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Just Add Sugar: Alberto de Martino’s Charge of the 7th Cavalry

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Charge of the 7th Cavalry

There’s a terrific moment some thirty-four minutes into Alberto de Martino’s Charge of the 7th Cavalry / Gli Eroi de Fort Worth (1964) wherein the film’s nominal protagonist, Major ‘Sugar’ Patterson (Edmund Purdom) responds to an order given by a superior. Sugar reacts via the protocol of military salute; his response is instinctual, ingrained, conditioned. But Sugar is also something of a wild card – one of those natural born Movie soldiers too savvy to surrender their soul to a dubious, ungiving patriotism – and no sooner has Sugar lifted his hand (the action as much corporeal as sentient, as if the body has become as conditioned as the mind) than so does he realize he’s slavishly pandering to an ideology he no longer recognizes nor fully believes in. There is no obvious political statement here, however, but something far more edifying: a beautifully played comic beat, as Sugar rolls his eyes as if to playfully chastise himself for still adhering to an established rule. It’s a nice, telling moment, and a great metaphor for where the Italian Western was at this point in its own evolution. Whilst still emulating the classic American western, the Spaghetti was beginning to acknowledge that such slavish respect would surely hamper any chance of independence or reclaim. Just like the character of Sugar Patterson, the genre itself was attempting to break free of bad habits.

Charge of the 7th Cavalry might feel like a bland proposition at first glance. It’s an early spaghetti, after all, made during the second phase (post-Fistful, although having been released just three months after that film, I doubt there was any direct influence during production) when the genre was still struggling to find its own identity. This often led to a still-born product, devoid of personality or élan; a homespun facsimile designed to cash-in on the profitable swell left in the wake of Leone’s trendsetting wave. 7th Cavalry stands, therefore, as part of a certain substratum of the Spaghetti canon which remains unjustly neglected (Fernando Cerchio’s surprisingly good 1966 effort, Mutiny at Fort Sharp/ Per un dollaro di gloria, for example) or at least insufficiently explored due to scant availability (what I wouldn’t give to see Sergio Pastore’s Crisantemi per un branco di carogne [1967] – also starring Purdom, ironically enough). Worse still is the titular cavalry aspect. For some reason, many early Spaghettis were beholden to John Ford’s cavalry westerns – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Rio Grande (1950), and, to a lesser extent (but not to be discounted) Two Rode Together (1961) – which only served to draw unflattering parallels between the genuine article and the then-emerging glut of undistinguished – and undistinguishable – knock-offs. The cavalry theme was particularly egregious in that the European portrayal of the Native American-Indian was always going to be a little dicey (although, to be honest, it really couldn’t be any more dubious than Jeff Chandler’s Cochise in Delmer Daves’ 1950 classic Broken Arrow); thankfully, the genre would soon make the Mexican bandit its antagonist-du-jour (no less offensive in hindsight, perhaps, but far more convincing a collective portrayal). Last of all – and perhaps most damning – is the threat of romance, hinted at in various publicity photographs, fotobuste, and what (very little) literature has been written about the film. In the macho-centric world of the Spaghetti Western, where emotion had seemingly been outlawed, the threat of romantic overture was tantamount to heresy, and about as welcome as a dose of the clap. So, outwardly at least, the odds are stacked against de Martino’s picture. But closer inspection reveals something considerably more interesting and gutsier than one might expect, given age and obscurity. De Martino was a talented and prolific writer and director of Euro-genre fare – a master of the so-called Italian rip-off who went on to work with some top-tier Hollywood royalty whilst enjoying an unexpected amount of mainstream box office success late in his career.

