Seven from Texas/Antes llega la Muerte Review
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Seven from Texas (Antes llega la Muerte)
Today Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent is best known to large audiences for his controversial gore western Cut-Throats Nine, but fans of his work often prefer one of his earlier westerns, such as The Pitiless Three/Sons of vengeance. Most people think this movie, Antes llega la Muerte, is his best western; it's also often called the best Spanish western period. It's a beautifully made, semi-autobiographical melodrama, about several men, who are prepared to do anything, including putting their own lives in the balance to save the life of the woman they love, even when they realize she is beyond help.
The film opens with a scene in which a young man called Bob Carey is released from prison. He has spent five years in jail for shooting a man in a duel; he has always sustained it was self-defense, but the three brothers of the victim don't agree with the judge, and have sentenced him to death. When the oldest one of the brothers, Ringo, challenges him to a duel, Bob shoots him through both of his hands. While he was in jail, Bob's fiancée, the beautiful Maria, has married an older man, Clifford. What Bob doesn't know - what even Maria doesn't know - is that Maria has a malignant tumor and that her husband is told that there's only a small chance that one of those fancy doctors in the town of Laredo might be able to save her life. Clifford hires five men to accompany on the journey to Laredo, a dangerous journey through the desert ...
As said, the film is semi-autobiographical. This is what Marchent said about it himself: "It happens that my mother, a few years earlier, while still relatively young, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The entire family tried to find a solution, that is a possibility to extend her life in spite of the fact that the doctors had given up hope. We literally tried everything, even went to some kind of African healer. But nothing could be done, she was beyond help. So while making the movie I kept thinking, consciously or unconsciously, of this desperate struggle to save the life of a loved one. This misfortune had happened in Madrid in 1960, but I moved it to Texas 1878." (1)
What makes the movie so successful, is the way the two storylines (the journey and the revenge) are interwoven and interact. We witness how Bob is ambushed in the desert by Ringo and his two remaining brothers. Bob is forced to kill the two brothers, but is seriously wounded himself, and denied any help by Ringo, who decides to stay on his side, to watch him die from thirst and the loss of blood. But the two men are picked up by Clifford and his men. Bob is nursed back to health and Ringo is accepted as a new group member, and thrown to each other's society, the two arch enemies develop some mutual respect. They defend the group against Apaches on the warpath, but the most dangerous opponent, is a treacherous member of the group, who's after Clifford's money and wife.
The film is not without flaws. There's a large scale Indian attack on a cavalry fort, which is quite spectacular, but also feels thrown-in, and some of the more dramatic scenes are a bit overwrought. Leading man Piaget isn't very convincing as Maria's former lover, who's a bit too quick on the draw for his own good. The costume design leaves something to be desired, but excellent use has been made of the Spanish locations, from the snow-capped hills of the Northern Sierras to the Almeria desert. The film is pervaded with a strong feeling of fatality, and yet it is a very warm, emotional movie: Death is inevitable, and not only for Maria, but before death comes (like the original Spanish title says) various characters will get the chance to redeem themselves. And if Piaget isn't entirely convincing, Undari is excellent as the vengeful brother who finally comes to terms with the situation and the feelings that are gnawing at his mind and rest; this is no doubt his best performance in a western, be it spaghetti or paella. Several other performances are likewise excellent: Milland is so adorable as the suffering women that we can understand men would give their lives for her, and Raf Baldassare is at his horrible best as the perverted villain, who wears the others down by shooting holes in their barrels and water-casks, thus leading the film to its bravura finale, set around a well, the only well for miles and miles around ...
This is definitely a pre-Leone western. It has a Americanized feel and - very typical for these early Spanish westerns - vengeance is still presented as a reprehensible feeling. Fernando Sancho's ebullient good-for-nothing character is another indication that we're in pre-Leone land: he's not yet the Mexican villain he'd soon become (thanks to the Ringo movies), actually he's not a bad guy, but we sense he isn't completely trustworthy either, so all the time, we wonder what will become of him. Several American westerns have been mentioned a major sources of influence for Marchent's movie, such as Henry Hathaway's Garden of Evil (which also influenced the spaghetti western Find a Place to Die) and John Ford's Three Godfathers (which also had a desert setting and similar redemptive story elements); some characters (the old man who still stands his ground and the wise-cracking Chinese cook) are closer to Hawks than to Ford. The cavalry fort and the large-scale Indian attack might be interpreted as a references (or homages) to Ford's cavalry trilogy, but I had the idea they were rather inspired by the first Karl May adaptations, that were also very popular in Spain. Not surprisingly - at least in this aspect - the leitmotiv from Riz Ortolani's score, is vaguely similar to Martin Böttcher's famous Old Shatterhand Melodie, written for Der Schatz im Silbersee (1962).
Okay, this movie is not perfect, but it's a great genre example. I take off my hat, Señor Marchent.