Saturday, 31 May 2008

Red Blood Yellow Gold / Professionals for a Massacre

Having just been caught by Captain Richardson (Milo Quesada) and his men selling Confederate arms to the Union, three outlaws, Frank the Preacher (George Hilton), Ramirez the Mexican (George Martin) and Chatanooga Jim (Edd Byrnes) are court martialled and sentenced to death.

One and two halves of the three

Two and a half of the three...

Finally all three in the one shot, apparently about to be shot

Things get more complicated when you add a fourth...

After Frank asks the Lord for a small sign of grace that will stay their execution, the trio receive it from an unexpected source in the form of Sibley's hitherto trustworthy right-hand man Major Lloyd (Gerard Herter) who makes off with a gatling gun and a consignment of Union gold earmarked for buying much needed munitions for the Confederacy.

Reasoning that it takes a thief to catch a thief, General Sibley offers Frank, Ramirez and Jim a full pardon if they can recover the gold and bring in Lloyd, dead or alive. Reasoning that they can't be trusted, Sibley also sends Richardson along with them. He also has his own motive in that Lloyd had accused him of being a union spy.

The four men soon pick up the trail of Lloyd and his men by dint of a characteristic piece of spaghetti western logic. Finding tracks going off in four directions, they split up and take one route each. Three provide evidence of their quarry's passage – bullets, a stirrup and a saddle. The fourth produces no such traces and, as such, is clearly the way to go.

Things become a bit more complicated when, after various incidents, a Mexican bandit clan headed by a wizened old matriarch whose sons all seem to be called after their birth order take the gold off Lloyd and his men...

Red Blood Yellow Gold / Professionals for a Massacre is one of those films which illustrates the distinction between those that work for the critic and those that work for their intended audiences.

Viewed from the mainstream critic's perspective Red Blood, Yellow Gold must seem fairly derivative stuff, with a confusing narrative; stereotypical characters like the sadistic, grotesque Mexican and the honourable “Old South” Confederate, and generally lacklustre direction that springs to life only during the action scenes, the old standbies of brawls, chases and shoot themselves being in lieu of anything more demanding of filmmaker or spectator alike.

Yet, viewed from the perspective of the film's likely audience – so far as I can presume to assume it, of course, given cultural and temporal distance – it is precisely these same features that make the film work.

The confusing narrative and stereotypical characters come to emerge as a comment on the notions of campanellisimo and amoral familism referred to by Christopher Frayling, that one's only loyalties are to family, friends and so on rather than to any wider notions such as nation and class, and that anyone who believes or acts otherwise is a gullible fool whose lack of guile is to be exploited. In these terms, alliances are temporary and strategic and no-one outside the group can be trusted except for to betray or change allegiances when it suits their purposes, it's not something personal, just following of the codes of professional, business and social life.

The action sequences emerge as variant of the “electrocardiogram” model of the audience discussed by Christopher Wagstaff, of giving the terza visione spectator some thrills or other pay off every few minutes to attract his attention away from the social space of the theatre and back to the screen. In such terms it could also be argued that the confused narrative doesn't really matter insofar as this audience weren't necessarily following it and, to the extent that they were, probably had a better intuitive understanding of what was going to happen next and why than the outsider.

The distinction between the good and bad guys can also be drawn in these terms. If the good guys aren't really good by the standards of the American western, they are loyal to one another, have an infectious sense of fun, and don't indulge in quite the same kind of indiscriminate lethal violence as their enemies, who massacre a family of civilians merely to take their clothes. (A further irony sees the sole survivor of the massacre, who was absent at the time, believe that our heroes were responsible for it, leading her to alert the real perpetrators to an ambush.)

The film is on DVD from Wild East; I suspect that it looks a lot better than the old video sourced copy I viewed here, which was panned and scanned and suffers, as the screenshots indicate, from a tendency not to be able to fit everyone in on screen.

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