Charge of the 7th Cavalry

Like many other directors associated heavily with the Spaghetti Western, de Martino segued into the saddle by way of the Peplum, making his debut with the underrated historical romp Invincible Gladiator (1961), starring Richard Harrison. De Martino would go on to shoot a total of five pepla before that particular filone had run its course, although, like many of his peers during that specific period of Italian filmmaking, he also dabbled in whatever genre appeared to be in vogue, such as The Blancheville Monster (1963), a rather good gothic horror in the Riccardo Freda/Anthony Margheriti/ Mario Caiano mould. Beyond the expected Euro-war entry (1967’s Dirty Heroes, with Frederick Stafford) and a couple of inevitable Euro-spy flicks (including the execrable and gimmicky 1967 dud Operation Kid Brother), de Martino’s body of work is peppered with a surprising infusion of class, especially in regard to the eclectic acting talent he was able to draw (John Cassavetes, Gabriele Ferzetti, Telly Savalas, Martin Balsam, Francisco Rabal, Tomas Milian and Kirk Douglas, to name but a few). For many connoisseurs of European genre cinema, however, de Martino will always be known as the man responsible (or irresponsible, depending on which side of the fence you sit) for Blazing Magnums (aka Shadows in an Empty Room), his distinctly Canadian poliziotteschi from 1976 in which Stuart Whitman’s gloriously blunt cop goes berserk in spectacularly un-PC fashion, all to embarrassingly entertaining effect. Somewhere in the midst of all that, de Martino also directed three solid Euro-westerns (or five if you count his co-director credit on the awful 1962 western spoof Due Contro Tutti, and his disappointing sequel Here We Go Again, eh, Providence? [1973], re-teaming him with Cuban firecracker Milian following the pair’s previous film, the crime-thriller The Councillor).

$1,000 for Ringo, made the very same year as 7th Cavalry, is a pure Spaghetti dish born of classic and prototypal ingredients; it stars the eternally underrated Richard Harrison and the ubiquitous Fernando Sancho, was written by Alfonso Balcazar, and features a corking Bruno Nicolai score. If 7th Cavalry appears rather non-committal in its embrace of the post-Leone landscape, then $1,000 for Ringo shows just how confident and self-governing the genre would become in such a short period of time (eleven months between the release of each picture). De Martino’s diptych here stands as perfect example of how the subgenre would be honed and branded within such a small timeframe of industry distillation and regeneration. De Martino would complete his spaghetti trifecta with Django Shoots First (1966), a decent-enough actioner with Dutch actor Glen Saxson (aka. Roel Bos) and Fernando Sancho, with the film sporting another fine Nicolai score. The bastard child here is, of course, 7th Cavalry, but as far as glaring anomalies go, it’s an interesting one.

Much of 7th Cavalry’s success has to do with its hero, Sugar, played with a rascal’s perfection by British actor Purdom, perhaps the most unlikely of all Italo-western leads. Purdom was a classically trained stage thespian who never quite capitalized on his early Hollywood promise, despite much championing from the likes of Laurence Olivier, and thus found himself toiling through the wobblier end of Italian genre cinema. Unlike, say, fellow ex-pats Richard Johnson or David Warbeck, Purdom never seemed particularly comfortable working in the low-budget arena (although, having said that, Purdom’s lone directorial credit is the absolute epitome of trash – the seasonal British slasher film Don’t Open ‘til Christmas [1984], which simply has to be seen to be [dis]believed in terms of its utter ineptitude, although Purdom can’t be completely to blame for the resultant travesty – he was fired midway through production due to his footage being deemed unacceptable.) Here, though, Purdom is utterly engaging and acceptably charismatic in the lead role. Sugar has a staggering introduction – locked away in a military cell for insubordination, drawing naked women on his cell wall, tits and all. What other Spaghetti hero can lay claim to that kind of introduction? (Judging by the rendered sketches, Sugar seems quite the capable artist, too.) The character is far removed from most early Spaghetti cowboys, perhaps anticipating the kind of cheeky nonchalance which Hilton and Garko would lay claim to later in the cycle. Indeed, Sugar is a curious creation: with regard to protagonist, the genre made a very clear transition from the bland, American-like White Hat hero to the (post-Leone) taciturn gun-for-hire now commonly associated with the genre, with little refinement in-between. Major ‘Sugar’ Patterson is a little more flavourful, however, in terms of personality and shading; this is a competent soldier reduced to clowning as personal protest. Sugar knows that war is a foolish, empty, nasty little endeavour, yet realistic enough to know it will be waged, regardless of outcry or objection. Fuck it, his attitude (and actions) quite reasonably seem to suggest: why not have a little fun amidst the madness? Sugar is a deceptively three-dimensional character, then, and a real rogue; if he appears overly cavalier or adept with a quip, it’s because cynicism is all he has left, not because the screenplay demanded an easy laugh or a moment of cheap levity. Just as Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland kept the horrors of the Korean war at bay with a communal rapier wit in Altman’s M*A*S*H* (1970), so too does Sugar repel the madness of war via a smokescreen of disarming apathy.

