Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Western Month: It's a Duel!

The Deadly Companions
& God’s Gun (1976)
Some say the term “adult Western” originated in 1953 with the release of Paramount Pictures' Shane. The studio was trying to distinguish their film from the more simplistic entries in the genre such as the Roy Rogers and Gene Autry Westerns where the good guys always beat the bad guys in a fair fight and often sang a cheery song as well. This is rather odd; there were certainly “Adult Westerns” before 1953. Films like The Ox-Bow Incident (1942) and Stagecoach (1939) certainly dealt with grown-up issues, and Cimarron won Best Picture in 1931.;

But “Adult” would become even more “Adult” as the years went on -- particularly “Adult Violence” beginning in the 1960s. One of the prime movers in this shift was Sam Peckinpah, who would go on to make The Wild Bunchone of the most violent Westerns ever made. Another change came in the 1960s with Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns like his trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (They were called “Spaghetti” Westerns because they were made in Italy.)

Today's two films are connected with those trends. The Deadly Companions was Sam Peckinpah's first feature film after working on TV shows such as The Rifleman and The Westerner. God’s Gun was an Italian production, but it was more. It is the only Italian and Israeli (thanks to producer Menahem Golan) co-production that I know of. 

Of course, the films are featured here because they feature clergy and church prominently.

The Deadly Companions opens with three men, Yellowleg (Brian Keith), Billy (Steve Cochran), and Turk (Chill Willis) going to a small town saloon. (Yes, they are the deadly companions of the title.) The bartender serves them whiskeys but tells them they need to drink quickly. He then pulls curtains down over paintings of naked women in the bar. Billy asks him why he’s doing that and is told, “The parson doesn’t like to see them while he preaches. The bar closes when the preacher comes in.”

Yellowleg comments that it’s not Sunday, but the bartender responds that probably no one around has seen a calendar for the previous two years.

The preacher (Strother Martin) enters followed by a group of congregants, men and women. One woman, Kit Tildon (Maureen O’Hara), and her son, Mead (Billy Vaugh) sit in an unoccupied row of chairs. They draw attention.

One of the other woman loudly whispers to her companion, “Imagine, a woman like that coming in church like she’s respectable.” 

Her friend answers back, “She probably doesn’t even know the boy’s father.” 

“This is probably the closest she’s been to a parson.” 

“The nerve to be holding a prayer book.”

The parson doesn’t seem bothered by this gossiping in the church (bar) at all. He’s bothered by something else. “Lord, I see you brought us some new faces, male and female. I’ll be dishing out the Gospels in a minute, but first I’ve got to say something to the fellas with hats on. I’ve never met a man who wouldn’t take his hat off to the Lord. Mister, take it off.” 

Billy and Turk remove their hats, but Yellowleg will not. “You get on with your preaching,” he says as he leaves the church/bar.

We here at Movie Churches are not impressed with a minister who worries more about headgear than gossip and backbiting in his congregation.

The parson asks for a moment of silence, which is followed by a less than melodious rendition of “Rock of Ages.”

The preacher begins his sermon and says, “If anyone reckons they want to go to hell, that person should stand and be counted.” 

Billy takes him at his word and stands. Billy pulls his gun and says, “Any man that doesn’t stand on his feet as well, is going to join me pronto.”

While his gun is drawn, Kit walks up to him and slaps Billy in the face. Billy is impressed and grabs Kit and kisses her, lets her go, and walks out of the bar.

The preacher tells Kit, “Ma’am, I’d like to thank you for your fortitude.” She and her son leave the church/bar into a shootout. And Kit’s son is shot and killed.

Kit wants to bury her son with his father in the town of Siringo. But that’s Apache country, and people urge her not to go there. The mayor offers a free plot in the graveyard, and the parson offers to perform the ceremony. Kit refuses, insisting she will bury her son by his father, even if she has to go alone. (She doesn’t go alone, as the title of the film indicates.)

Spoilers - Eventually Kit does make it to Siringo and finds her husband’s grave by the Mission, and is soon joined by a posse that includes the parson. The parson offers to say “the right words.”

The clergy come off much better in God’s Gun (written and directed by Gianfranco Parolini). Lee Van Cleef stars in a dual role as Father John, a priest, and his twin brother, Lewis, a gunfighter.

As Father John talks with a young man, Johnny (Leif Garrett), Johnny’s mother, Jenny (Sybil Danning), calls him to polish the glassware (in her saloon). The priest tells her, “First we thank the God for the morning, then we clean the church, then he can polish your glasses.”

At the church, Johnny sneaks some communion wine but spits it out. He thinks the priest doesn’t see, but Father John laughs and says, “Sick grapes make sour wine.” Continuing to search for trouble, Johnny finds a gun and a holster in the church altar.

Johnny asks, “You think you could teach me to shoot a gun sometime?”

“I don’t know if I can remember,” Father John says, “I’m holding it for somebody. I don’t think you’ll ever meet him (his brother Lewis). He’s down in Mexico somewhere.”

Johnny returns to his mother’s saloon. The Claytons, bad men led by brother Sam (Jack Palance), come to town and make trouble in Jenny’s saloon. One of the gang, Jess (Robert Lipton), shoots a man playing cards and falsely claims self-defense. The men ride out of town, and the sheriff (Richard Boone) makes no effort to stop them.

Johnny tells Father John what happened, and the priest pursues the gang, to the great displeasure of the sheriff who worries it will bring more trouble to the town.

Father John sneaks up on the gang as they sleep, stealing their guns. He then wakes the men, and apologizes, “Sorry to destroy your slumber, gentleman.” He explains he came to return the murderer to town for trial. “Let’s go, young man, I don’t want to miss my morning mass.” He is able to return the man to town, with the help of mysterious shots fired from the trees (which turn out to have been Johnny),

Jess is put in jail, though the sheriff isn’t happy about it, because the Claytons return to town and Jess out of jail. Men from the gang then go to the church and shoot the priest down as he is welcoming parishioners to mass.

Johnny sees this, steals one of the Claytons' horses, and rides off to Mexico to find Father John’s brother Lewis. Johnny finds him and learns some interesting things about the late priest. Lewis says, “Nobody could beat John to the draw, but one day God put a Bible in his hand in place of a gun.”

Lewis, though, continues to use the gun and goes back with Johnny to exact revenge for his brother’s death.

So how should we rate the clergy in today’s Western double feature? The uncharitable parson of The Deadly Companions rates only Two Steeples, but the brave Father John of God’s Gun rates Four, bringing today’s average to Three Steeples.

(Sidenote - Of interest probably only to me, but I, Dean, was in a film with Lee Van Cleef, a low-budget adaption of Saki's short story, "The Interlopers".  In high school, I was hired to play a small part in this film that may not even exist anymore. Van Cleef worked on the film on a different day. We never met, but it does make me playable in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.)

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