Saturday 6 June 2015

The Wrath of God [1972]

THE WRATH OF GOD is an American adventure / western that was directed by Ralph Nelson and originally released by MGM in July 1972.  It stars Robert Mitchum, Ken Hutchison, Victor Buono and Frank Langella.  In an unnamed South American country in the 1920s, a defrocked priest, a fugitive IRA gunman and a disgraced English army officer are coerced into killing a counter-revolutionary leader.  Unjustly obscure this is a rollickin’ action picture that creates memorable characters and gives them interesting things to do.

Quite why THE WRATH OF GOD is so obscure is possibly because of a pretty graphic cockfighting sequence.  It lasts less than a minute but British censors have traditionally been pretty tough on animal cruelty.  Monte Hellman’s COCKFIGHTER [1974] has never been released in the UK for similar reasons.  So why then has Sam Peckinpah’s PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID [1972] been judged acceptable; it features chickens having their heads shot off.  Even the godlike genius Andrei Tarkovsky’s ANDREI RUBLEV [1966] has a scene in which a horse is shot.


However, thanks to DVD it is now possible to see these films without having to wait for the censors to relent.  Not that it has come out over here (yet) so it’s still relatively unknown to British audiences.  Your humble correspondent has seen it though and will strive to draw your attention to it.
It has a top notch cast.  Mitchum of course is great, as he almost always is; Victor Buono – an actor I’ve never been fond of - gives his best performance in my opinion; Langella and John Colicos chew the scenery and there’s even a small role for Rita Hayworth, her last in films.  Although suffering from Alzheimer’s, which affected her ability to remember lines, she still radiates a luminous beauty and a kind of melancholy. 

Rita Hayworth as Senora de la Plata

However, the most interesting actor is Ken Hutchison.  He first came to attention as one of the vile thugs in Peckinpah’s harrowing STRAW DOGS [1971] and off the back of that was cast in THE WRATH OF GOD.  It was pretty good casting because he makes a charismatic and athletic leading man.  He’s funny, warm and effortlessly charming.  Unfortunately this was as close as he ever got to a proper film career.  Quite why is hard to fathom.  I’ve read that he was difficult, a big drinker and seemingly indifferent to playing the Hollywood game but that’s true of a lot of major stars, not least co-star Mitchum.  I can’t find any details on how it did at the box office but another possibility is that it tanked, and when that happens aspiring young actors can find themselves quickly discarded.

Ken Hutchison as Emmet Keogh

The film itself is a thoroughly enjoyable romp that nevertheless finds time to ask a few questions about politics and religion.  Neither the revolutionaries nor the counter-revolutionaries are shown to be anything more than brutally violent tyrants motivated by spite, revenge and self-interest.  Mind you, the heroes aren’t motivated by much more than self-interest themselves.  Similarly the rabidly anti-Catholics and the devoutly delusional are made to look pretty dismal.

In fact, while it isn’t a classic I can’t really find any faults in it.  Sometimes the violence is a bit too strong seeming out of place with the generally light and freewheelin’ atmosphere and Ralph Nelson is partial to the clichéd Peckinpah-style slo-mo death scenes; it’s also about 15 minutes too long but I’m nit-picking really.  If you can get hold of it then I would recommend it highly.

Father Van Horn lobs the Holy Hand Grenade

Robert Mitchum as Father Oliver Van Horn

Mitchum, Hayworth and Langella don’t really need an introduction from me but I will say Mitchum is one my all-time favourite actors not just for his talent but also his outlook on life and the sheer number of brilliant films he was in.

Frank Langella as Tomas de la Plata

John Colicos as Colonel Santilla

John Colicos was a general purpose actor whom I particularly remember from the original BATTLESTAR GALACTICA series and as Jessica Lange’s husband in Bob Rafelson’s remake of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE [1981] although he’d actually been in the film and TV business since the early 1950s.  Victor Buono was a kind of American Roy Kinnear, inasmuch as he seemed to get cast because of his bulk and generally daft appearance.  For that reason I’ve never been keen on him but I can’t deny he was in some decent films, including two reviewed on these pages Giuseppe Colizzi’s BOOT HILL [1969] and Gus Trikonis’s THE EVIL [1978] and of course as King Tut in the BATMAN TV series.  He died of a heart attack aged just 43.

Victor Buono as  Captain Jennings

Gregory Sierra as Jurado

A couple of other actors to mention are Jorge Russek who was for a while a member of Sam Peckinpah’s stock company, and Gregory Sierra, an incredibly versatile and prolific actor who plays the loathsome, one-eyed henchman Jurado.

Director Ralph Nelson, like Peckinpah (whom I seem to have mentioned a dozen times in this review) paid his dues in TV and eventually graduated to feature films which tended to be eminently watchable rather than outstanding.  His is most remembered for the western SOLDIER BLUE [1970] which caused a fuss on its release for daring to depict the violent atrocities perpetrated by US soldiers on Native Americans.

THE WRATH OF GOD was written by Jack Higgins under the pseudonym James Graham, adapting his own novel.  The music was by Lalo Schifrin and the excellent 2.35:1 photography by the Mexican cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr who also shot BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA [1974] directed by – you guessed it – Sam Peckinpah.

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