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The film takes place in 1863, during the American Civil War, with some murky historical context established early on, and much reference made to the likes of General Lee, Maximilian, Juarez, Wichita Pass and Fort Worth. Weisser refers to the film as ‘…another Spaghetti Western with a cockeyed view of American history’, but to criticize the Italo-western for playing fast-and-loose with facts is to miss the point of a certain freedom afforded when exploring a second-hand heritage through an alien lens. In hindsight, the contemporary critics who so vehemently lambasted the emerging Euro-western filone as an unworthy and blasphemous imposter seem somewhat hypocritical, happy to ignore the fact that their precious cinematic blueprint was likely counterfeit to begin with. The classic American western film was – and remains – far guiltier of wilful dishonesty with regard to the perversion of historical fact; sanitizing and whitewashing the hard, ugly truth of Western Expansion, burgeoning capitalism and Manifest Destiny whilst repackaging it as popular consumerist myth. In a way, this mainstream, blanketed deceit was somewhat understandable; the American western had a certain duty to sweeten a rather unpalatable chapter of its national history, but the Spaghetti Western had no such responsibility, and the resultant films were far grubbier, morally murky and more uncivilized – something probably far closer to the truth.

De Martino’s film opens with a classic Western motif – the stagecoach robbery. Here we are introduced to the character of Nelly, who will play a major part in the film’s overall story arc. The dialogue in this scene is simply inane. After her fellow passengers have gunned down the bandits (only to be murdered themselves in a tenuous bit of plotting), a fellow female passenger impatiently admonishes the coach driver, saying, ‘Can we get going? It’s late and we are doing nothing here. Everybody has died.’ Cue incredulous laughter from the viewer. This is a bad omen, but, mercifully, things soon pick up. (It must be noted that I remain incredibly sceptical of contemporary dub tracks and their accuracy with regard to translation; besides the expected transfer upgrade, one of the many benefits of modern film restoration – especially with regard to boutique labels such as Koch [Germany], or Kino Lorber [USA], or Arrow Video and 88 Films here in the UK – is the promise of a new, more faithful subtitle translation with each release.) This scene, however poorly done, will prove integral to the main plot, although you’d hardly notice. Mercifully, the film quickly moves on to its main narrative, the crux of which sees the Confederate army hemmed in by several Union military detachments. Forming a fragile alliance with the Apaches, the Confederates look to have said Native Americans wipe out the 5th and 7th Union cavalries in order to gain safe passage into Mexico. This is all fairly ingenious. Early on, the Apaches – led by Confederate Colonel George Bonnett (genre regular Eduardo Fajardo) and Apache chief White Horse (Rafael Albaicin) – lay siege to an entire town. When the 5th cavalry ride in to defend the townsfolk (leaving Fort Worth virtually undefended – as predicted by Bonnett and his Confederate superiors) they are decimated by the rampaging Apaches. This early set piece is disappointingly fumbled by de Martino. Much of the action is sped up in order to drive home its ferocity (or at least you suspect that to have been the filmmakers’ intent), whilst other moments are ludicrously overplayed; upon being shot, one man pirouettes like a drunken ballerina for what feels like an eternity before dropping to the ground. It’s funny in a ridiculous, overstated way, but certainly shouldn’t be. At one point the camera appears to fall, as if dropped or knocked from its stand. There is, however, some decent stunt work and an effective knife wound to compensate, plus some exhilarating horse-riding footage. There is also a fair amount of creative violence on display here – not necessarily graphic, but brutally varied, with the Union soldiers being shot, stabbed and axed by the marauding Apaches. And so the 5th cavalry is effectively decimated, save for the lone soldier who flees the massacre and manfully staggers back to Union HQ in order to tell his story.

