Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chato’s Land (1972)


          British filmmaker Michael Winner made a slew of gruesome movies in the ’70s and ’80s, often starring Charles Bronson as tight-lipped avengers who let their bloody actions speak for them. At their best, the duo created provocative work like Death Wish (1974). At their worst, they made ugly trash like Chato’s Land, which can best be described as a two-hour murder symphony. It’s hard to tell which element of the picture is most confusing and distasteful: The casting of Lithuanian-descended Bronson as a half-breed Apache, or the weird plot that presents Bronson’s character, Chato, as a vigilante seeking revenge even though he’s the perpetrator of a crime instead of the victim.
          At the beginning of the story, Chato struts into a white town, lets a racist marshal talk him into an argument, and kills the lawman instead of walking away. After Chato heads for the Indian country outside town, he’s pursued by ex-Confederate solider Capt. Whitmore (Jack Palance) and a posse of bloodthirsty townies. Once the pursuers slip into “Chato’s land,” the half-breed uses clever guerilla tactics to demoralize the posse. Then, when the pursuers rape and murder Chato’s relatives, he declares war. The problem is one of motivation: The attack that justifies Chato’s vigilantism doesn’t happen until after he’s already started picking off his enemies. Since Chato’s Land is merely a quick-and-dirty action picture, it’s unlikely the filmmakers were trying to make a nuanced statement about violence begetting violence—therefore, the storytelling just seems sloppy. It doesn’t help that most of the posse members are depicted as cartoonish rednecks, notably vile Elias (Ralph Waite) and his sex-crazed little brother, Earl (Richard Jordan). There’s some lip service given to the subject of morality, with characters including grizzled frontiersman Joshua (James Whitmore) questioning the virtue of violence, but the talk rings hollow as Winner stages one elaborate kill scene after another.
          Beyond its dubious content, Chato’s Land also suffers from erratic acting: Whereas Jordan, Waite, and Whitmore chew up the scenery, Palance wanders around in a daze, whispering elegiac monologues that don’t make much sense, and Bronson just glares a lot. Furthermore, since Bronson spends most of the movie flitting about in a loincloth, his taut musculature ends up giving a more expressive performance than his famously squinty face.

Chato’s Land: LAME

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