BR: Chato’s Land (1972)

June 14, 2016 | By

ChatosLand_BRFilm:  Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  April 12, 2016

Genre:  Western

Synopsis: After killing a sheriff in self-defense, a half-Apache warrior draws a malevolent, murderous posses into the badlands where few will emerge alive.

Special Features:  Isolated Stereo Music Track / Screenwriter Gerald Wilson on “Chato’s Land” (17:49) / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from  and Screen Archives Entertainment.





Written by Michael Winner’s frequent scribe, Gerald Wilson’s minimalist western is a strange rumination on racism, with a posse comprised of a post-Civil War captain, assorted thugs, a butcher, gleeful hard-drinking adventurers, and the amoral Hooker brothers hunting half-Apache Chato for killing the local sheriff in an armpit town.

Their trek extends into nasty badlands terrain, the kind of world one of the characters describes as a chunk of land of which God gave up for being inhospitable and unworkable for living and farming. Only the Apache, described by the racist thugs as an emotionless wolf-dog mongrel / killing machine, would claim such turf as their own.

Whether designed as a message picture against racist attitudes and horrific treatment of Native Americans or a veiled stalking thriller, Chato’s Land could’ve been an outright flop – a British director known for his indelicate approach to any subject matter, and a minimalist white actor cast as Chato – but perhaps because the story’s been stripped down so severely, its simplicity ensures Charles Bronson (buffed to the max like a street fighter) conveys anger, revenge, and moments of satisfaction through his patented staid expression, and the rogues hunting down “the breed” are just violent archetypes deserving of relatively fast deaths.

The dialogue among the rogues is consistently inflammatory – the Apache are less than dirt – and one suspects Winner wanted the insults played up into a regular back-and-forth banter to justify the film’s violence: being racists, the posse pick off Chato’s friend, and while still breathing, string himup by the feet atop the corral entrance, and burn him alive; and being horny bastards, they naturally take turns raping Chato’s wife with the kind of glee typical of a Eurotrash shocker than a studio-distributed star vehicle.

Women in Winner’s oeuvre rarely fare well, and one can argue his seventies output is peppered with more than a few thrillers in which women have clothes ripped open for no other reason than to expose breasts and be ravaged (as occurs after the Main Titles, introduces the Hooker brothers) or brutalized.

Winner’s knack for creating volatile scenes to elicit audience outrage may be one of his best skills and most controversial, but in Chato’s Land there’s little evidence of the director sharing any sympathy for his female characters – they’re just a cut above extras, used as tools by film villains and the director – which makes the film as some kind of pro-Native American rights statement questionable. It’s still a slickly made production – and one of Winner’s better directed works – but it’s his editorializing that lends the film an exploitive tenor.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray also includes a decent interview with Wilson, who describes his script as a deliberate Vietnam parable in which a well-armed group of Americans succumb to the trappings of an alien landscape, and are no match for indigenous people. The Americans eventually fight among each other, seeding their own destruction after having deluded themselves into thinking their little war could be won within a matter of days – an allusion to both the Vietnam War and, unintentionally, the Gulf Wars where might was supposed to rout out despots and bring everlasting democracy.

Wilson also states he had more than a hand in the film’s casting, and nixing some of Winner’s creative idea if they strayed too far from the script’s original design, and although the rape of Chato’s wife was always in the script, its vivid rendering more than echoes the nasty assault that’s similarly central to the revenge in Death Wish (1974).

However, as an example of Winner’s knack for action, Chato’s Land is rather rewarding for the way he experimented in moving his camera in pre-Steadicam maneuvers to frequently crab around characters, and cut on action to get rid of any transitional footage. His approach is remarkably fluid (in a way, it echoes the roving camera-multiple edits of Tony Scott, as in Unstoppable), gliding into scenes, swirling around dialogue exchanges, and focusing solely on dramatic meat instead of holding on elegant compositions or montages.

There’s an extraordinary image of the posse travelling atop a mounting range at dusk, while the cloud patterns are wisping upward like the Angel of Death’s claw in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). The stunning shot isn’t long enough to constitute a little David Lean homage because to Winner it’s just another bolt in a scene’s construction.

The downside is obvious: much of Robert Paynter’s gorgeous cinematography isn’t given time to be relished by connoisseurs, but the editing (by Winner) is sometimes quite affecting – unusual for Winner, given his cutting of Firepower (1979) is rather amateurish. (Paynter would film most of the director’s films, including Lawman, The Nightcomers, and The Mechanic, but also create memorable widescreen images for The Final Conflict, Curtains, and Spies Like Us.)

Fans of classic Hollywood character actors will be shocked by the extraordinary actors plopped into small parts, much in the way Mackenna’s Gold (1969) was larded from top-down with a superb cast: Jack Palance does plenty of scene-stealing business, but he underplays Capt. Quincey as a former Southern leader who soon realizes the scum he’s encouraged to join his posses becomes its mindless, bloodthirsty leaders; Simon Oakland (Psycho, Dirty Harry) can’t hold onto his version of a southern accent, but he’s solid as the bully Jubal Hooker, while younger brother Elias (The Waltons’ genial Ralph Waite) seems to enjoy watching brother Earl (Richard Jordan) stomp around in anger, threaten the Mexican tracker (Raoul Castro) at every turn, and be the most pro-active rapist among the posse.

Also among the cast is James Whitmore as a friend of Quincey who will not return home for dinner, Victor French (Little House on the Prairie) as a generic thug, and two Scots who quickly realize they’ve joined an out-of-control bullet train of vigilantism – a favourite Winner theme. Richard Basehart is also around as an alcoholic who should’ve done what two other posse members accomplished early into the hunt: leave and go home.

There is a fascinating mix of juvenile peer pressure that keeps the posse intact, and Wilson’s script builds a nice arc to trace the power shifts that make it clear no one really survives this rotten endeavor. The script’s also unique in putting the audience in a position that’s more helpless than its characters: we’re the only ones aware of Chato killing in self-defense, and are unable to step forward and halt the mob that tasks themselves with rustic justice.

Jerry Fielding’s score gives the film a kind of moral credibility because it doesn’t focus on gorgeous vistas, overt main themes, or offer any material to cover heroism or revenge: it’s all subtext, undulating within scenes like natural sound effects in spite of being musically based. Fielding’s gift for capturing character psychologies is even evident in this minimalist story, creating shadings where Winner is more fixated on visual rhythm and playing up horrors.

Twilight Time’s series of Michael Winner productions include Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), Scorpio (1973), and the upcoming Lawman (1971).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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