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Strategizing over a crudely drawn map of Texas apparently rendered in charcoal by a four year-old, the Union decides to retaliate by sending in the titular 7th cavalry (although it must be noted that such an offensive would leave the Wichita Pass unprotected – did they learn nothing from the 5th’s unfortunate gaffe?). Here we are introduced to Colonel Maxwell, whom we catch boozing on the job, hurriedly masking his liquor when interrupted by a fellow soldier. This is another small but revealing detail; nobody is really coping here on the front line, with even the top brass seeking solace in the bottle. ‘We’re sending the 7th cavalry on a mission!’ somebody proclaims, and it’s here that the film rather promisingly changes gear: Charge of the 7th Cavalry is shaping up to be the Spaghetti variant of a men-on-a-mission film. It is at this juncture that the viewer is introduced to Major ‘Sugar’ Patterson – jail cell, nudies and all. We learn that, in a matter of mere hours, Sugar will leave the army for good and become a civilian. We also garner a little further backstory about our hero: he was court-martialled for dereliction of duty and was incarcerated for a month as a result (one gets the feeling not for the first time). We are also informed via throwaway dialogue that Sugar is the son of a prominent senator and was expected to enlist, like it or not. Sugar hates his superiors, despises the military in general, and is looking forward to his encroaching civilian freedom, where he intends to play cards and have lots of meaningless sex. Hell, it’s an ambition of sorts.

And so Sugar is released (somewhat prematurely, as it stands), whereon his first port of call is, naturally, a saloon. Here we discover that Nelly – the girl from the opening stagecoach robbery – is now working incognito as a saloon girl, albeit for some convoluted/unexplained reason. Ever the gent, Sugar leaps to Nelly’s defence after she is rudely propositioned by a fellow card-sharp, prompting the expected barroom brawl. A typical action beat, perhaps, but the ensuing brawl is so pathetically staged that you wonder why the filmmakers bothered. Purdom is a great actor, but – unescapably refined as he is – he can’t quite sell the more rough-hewn or physical aspects of the role. What’s more, the man can’t throw a punch to save his life. Thankfully, before things get too silly, Sugar is intercepted by his old army comrades and ordered back into action for the remaining few hours he has left on the clock – quite literally for his last hour of service. There is something blackly comic about all this, and that notion is well exploited by both de Martino and Purdom. With that, a reluctant Sugar has no choice but to join up with the 7th cavalry one last time as they ride to Fort Worth. Minutes later, having reached his point of official military discharge, Sugar bids farewell to his unit and rides off, only to run across Apache scouts. In a predictable but welcome comic beat, Sugar immediately re-joins his regiment, touting conscience and the pull of duty. Is this about-face born of self-preservation, or through a nagging commitment to his fellow soldiers? Purdom’s sly playing makes it impossible to guess, but the viewer is beginning to suspect that Sugar might – surprise! – just actually be a decent man.

Once the 7th arrive at their destination, Sugar is convinced to remain and help scout out the nearby Apache village, although he only agrees out of spite, to prevent another lieutenant from receiving a promotion. (Classic Spaghetti morality: not for the greater good, but for one’s own gain or amusement.) Indeed, later on in the film, when Sugar is offered a medal for his bravery, he only becomes vaguely interested when he supposes the medal might be made of gold and therefore easily hockable for a bottle of good whiskey, a decent gambling stake or a moderately attractive prostitute. It’s during this sequence that de Martino threatens the viewer with romance, as Sugar gains the affections of a Native American girl called – somewhat improbably – Amanda, after knocking her fiancé out cold. Thankfully, there is no hint of real substance; our loveable rogue Sugar clearly just wants some fun, and the entire romantic subplot emerges, thankfully, as laughable, trite and puddle-deep.

Meanwhile, working on the orders of Major Bonnett, White Horse continues his mass deceit by arriving at Forth Worth and swearing his unwavering allegiance to the Union, saying he had nothing to do with the previous massacre (he attempts to prove this by identifying three of his own men as participating traitors, and kills them all in order to best sell his betrayal). What to make of the American-Indian aspect of the story, and their default placement as pantomime villains? In this age of egg-shell political correctness, such re-assessment is often unavoidable now, some fifty-odd years after-the-fact. Right or wrong, we tend to view such filmic time-capsules with a nagging liberal guilt, and a film such as 7th Cavalry is the kind of picture the viewer tends to both apologize for and simultaneously forgive. Thankfully, de Martino and his film avoid any accusation of inadvertent racism by rendering White Horse as a complete bastard, culture or creed be damned. He doesn’t hate white guys (in white hats) – he hates everyone. White Horse is your classic misanthrope, out to swindle and butcher anybody he deems an obstacle in attaining his objective, including his own people. As played by Madrid-born Albaicin (no stranger to the SW genre, having appeared in Django [1966], Train to Durango [1968], A Long Ride from Hell [1968], Arriva Sabata [1970], and Corbucci’s Companeros [1970] to name but a few, albeit near-always in bit-parts with throwaway dialogue), White Horse makes for a pretty strong antagonist, suitably despicable and demanding of brutal comeuppance. Both Albaicin and Fajardo complement each other splendidly as the film’s scheming villains – a prime pair of scumbags, although one could argue that Fajardo’s Major Bonnett is merely doing what he believes best in order to have his side win the war.

