Thursday, November 08, 2018

The Colonial Western

The Western is generally thought of as being primarily an American film genre, dealing, as it does, with transition of the US from lawless frontier mentality to a more mature society observing the rule of law.  But the film industries of other countries have always coveted the Western genre and its action packed format chronicling the eventual triumph of law over lawlessness, whilst also incorporating a celebration of individualism as lone heroes and small communities prevail over the predatory interests of corporate land developers, railroad companies, even the Federal Government.  The most obvious attempt to co-opt the Western genre came from Italy, which, throughout the sixties and seventies produced a plethora of mainly Spanish-shot 'Spaghetti Westerns', which often subverted many of the genre's conventions.  The British film industry, however, also has a long-standing tradition of attempting to produce Westerns.  Some were actually shot in the US, others were European co-productions, (indeed, there is an argument that the whole Spaghetti Western sub-genre was kicked off by such a production: Michael Carreras' The Savage Guns, shot in 1961 in Spain), a few, like Carry on Cowboy, were shot in the UK.  But there was another sub genre of the British Western which, instead of trying to recreate the US locations of the real thing, sought to find a British equivalent to the US's Old West frontier: the colonial western.  These films found their setting in far flung outposts of the Empire which featured similar environments to the Old West: nineteenth century Australia, for instance, in films like Robbery Under Arms, or India, in stuff like The Long Duel (which was actually shot in Spain).

The other bit of Empire offering a faux frontier setting was, of course, South Africa.  Which brings us, finally, to one of the best known of these Colonial Westerns - 1961's The Hellions. Set in the Transvaal in the late nineteenth century, it incorporates as many traditional Western tropes as possible, a a typically dysfunctional family of outlaws ride into a small and remote town, hell bent on revenge against the local lawman, (a police sergeant rather than a sheriff or marshal).  The problem is that, in its quest to pack in as many genre cliches as possible, the film seems to lose sight of exactly where it wants to go.  The early scenes, with the outlaws' distaste for the encroaching barbed wire and the 'civilisation' it portends suggests that it might develop into something along the lines of the Kirk Douglas Western, Man Without a Star, which explores similar themes.  But this is quickly forgotten about (until the film's climax, when the outlaw leader perishes after falling into a wagon full of barbed wire) and the movie instead starts turning into a more conventional 'town under siege' type of Western.  But even here, it seemingly can't make up its mind where it wants to go:  the gang bear more than a passing resemblance to the Clantons, as portrayed in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, raising audience expectations of an OK Corral style climax.  But it instead then seems to want to ape High Noon, with the lawman finding himself facing the gang alone, as the townsfolk lack the backbone to help him.  Except that said lawman simply refuses to confront the outlaws for most of the film, barricading himself into his house and hoping that someone will break ranks and help him.

But even here, it fumbles the ball.  Rather than try to recreate the tension of High Noon, as the lawman tries to drum up support as the outlaws slowly approach the town, in The Hellions they are already there for most of the film, causing havoc and murdering the odd citizen, while the sergeant does nothing.  (This scenario is somewhat reminiscent of Day of the Outlaw, but nowhere near as well done).  Of course, someone does eventually break ranks to face down the gang, (the meek store owner, who has accidentally shot and killed one of the gang), at which point the lawman turns two-fisted and takes on the remaining outlaws, with the rest of the town finally taking up arms to assist him.  As can be seen, the script is all over the place plot-wise and has clunking dialogue to match.  The performances are hugely variable.  Lionel Jeffries, cast against type as the outlaws' patriarch, gives a very effective performance, while James Booth brings a nicely psychopathic edge as his unpredictable and sadistic son Jubal.  Singer Marty Wilde, also cast against type as the youngest son is quite forgettable, while Colin Blakely as a third son is given little to do.  As for the townsfolk, Richard Todd is utterly bland and uncharismatic as the sergeant, while Jamie Uys (who also co-produced the film) is downright awful as the storekeeper - seeming to think that meekness can be portrayed via a mumbling of his every line. 

Yet, with all that said, The Hellions is surprisingly effective as a cod Western.  Even down to the fact that the actual natives of the country where it is set are reduced to perfunctory walk on roles.  While it's no gunfight at the OK Corral, the climactic fight between Todd and Jeffries in the store (which also involves Booth at one point) is a spirited affair.  Interestingly, the film ends on as confused a note as everything that preceded it, with the townsfolk turning vigilante to deal with the remaining outlaws: both Wilde and Blakely are gunned down, shot in the back, in fact, as they try to flee the mob.  Neither of them actually fires a shot.  Which, if the film (as all good Westerns are) is meant to be about the eventual triumph of law over lawlessness, is a pretty confusing conclusion which seems to be endorsing the idea of ignoring legal process and instead aking the law into one's own hands.  Some of the film's unevenness might be down to the fact that director Ken Annakin was taken ill during production, leaving large parts of the film to be directed by other hands.  Annakin was supposedly treating the whole thing as a parody, directing the cast to interpret the script accordingly, but his stand ins directed their scenes straight.  I can't help but feel that this sounds like a convenient excuse to try and explain what is, in the final analysis, some pretty poor film making.  Still, it was popular at the box office back in 1961, so what do I know?



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