Monday 22 August 2022

Movie Review: Guns For San Sebastian (1968)

A western combining spaghetti and traditional elements, Guns For San Sebastian is a dusty story of an outlaw finding his purpose in an unlikely location.

In 1746, Mexico is ruled by Spain, with both local revolutionaries and Yaqui Indians resisting European rule. On the run from the army, atheist outlaw Leon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) takes refuge in the church of the kindly Father Joseph (Sam Jaffe), who is promptly banished to the remote parish of San Sebastian for harbouring a fugitive. Alastray joins Joseph on the arduous journey across the desert, and they then find San Sebastian abandoned, revolutionary leader Teclo (Charles Bronson) insisting the local peasants hide in the mountains to deter Yaqui raids.

Through a series of misunderstandings, the locals, including the passionate Kinita (Anjanette Comer), believe Alastray is a new priest and village saviour. The community rallies and Alastray helps them build a dam to rejuvenate the corn fields. But Teclo and local Yaqui leader Golden Lance don't want to see San Sebastian thrive, forcing Alastray to plan for a big battle to come.

Maybe because it is directed by Frenchman Henri Verneuil and adapted from a book by an actual priest, Guns For San Sebastian sits just to the side of both spaghetti and mainstream westerns. The fundamentals are familiar: a time of revolution, peasants caught in the middle, Indians fighting for their land, half-breeds with divided loyalties, a stranger shaking things up, and above it all the spectral role of religion simultaneously uniting and dividing a community. A bit of sly humour and a rough romance add dashes of hot spice.

Although the attitude is scrappy, spaghetti western trademarks like close-ups and excessive gleeful violence are missing. Similarly, by placing an atheist outlaw in the role of a community's religious inspiration, the film avoids traditionally delineated good against evil conflicts. The outcome is a relatively unique curiosity in the form of a narrative that borrows but does not imitate.

The production values are good. Verneuil creates a believable stand-alone community within a harsh sun-blazed environment, but the fundamentals of life are nearby and can be harnessed with some ingenuity. The Mexico locations are bright, barren, and sometimes spectacular, while Ennio Morricone contributes a subdued score. The film runs for under two hours but with deliberate, sometimes slow, pacing. The first two thirds invest in defining characters, outlining tensions, and creating a sense of place, before the arrival of the more action-packed final act.

Anthony Quinn creates a sturdy presence and side-steps most of his hammy tendencies. Charles Bronson is reduced to a relatively small role, leaving Quinn relatively isolated without a worthy counterpart. Sam Jaffe makes a great impression as Father Joseph, but only in the opening chapter. As the most prominent of the villagers, Anjanette Comer could have benefited from expanded influence.

Guns For San Sebastian playfully critiques religious fervour and counters with the imperative for personal responsibility. The debate rages on, as guns, bullets, explosives, and a canon are commissioned in the name of a saint.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

No comments:

Post a Comment

We welcome reader comments about this post.