Back to business, and Sugar volunteers to get word to General Sherman at Union HQ after Amanda recognizes White Horses’ betrayal, her brother being one of the three men sacrificed to illustrate his allegiance. En route, however, he is captured by Apaches and rendered unconscious by perhaps the most unrealistic blow in all cinema, leaving Bonnett to intercept the Union message. There follows an escape attempt wherein Sugar is beaten further by an Apache interrogator, culminating in yet another poorly choreographed/shot ‘fight’ (the apache striking a blow which clearly lands some three feet from Purdom’s face).

The film grinds to a halt here, the pace lagging slightly with some business regarding a wagon train moving from army headquarters out to Fort Worth; thankfully, said convoy is ambushed by the Apaches, who appear to be omnipresent throughout these sagebrush Badlands. (As with all his films, there is something commendable about de Martino’s commitment to a pure pulp sensibility here; if things get too quiet or confusing, the director simply defers to action and noise as distraction, and more-often-than-not his patented tactic works.)

Sugar then appears – equally omnipresent, apparently – and offers himself as escort (he must have an angle, of course), alerting HQ to White Horse’s trap. There’s another very interesting scene buried here where Sugar – tired of the military and its boundless, selfish hypocrisy – attempts to get out of his Union blue uniform once and for all, as if shedding his clothes will cleanse him of all doctrine. Predictably, he doesn’t get very far (he doesn’t even get a single boot off). Like that other great schizophrenic warrior Batman, Sugar has lost all sense of identity by this point, no matter how much he doth protest, unknowing as to which is the real him – the costume or the man beneath it. Neither de Martino or Purdom oversell the moment, but it serves as a fleeting peek through a chink in Sugar’s deceptively facile armour. Sugar retreats to his cell, where his newly pronounced fiancé (they move quick, out West) attempts to wipe away his smutty artwork. All of this studio-bound drama then builds toward a twin-raid dénouement by the Apaches, both orchestrated by Fajardo. The first attack is on the neighbouring town near Union HQ, where the men are busy burying Colonel Maxwell, who, after coughing his way through the bulk of his scenes, has finally succumbed to an unspecified ailment, dying in a chair surround by his men. (Is this, then, an act of posthumous sedition? Did the Colonel inadvertently aid the enemy in death, distracting his men so? The poor bugger must be rolling in his decorated casket).

With the town now vulnerable, the Apaches lay siege, assuming they are about to massacre the town’s unprotected womenfolk. Brilliantly, they discover that said women are actually male soldiers dressed in women’s clothes! Cue a couple of fitfully amusing scenes in which wigs are pulled off and skirts are lifted in order to reveal a decidedly butch defensive. When White Horse himself and his reinforcements arrive, the Union is alerted to their presence. Gunshots can be heard and alarm bells ring out, yet the men continue to stoically – laughably – bury their commanding officer. This, surely, must be the only time an army prioritized a dead man above an entire serving regiment in dire need of help! As the 7th (eventually) gallop off to the rescue, Sugar is tasked with protecting the (real) women, who have been stashed within the fort for their own protection (although, predictably, Sugar will disobey his orders to get in on the action). Cue more men running around in women’s clothes, massacring Apaches from beneath bonnets and dresses. This is a great climax: chaotic, messy and brutal. Stuntmen dressed as women fighting Europeans made up to look like Native American Indians. Only in a Spaghetti Western! This should, in theory, be laughably awful – as if John Waters had directed a subversive spoof-Western about a frontier town populated by cross-dressing gunmen (I’d pay to see that, to be fair) – but somehow, against all odds, the film retains a serious and credible footing, as if de Martino was determined to make something so potentially ludicrous appear passably progressive and grounded (although, much like the posited race quandary, this could be mistaken for a dubious comment on gender, with de Martino painting a reflective landscape in which women need rescuing from themselves by the male collective, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt – the scene is far too much fun to ruin with ridiculous political interpretation).

