out on the set of Compañeros, mainly because Nero felt that had Corbucci had neglected him and paid more attention to Tomas Milian. They had never really made up and at this point in his career Nero felt very bad about the experience.
- Lorenzo De Luca, the co-author of the original story, had become popular thanks to a series of articles and TV-programs on genre cinema, in particular Kung Fu movies. The scenes featuring martial arts techniques were obviously his idea. De Luca had also written C’era una volta il western italiano (1987), the first italian book on the spaghetti western genre.
- Knifewing Segura, who plays Jonathan’s foster brother, makes his only movie appearance here. He also contributed to the score. He’s actually a musician and still active: