During the 1830s, the Spanish Dons rule Northern California, but the American government are heavily taxing them to force them off their land. Paulo Santiago (Ron O'Neal) devises a plan to steal a huge amount of gold, but slaughters a village of Indians in the process. His brother-in-law, Finlay (Tom Laughlin) is disgusted when he discovers this, and goes into a self-imposed exile in Mexico. Three years later, Finlay is being hunted down by men responsible for the massacre, and knows he will have to return home to prevent it happening again...
This ponderous western was scripted by Tom Laughlin under the pseudonym of Harold Lapland, and directed by his son Frank, who, bizarrely, was reported in some places to be nine years old at the time (he was actually nineteen). Tom Laughlin had made his name as Billy Jack, the hero who kicks villain's heads in in the name of peace, love and understanding, but the Master Gunfighter was based on Japanese Samurai movie Goyokin, so instead of martial arts he uses a sword - and a pistol that apparently never runs out of bullets.
Finlay is a tortured soul here, with a guilty secret and a despairing attritude to the Spaniards' behaviour. Unfortunately, the best Laughlin can muster is a permanently pained expression, as if he has a touch of indigestion rather than the weight of the world on his shoulders. His swordplay is so good that he dispatches any assailant with a couple of strokes of his blade, so don't expect much in the way of swashbuckling. He's just as skilled with a gun, never missing a shot and putting everyone else to shame.
While the plot seems needlessly hard to follow, with a social conscience about the treatment of Native Americans never far from the surface, it's not all bad. The photography is handsome, with the coastal locations providing an attractive backdrop, and we're treated to many shots of the sea, with waves breaking on the shore, waves crashing over rocks, and even waves crashing over Mr Laughlin by the end. The sequence near the beginning with the deserted village infested with crows is effectively atmospheric, too.
As Finlay's reluctant rival, Ron O'Neal is an ambiguous character. We can sympathise with his plight of being victimised by the U.S. government, but not his methods for solving his problems. However, too often the tone is pretentious, with many meaningful looks and slow motion action scenes, and you may have lost interest by the time Paulo's big plan to clear his debts once and for all comes up. You might be better off seeking out a Zorro film. Watch for: Laughlin halving a fish between the thighs of a dusky maiden. Music by Lalo Schifrin.