Realizing his plan has failed, Fajardo’s Bonnett escapes back to the Apache reservation, intending to send a message via carrier pigeon back to Confederate HQ. There is some nice, elaborate art design here – the entire reservation is recreated with impressive detail which belies the film’s low budget. Bonnett, however, is slain by an irate White Horse. White Horse, in turn, is killed by the relatively peripheral character of Major Sam Allison (played by Paul Piaget). Rather confusingly, Bonnett is – despite his duplicitous pact with the Apaches – intimated to be an armchair racist of sorts here, declaring with his last dying gasp that he would rather have been killed at the hands of Allison, the (white) Union officer cradling him. Bonnett also confesses that he is the father of Nelly (remember her?), which one would assume is supposed to be some highly-dramatic revelation in terms of basic film grammar, but actually means very little to the viewer at this late stage in the picture, other than with regard to your basic join-the-dots storytelling. Who cares, though? The bad guys are dead and justice, of sorts, has been served (although assertation as to the good guys having won depends entirely on where the viewer stands politically with regard to the American Civil War itself). Major Allison then shoots dead the pigeon carrying Bonnett’s message, which, when opened, reads, ‘The mission has failed.’ And indeed it has. But there is something a tad unsatisfactory – not to mention slightly baffling – about the way Purdom’s Sugar has been completely underutilized throughout this entire final act. After carrying the bulk of the picture on his shoulders, it seems as if the nominal hero has been rather incongruously side-lined at the final hurdle, during this exciting and extended action set-piece, wherein the afore-mentioned (but rarely seen) supporting character of Sam Allison is suddenly promoted to leading man duty. Allison seems like a fine man, somewhat of a straight arrow when compared with Sugar’s loose sensibility, but – let’s be honest – he’s barely registered as an on-screen presence thus far, let alone substitute lead. This sudden narrative deviation cheats both Sugar and the viewer out of any real resolve. Not only is Sugar denied his moment in the sun as bona fide hero, but – more damagingly – his character arc is suddenly cut short, re-routed as it is down a dead-end street. Beyond the obvious dichotomy of cold death or victorious survival, the film could have gone any number of ways with regard to Sugar’s standing at the end of the picture, but the two most obvious outcomes – in terms of sheer audience satisfaction – would have been a) Sugar is left so broken and utterly embittered by the grim futility of war that he turns his back on the military for good, having fulfilled his so-called duty, or b) Sugar realises that he has been Blue of blood all along, despite his frequent demonstrations, and accepts his place as an integral cog in the Union army. We get neither. What de Martino does give us is a rather limp and mediocre postlude in which Sugar, after contributing very little to the actual outcome of the film and/or plot, is permitted to exit the picture as mere casual observer. He has no knowledge of how victory came to be (with regard to the killing of Bonnett and White Horse), nor does he show any semblance of interest as to finding out! This is almost unforgivable – if our lead character is exhibiting this level of open indifference at such a crucial point in the film then why should we, the viewer, care? This is all very odd, and leaves a bad taste in the mouth, somehow dampening the spirit of the entire picture. It makes one wonder if Purdom bailed at some point late in the production, a la Cameron Mitchell on the set of Sergio Bergonzelli’s The Last Gun (1964), for unresolved financial issues or some other reason. I doubt this to be the case, though, and think it more likely the result of poor story construction on the part of credited screenwriters de Martino and Eduardo Manzanos (who seems to have taken 7th Cavalry’s last act of subversive experimentation and ran wild with it on his later scripts for Umberto Lenzi’s asylum-breakout SW Pistols for a Hundred Coffins [1968] and, especially, Cesare Canevari’s wickedly oddball 1970 genre entry Matalo!). As recompense, Sugar is given a weak epilogue in which, post-battle, Amanda is shot down by a soldier, who assumes her to be an Apache having adopted their own ruse of cross-dressing. Miraculously (and irritatingly), Purdom merely scoops up the wounded woman and carries her off, proffering his love amidst the promise of a bright future together. And so the last gasp of the classical western still infiltrates, threatening to ruin de Martino’s film in the final shot, although knowing Sugar as we do, we can only assume he’ll have his fun and then be off, ready for further adventure, regardless of whatever empty midnight promises he might have made.

