In which I finally watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why’d I Buy It?
In 2009 I took a chance on one of those DRIVE-IN CLASSICS omnibus DVD sets of dopey old movies, and (before less kitschy sensibilities kicked in) I watched three of them. And liked them. So I was open to other omnibus deals, and that’s when I espied this in Amoeba: 20 westerns I never heard of for $1.99. It would cost more NOT to buy it.
Why’d I Never Watch It?
The obvious reasons. None of these movies were probably any good, plus they’re all westerns. Westerns are a weird genre. There are great ones. But also, before you even meet the characters, you know exactly what the last scene will be (one good guy standing in a street facing one bad guy). It takes a certain mood to subject yourself to that. (I’m aware they don’t all end like that.)
(Give me a break, yes they do.)
Now, thanks to catweazle’s hell of Sisyphean crowd-surfing, I know what I’ve been missing.
The movie opens with a bang. Literally. The Clayton gang gallops into a town and shoots up the place. We meet their leader, Sam Clayton (Jack Palance). He is an above-the-fray kind of gang head, swaggering into a saloon and pouring himself a drink while his boys rob the bank and kill. Also he is a creep. A truly above-and-beyond creep, like to the extent that you start doubting the character is a creep and start figuring that Jack Palance is. Like maybe there is a body under Jack Palance’s porch. No shock, if so. There is also one in his crawlspace. Just a lecherous, violent creepiness, with an unnervingly sunny disposition stamped across it. He is like John Huston hitting on his own [spoiler alert] daughter in Chinatown, but turned up to 11. If you ever wonder “What’s a great B-movie psychopath like?” here’s your answer. Every second he is around you will have the heebie jeebies.
Meanwhile, one town over in Juno City, things are nice. Young Johnny hangs out in the church with the stern but caring priest. These are our good guys. Johnny is played by Leif Garrett, a 1970s child star (like Jodi Foster! Minus the future). He also had a singing career, marked by covering “Runaround Sue” and being on every cover of Tiger Beat (like a one-man 1D). As for the good priest:
Anyway, stored in a secret cabinet in the altar is a gun. So Johnny asks Priest Lee Van Cleef about it, and about a guy named Lewis. It is vague who Lewis is? Here’s what we know, verbatim:
It doesn’t take long before the Clayton Gang rides into this paradise. We are at about minute 13 when Johnny runs into Sam Clayton in the saloon his mom runs. It is tense.
The mom is oddly quite abrupt with Sam Clayton, then a fight breaks out over cards and a gang-guy kills a town-guy. Johnny runs to get Priest Van Cleef and the sheriff. The Claytons are like, ugh, let’s just ditch, Juno City sucks. The sheriff is like: They left? Whew. But LVC, not content to accept this, rides out to bring back the one who did the killing.
He finds the gang passed out drunk and takes all their guns. Pretty unlikely, but sure. Then wakes them up easily (they all pop up fully alert, not like the kind of guys who just let their guns get stolen, but, like I said, sure) and he demands they hand over the killer for trial. Sam Clayton smiles his smile and agrees. Ohhh LVC, you know you just brought trouble to Juno City.
Predictably, that night, there is a jailbreak. All the deputies are stealthily beat up/killed and the town is none the wiser till morning.
In the morning, the gang shoots LVC dead right front of his church. Johnny runs out to find him dead…
“From now on, I’m the law in Juno City!” Clayton yells. While he’s doing that, Johnny steals two of the gang’s horses and takes off. The whole thing is kind of funny, with Clayton saying incredulously, “You don’t mean to tell me you got horse thieves in this town?”
HORSE CHASE! By means of a ruse, Johnny splits up his pursuers, and then hides from the one who’s after him by climbing up a dead-end abandoned church tower. Not the best plan! He is cornered. Luckily there is a thing he can throw and the bad guy is even dumber than Dead-End Johnny, plus clumsy, and he falls and breaks his back. Whew.
Back in town, there’s a Clayton gang meeting. Sam Clayton says we gotta stick around because there’s a stagecoach carrying gold due, but the cowards in the gang are worried the kid went to get help and they better high-tail it. This results in Clayton personally killing all the cowards. In addition to being creepy, he is no slouch with a gun.
Meanwhile, Johnny has escaped all the way to Mexico. He is carrying Lewis’s gun from the altar. He has no horse now. I guess his horse died? And he is thirsty and can’t speak. Like, mute. From trauma. That is a thing this movie has decided to do: make Johnny mute from trauma. But, in Mexico, literally the second person he pre-Anne-Sullivan Helen Kellers to says “I don’t understand you, but maybe the Americano Lewis can, he lives right over there.”
But wait. Here’s the best part. Johnny goes to the house and meets Lewis, and he makes this face:
Because here is Lewis:
I’m not even sure we knew that Lewis was the priest’s brother. It was definitely not emphasized! And then because he’s mute, Johnny has a hard time explaining that the priest is dead, until finally he lays his spoon across his knife and everyone falls silent. Now they get it.
Consequently, LVC2 tells his wife that he has to leave to put things right. “Juanita, I’ve got to live with myself. I’ve got to go.” That is the existential core of the Western hero right there. So he and Johnny set out for Juno City.
