A man charges across the desert on his horse, a posse of cowboys chasing him relentlessly, until he reaches his home which is little more than a shack where his wife Maria (Michèle Mercier) is waiting. Unfortunately for him, that’s as far as he gets, for the gang catch him and in full view of his spouse they place a noose around his neck and let his horse out from under him, hanging him to death. Maria is horrified, especially as the men then ride off without even giving the body the decency of a burial, but she will not take this atrocity lying down; her husband had a feud with the Rogers clan for some time and this is the result – they’ve even taken their livestock and sold it – so with the assistance of an old friend, Manuel (Robert Hossein), vengeance will be hers.
The moral being that old adage, if you are seeking revenge better dig two graves, or in this case, a whole cemetery full of them since this was a Western where the traditional black hats versus white hats did not apply. Such was the trend with the European strain of the genre in the nineteen-sixties, led by Sergio Leone’s example to make films more adult in nature, less forgiving, with humour grim if there was any at all, just as Leone had taken the example of the more mature Westerns from certain Hollywood directors like Anthony Mann in the previous decade. The director here was also the star, Robert Hossein, proud of the fact he was crafting a thoroughly French Western, as opposed to the Italian ones.
Italy had become the benchmark for quality in this style during the sixties, even leaving the Americans behind who scrabbled to imitate their technique in rather unseemly fashion, but it wasn’t solely that nation who were churning out the movies in response to the huge demand, as across Europe you could be just as likely to see a German, Spanish, even occasionally British Western, everyone on the Continent wanted a piece of the action. France did not appear to embrace the form as much, however, and Hossein wanted to make his version a very distinctive incarnation, in spite of the locations being the now-compulsory Spanish deserts; he seemed to have chosen the most desolate parts of those he could.
That suited his plot, which although Dario Argento had a credit for writing, apparently he had nothing to do with the final work. To call it bleak wasn’t telling you the half of it, it was a scathing takedown of two sides of the conflict that left the audience wondering exactly whose side we were supposed to be on, was it the widow Maria who had witnessed the murder she should never have seen, or was it the Rogers, whose daughter of the family is put through a horrendous ordeal for the sake of Maria’s satisfaction that a twisted justice was being done, where the innocent are punished to force the guilty to face up to their heinous crimes? In truth, neither emerged smelling of roses, yet curiously Hossein allowed a weird sympathy too.
It was as if he could acknowledge all these characters were going to Hell sooner or later, be it by their enemies’ hands or otherwise, but there was a tragedy in the way they had left their humanity behind so utterly. Manuel was the man Maria loved before her husband, but he left her to marry him and now he is back is making up for his abandoning of her by doing her bidding, and if that means raping the daughter of the Rogers so be it, yet the pain in his eyes reveals he takes no pleasure in the act, though when Maria orders her other two allies, two brothers, to do the same the morning after we wonder how far she will go. Mercier was obviously trying to go against her wholesome screen image with roles like these, and with her pale, beautiful face framed by widow’s weeds she cut a striking figure, well matched with Hossein’s henchman in turmoil, but the results had only room for one moment of levity (purportedly directed by Leone!) before it plunged once more into misery. Food for thought in violent times. Music by André Hossein.