What then must be made of all this? What does Charge of the 7th Cavalry offer and where does it stand in the Spaghetti canon? Best we see de Martino as a journeyman director who happened to make a handful Spaghetti Westerns – three of which are rather good if ultimately unremarkable – whilst leaving no real signature or imprint on the genre (much like, say Sergio Martino, who made the perfectly fine Arizona Colt, Hired Gun [1970] and the much-loved twilight Spaghetti Mannaja [1977], but whose name certainly isn’t synonymous with Euro-westerns in a shorthand fashion). The film is likely to continue being dismissed as inconsequential, belonging to that glut of (perceived) faceless Italian westerns which struggled to find a unified personality, born of two culturally disparate parents moments before the Spaghetti Western consolidated its own exclusive charms to become the valid and recognizable cinematic phenomena we know and love today. This is somewhat unfair: many of the films which came between the Karl May/ early German Winnetou westerns and the likes of Corbucci’s ultimate refinement have received scant attention and even less appreciation. Most of these were minor works, to be sure, but each film remains a crucial stepping-stone in the history of our favourite genre. Difficult as it may be sometimes, each film must be judged as a singular piece (as opposed to mere precursor to the SW film movement proper), and on that level 7th Cavalry might surprise those viewers open to letting de Martino’s film speak for itself. I have seen it three or four times now, and the film grows on me a little more each-and-every time.

As with most of these fourth or fifth-rung Spaghettis, one wonders if a nice digital restoration in the correct aspect ratio might do wonders for enjoyment, merit and/or re-assessment, but – as wonderful as the current Spaghetti renaissance is – I don’t expect to see de Martino’s film in a deluxe Blu-ray package any time soon. (Note that it is difficult to judge the true worth of Eloy Mella’s Totalscope cinematography, given the compromised reduction of the original 2:35:1 ratio on the Spanish DVD on which this piece is based.) Obscurity aside, there are other problems with the film which may have contributed to its lesser standing. The score, always a vital component when discussing any Italo-western, is disappointingly standard here (one of those Dimitri Tiomkin-type approximations before the likes of Lacerenza’s iconic trumpet shook things up a little). The SWDb identifies dual composers working in different territories; I’d wager the cut I saw was accompanied by Manuel Prada’s Spanish version, as it bore none of maestro Rustichelli’s patented choral flourishes which remain so instantly recognizable. The editing is also rather choppy, but this, again, is standard for the world of Spaghetti Westerns; the viewer can never be sure as to which specific cut of a film they have stumbled upon, or in what way it might have been edited, re-edited, chopped or tampered with. (The version of 7th Cavalry I’m working from runs for some 87 minutes, but the film allegedly ran for 101 minutes during its original Spanish theatrical run; further to this, there also exists the Italian theatrical cut, originally released by heavy hitters Warner Bros. International, which is said to clock in at a slightly less truncated 96 minutes). The film’s biggest crime, however, remains both the benching of star player Purdom and that ridiculous ‘happy’ coda. But with darker days soon to come within the genre, this is both understandable and forgivable. Minor quibbles aside, de Martino’s film must be taken for what it is, and the fact that it’s neither ground-breaking nor a celebrated milestone in the evolution of the European Western shouldn’t detract from its many considerable pleasures as a piece of B grade entertainment. Whilst it may not equate to filmic alchemy, the combination of de Martino’s workmanlike competence and Purdom’s vaguely anarchic performance proves to be enough, and so Charge of the 7th Cavalry achieves everything its makers probably set out to do: bring in a decent return on its original release by entertaining the masses in the many terza visione cinemas, and now, some 54 years later, do likewise for those Spaghetti Western fans both curious and dedicated enough to give the film a fighting chance.

DG Bell
DG Bell is a writer and Spaghetti Western aficionado from the UK. His debut novel, the horror-thriller Ends Meat (Amazon UK - Amazon US), was recently published by Zharmae Press in the US. His second novel – Medium Rare: Ends Meat Book Two – is due out in early 2017.
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