Arguably among the best titled spaghetti westerns, later quoted by Cheech Marin in Robert Rodriguez’s trailer for Machete featured in the original uncut version of Grindhouse (2007), God Forgives, I Don’t opens with a jolt worthy of a horror movie. A cheering crowd hail an incoming train only to discover the passengers have all been gruesomely slaughtered. The sole survivor informs brawny insurance investigator Hutch Bessy (Bud Spencer) that the man behind the train robbery was infamous outlaw Bill San Antonio (Frank Wolff). Problem is, everyone knows Bill was shot dead in a duel by a gunfighter called Cat Stevens (Terence Hill). No, not the singer and activist later known as Yusuf Islam. When Cat learns his old enemy might still be alive, he sets out to uncover the truth but instead falls into a trap. After Hutch saves his life, the two formidable gunslingers team up to retrieve the stolen money and wipe out Bill’s bandit gang.
God Forgives, I Don’t marked the very first time Terence Hill (a.k.a. Mario Girotti) and Bud Spencer (a.k.a. Carlo Pedersolli) were paired together in a movie. Producer turned writer-director Giuseppe Colizzi can take credit for that although while onetime swimming champion Pedersolli was his first choice for the role of Hutch, Girotti was actually a replacement for Peter Martell. The popular Euro action star supposedly broke his leg during a domestic row with his wife after she found out he was sleeping with a makeup artist on his last movie! By such quirks of fate are movie stars made. Nevertheless while Hill and Spencer went on to make their mark with the divisive comedy western They Call Me Trinity (1970) and became undoubtedly Italy’s most enduring action-comedy team, fans might be surprised to find their inaugural outing is a lot more stark, sinister and sadistic in tone than their subsequent jovial fare. Adding to the ominous tone, the powerful score by Carlo Rustichelli sounds like it belongs in an Italian rip-off of The Omen (1976).
Colizzi, an associate of Sergio Leone, who spent time on the set of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), draws heavily from the Dollars trilogy with a flashback riddled story structure, would-be operatic violence and a climactic three-way showdown over treasure buried in an unknown grave. In fact the film was originally called Il Gatto, Il Cane e la Volpe (The Cat, the Dog and the Fox) which is how Cat Stevens ended up with that name. For the record various alternate dubs re-christened the hero as Doc Will, Wild Doc, Pretty Face (more on that later), and, inevitably, Django. Meanwhile Bud’s character was known alternately as Dan Bus and Earp Hargitay. Colizzi’s direction is assured and the handsome photography by Alfio Contini soaks up some impressive scenery but the plot proves far from coherent, a jumble of multiple flashbacks, surreal asides and sudden death that betray extensive rewrites. It is low on action, high on macho posturing with a jarring level of misogyny. A lot of women get punched, slapped and kicked around for no clear reason. Both heroes also endure their share of sadistic torture: Hill gets dunked down a well and Spencer is burned with a flaming hot poker. Speaking of flaming: Frank Wolff, memorable in only a brief role in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), is ridiculously camp as the chatty ginger haired villain who calls Cat “pretty face” and vents his sadomasochistic impulses by tying and whipping his men. He also never shuts up.
Although hard to follow the plot does add up leaving this the one Hill/Spencer movie favoured by so-called serious spaghetti western fans who often blame the duo for the downfall of their beloved genre. Critics at the time tagged Hill a pallid imitator of Clint Eastwood. He undoubtedly imitates some of Clint’s mannerisms, presumably under Colizzi’s instruction, but brings his own distinctive athletic vigour to such action sequences as when Cat beats up some villains whilst suspended from a rope. Meanwhile, good old reliable Bud Spencer was even at this early stage conforming to the burly, monosyllabic unbeatable fighting machine that became his stock character. Adding to the confusion his character disappears and reappears throughout the tangled narrative, materialising like a genie whenever some ass-kicking is required. Colizzi made two sequels that though disdained by spaghetti western purists for their more light-hearted tone are actually superior, adding a memorably lively Eli Wallach to the mix in Aces High (1968) before bowing out with Boot Hill (1969).