In which I finally watch a DVD I’ve owned for years, long after doing so could have any meaning.
Why’d I buy this?
Remember that DVD omnibus of 20 Spaghetti Westerns that I grabbed from a bargain bin? Tell me who doesn’t buy that.
Why’d I never watch this particular movie?
I tend to think of Westerns as being mainly sandy landscapes stared across for three hours by tight-lipped Figures of Resolve. I don’t know who hurt me. That is not what Westerns are. They are action movies. Here’s the pitch: “It’s Die Hard, but on a horse.” That’s it, every time, and I need to get it through my thick skull. I should be watching a Western a day and two on Christmas.
Yippee kie-yay, you guys. Now, thanks to taoreader’s childhood as a drug-dealing eco-warrior, I know that Minnesota Clay is a fast-paced actionpaloosa.
Our tale opens in a hard-labor prison near the New Mexico border in the 1880s. This prison is played by a quarry in Italy (because being a Spaghetti Western means it was shot in Italy, on a budget). The quarry is run by Italians lip-synching the US Cavalry. Now, in real life, did the US Cavalry stand around guarding quarries of assorted miscreants? I’m no military historian, but that seems like egregious misdeployment of our elite horse-riding fighting force. They should be out on the range, enforcing our nation’s very strict Fewer Indians policy.
Luckily, in this labor camp under historically questionable guard, everyone is chatty, so we learn many key facts quickly. Mainly, that our hero, Minnesota Clay, is doing 20 years because a key witness didn’t show up in court to testify on his behalf and prove his innocence. And that he is an amazing gunfighter who has been on the run from the law all his life (sort of contradicting the idea that he is innocent). And also that he is experiencing a vision issue such that one more punch to the eye will blind him forever. It really is the chattiest labor camp you’ll ever get sentenced to.
Then, abruptly, in the middle of chit-chat, Clay escapes. He just picks up a gun that was left unsupervised (proving the Cavalry should not be in charge of prisons), shoots a snake (not sure why the movie threw that in), takes the regimental doctor hostage, and leaves.
He gets all the way to Terror Town. Why go there, you are wondering? Why bust out of prison hell only to go to… Terror Town? He could have gone to Paris. Or even Disquiet Town. Either of those sounds much better.
Nothing in this movie happens for one reason. There are always two to four reasons. There are a lot of moving pieces. Let’s say 10 moving pieces? More than I bargained for. See how you feel about it: Clay, under the pressure of (1) going blind, rides to Terror Town. It’s called that on account of it used to be terrorized by (2) the Ortiz Gang, until the townspeople chased him out by hiring a gunslinger named Fox. Once that was mission accomplished, Fox stuck around to (3) terrorize the town. Now Ortiz is hiding up in the hills and it’s the Fox Gang that rides around Main Street shooting into the sky (and often into the people) every afternoon. Turns out (4) Fox is the no-show witness from Clay’s trial, so Clay is here to make him testify. Meanwhile, on the edge of town is a ranch with no evident livestock (I don’t see how it is profitable) where lives a pretty lass who does not know that she is (5) Clay’s daughter, courtesy of a Passionate Affair of Yore. Her mom, Clay’s ex, is sadly long dead, and was also (6) loved by Fox, though less successfully, which has stuck in Fox’s craw all these years. Naturally when Ortiz hears Clay and Fox are at odds, he (7) hires Clay to kill Fox, but is probably going to (8) kill Clay if Clay goes the gets-him-to-testify-instead route. Throw in (9) a haughty/alluring Mexican woman who plays all sides, exacerbating mayhem.
So, a lot of pieces, and this movie wastes no time laying em down. It is as if the moviemakers made all scene decisions based on their film inventory. “We don’t have much film. Everything has to happen on the amount that we have.” Can we buy more film? “No. We are in the desert.” Should we make the story simpler, so it definitely fits on the film? “It is already too simple.” And so they make it work, mainly through on-the-nose chit-chat to explain who’s who and what their motives are.
This particular clown is impossible. And speaking of horses (when we speak of Westerns, we are always speaking of horses), I don’t know when “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie” became a rule, but I’m willing to bet it was after Minnesota Clay. Maybe the next day immediately after, as a direct response to Minnesota Clay. Because you can’t tell me they didn’t actually murder this horse:
That’s entertainment? Maybe the horse had it coming? I hope they didn’t murder a good horse just to bring a smile to the face of a movie-going child.
Gosh but I love the idea of a broken-down character trying to do one last thing right. Plus there are a few great lines of dialog. I won’t ruin them in case you ever watch this. Wait, I will ruin one. Clay enters the Fox-run saloon as just another dusty drifter, strides to the bar, and says, “Milk.” The Fox-Gang bartender looks up sharply. Clay has gotten his attention. That’s fun. Although, listen, don’t get too excited, because there are more dumb and puzzling lines than clever ones. Like when Clay says, “I have an ulcer. It hurts [ominous pause] when I laugh.” Ah, Clay, you old man, with your digestive tract issues and your detaching retina, you were not the hero 1964 wanted, but you were the hero who escaped its labor camp with a gun.
Gavel bang! Rank it!
This movie is visibly low-budget and mainly forgettable, but not totally mindless or heartless and you won’t be bored. I’ve said before I wish they still made ’em like this instead of trying so hard all the time. Still, a movie that spent one more day in preproduction might have worked out some kinks, like how terrible Clay’s hiding spots are during the shootouts. I’m ranking it #319, below Bridge at Remagen (a war movie that feels too well planned out, except when Robert Vaughn rolls up as a Nazi wearing cool sunglasses), and above 28 Weeks Later, the zombie sequel. The only thing I can remember about 28 Weeks Later is that it starred an impossibly pretty actress with a very unlikely name. Mojomo Plook? Jenajam Toots? You know exactly who I mean. And if you want to watch #319, it is hiding here.