Along the way, LVC2 explains his and LVC1’s backstory. We are 55 minutes in and NOW in a flashback we learn everyone’s motives and how they got where they are. Very nice, Tarantino. LVC2 was too quick with a gun and killed five people in Juno City, and LVC1 got priesty about it. “How can you decide who’s guilty or innocent in a fifth of a second?” Only God can judge. LVC1 told LVC2 to leave and start a new life, without a gun. So LVC2 did.
Meanwhile, the Claytons are celebrating their villainy with a [trigger warning] giant rape party. It is very 1970s! It is sort of gritty and goes on for a long time; movie really wants you to get these guys are not nice guys. Actually it is just dress sleeves getting ripped, and wrestling around? But it is disturbing, I assure you. Also it is confusing. Are we just showing guy-girl wrestling because that’s what’s happening? Or are we supposed to understand there’s mooore than that, but movie can’t show you the more? This is one of those Rosetta Stone moments where who knoweth what the forgotten film language of yore is saying. But anyway the party is brought to a standstill by mom:
It cracks Sam’s sunny disposition. “I don’t have a son! Everybody knows that! What the hell are you talking about??” Then she says don’t you remember, and we flash back to him raping her 15 years ago. This one is a bit more explicit. Eesh. And when we cut back to present-day, new-dad Clayton, he takes on, briefly, a different smile. Like, it is genuinely proud, and dismayed. Holy crap, Jack Palance! How’d you do that? HE WILL RESUME being a psycho in a minute, but he will be a different kiiiind of psycho. One committed to being a dad. He will tell everyone how proud he is of Johnny because they both got their start in horse-thieving. Heh.
LVC2 is at the window and overhears this parentage revelation. He goes and hugs Johnny. And he has a plan. Which is this: He puts on his brother’s priest clothes and walks calmly around town. The gang freaks out. “He’s come back! He’s come back! The priest! The priest!”
Once LVC2’s got the gang all freaked, Johnny rings the church bells. This lures some of the more freaked-out bad guys to the church, where LVC2 tricks them into shooting each other. He won’t shoot them himself, you see, because LVC1 taught him that only God can judge a man. (Although when one of the ladies from the rape party blows away one of the bad guys, LVC2 is okay with that. DEATH SEEMS LIKE OVERKILL IF IT WAS ONLY WRESTLING SO MAYBE THAT IS A HINT.)
It is an elaborate plan, full of improbabilities, but LVC2 pretends to be Ghost-LVC1 with total success. The gang is wiped out, and Sam Clayton decides to leave town—so he does, taking Johnny and the mom.
The family unit heads out into desert. Sam keeps telling Johnny he’s got a surprise for him, in a cemetery. It’s a bit tense! But what he does is, he digs up a whole bunch of cash he must’ve hid there earlier. And talks about how they can enjoy the rest of their lives together in Mexico. He is psyched to have a family. He gives a speech about how he’s getting older and doesn’t want to be alone. He is trying to win Johnny over, creepily – and that’s when LVC2 shows up.
This time, LVC2 ditches the priestly rags, and stands there gun a-ready… Here’s your mano-e-mano showdown, and LVC2 wins the draw. But instead of killing Clayton, he quotes the Bible. “Mine is the vengeance, sayeth the Lord.” He lowers his pistol. Clayton, thrilled to be let off the hook, laughs and says he’s going to give LVC2 all the money. Except we know there’s a Derringer in the money bag he’s reaching into…
Trauma-mute Johnny gets his voice back to scream “Nooo!” LVC2 figures out that scream means there’s a Derringer, so he shoots Clayton. Clayton staggers around croaking, “Johnny… eh… ugh… Johnny.” Then he dies. Johnny takes the gun from LVC2 and says he’ll put it in the church again. I guess he goes back to living with his mom in the saloon. And becomes a boy priest? More typically, LVC2 rides off into the sunset eh, midday.
With Westerns you expect a certain amount of landscape wankery and good guys who mutter pensively for two hours. This has none of that. This has an amazing villain, a shocking death, reasonably interesting and action-packed backstories, a child star who doesn’t ruin it, and a final showdown that is (thanks to the family unit) just off the beaten path. Not every scene falls in the jurisdiction of Likely or Sensible, and the ghost-tricks gang wipeout borders on feeling, I dunno, unearned? Like it belongs to a slightly different movie? But this movie builds up enough goodwill that its flaws are pardoned. Unlike the Clayton Gang, who are all dead. Fun!
Gavel Bang! Rank It!
God’s Gun seizes rank #148. Not bad! That puts it right after an excellent movie about cops who can’t find a serial killer, Zodiac by David Fincher, and right before an excellent movie about a guy who can’t reclaim his lost youth, Wild Strawberries by Ingmar Bergman. Nice job, God’s Gun, you are one of the good Westerns, and I will rewatch you. I award you A fully loaded pistol which I will hide in a church for when you need it. Drop by any time.
And Finally, About Our Next Assignment…
This review didn’t go up on Wednesday as planned, on account of how I did the art on an aeroplane using MS Paint (a program essentially unchanged since 1988) and then uploaded it at 11 AM (very late – 7 PM gnidrah mean time). That was exciting, but probably the smart move would have been to actually plan on posting it Friday (now with sliiightly better art). The upshot is that I need a rest. So, no game today. I’ll be back next Friday, or next next Friday, with 181 movies to choose from. (Nineteen are westerns.)