Chato’s Land: Charles Bronson and director Michael Winner teamed up for the first time on this bleak & brutal Vietnam-war-era Western that set the template for their ‘Death Wish’ films

Chato’s Land(1972), directed by Michael Winner and starring Charles Bronson, Richard Jordan and Jack Palance, is a brutal, down & dirty, unsparing Western that explores racism & bigotry in the old-West.

“To you this is so much bad land – rock, scrub, desert and then more rock. A hard land that the sun has sucked all the good out of. You can’t farm it and you can’t carve it out and call it your own… so you damn it to hell and it all looks the same. That’s our way. To the breed, now, it’s his land. He don’t expect to give him much and he don’t force it none. And to him, it’s almost human – a living thing. And it will give him a good place to make his fight against us.”

Quincy Whitmore (Jack Palance)

Tough-guy movie superstar, Charles Bronson, talks very little in his films; he’s the epitome of strong & silent type, who does more and talks less, but even by Bronson’s laconic standards, the 1973 Western, “Chato’s Land,” sets some kind of record- not just for Bronson but also for a Hollywood leading man; in that, Bronson speaks exactly two lines of English in the whole film: “Back off Lawman” and “Mexican, pretty good, pretty good.” He speaks about four or five lines more in the Apache language, but that’s all the dialogue there is; rest of the time, Bronson lets his lean, ripped physique and stony face to do all the talking. And frankly, Bronson is a very underrated actor, unfairly clubbed with the likes of Chuck Norris and Schwarzenegger by the critical establishment. The truth is is that he can convey more with a piercing glare than what other actors can do with pages of dialogue- and this film ends with such a powerful image: of Bronson sitting on a horse and glaring down at his final victim. In the film, Bronson is playing a half-breed Apache, Pardon Chato, who’s hunted by a band of ex-Confederates for killing the town Sheriff in self-defense. The racist Sheriff wanted ‘to bleed’ Chato for ordering a drink in the town saloon that serves only white people. Chato has no option but to gun down the Sheriff, or else he would have been killed. Chato immediately rides out of town, while the Townsfolk forms a posse under Ex-confederate captain Quincy Whitmore (Jack Palance) to track Chato down and hang him. The mob of white men chasing Chato are so blinded by racist rage and self-righteousness that they don’t care whether Chato’s act of violence was justified or not; they operate on the sole belief that if an injun has killed a white man then the injun has to be hunted down and killed.

The film is also unusual in the sense that it spends most of its time with the posse hunting the hero, rather than with the hero himself, who remains a mystic, mythical presence throughout. Hence it’s Palance and his gang of racist cutthroats that include such actors as Richard Jordan, Sam Oakland and Ralph Waite who gets most of the screen time and dialogues. Palance gets the bulk of the punchlines, which he delivers in his typical ‘orgasmic’ style. Though Palance and Bronson do not share a scene in the film, their combined presence provides enough testosterone blast to this hard-edged, gritty Western. But Palance, unusual for him, does not play the meanest bad guy in the film. Though he does start out as the antagonist, it is soon revealed that he’s a tragic figure. His Quincy Whitmore is a man who’s still living in the past, and is desperate to relive those glorious years when he was a captain in the Confederate army. The defeat in the civil war robbed him off all his glory and dignity; hunting down Chato become a ruse for him to restage the civil war, and he’s determined to win it this time. Whitmore leads the posse with all the pomp and splendor of a captain leading his men into battle- he is dressed up in his grey Confederate uniform, and throughout the journey he delivers big words of wisdom and military logic, but most of them are utterly useless and delusional, because they’re filtered through his own past experiences and worldview, and quite redundant while chasing an Apache on his land. He’s so delusional that he can’t even distinguish between the idea of killing Yankees and the idea of killing an Apache ‘breed’.

It also doesn’t help that Whitmore is an old-fashioned soldier who has a strong moral center; they are things he would not do, things that go against his personal and military code. Unfortunately for him, the men he’s leading has no such chivalric soldier’s code to follow; these are lowlifes who look at ‘injun’-hunting as bloodspot and an amusing diversion from their mundane lives. They’re also men who are driven by fear and anger because their ranches has been raided by many plains Indian tribes, and they believe that one less Apache would make their land much more safer. Whitmore very quickly comes into conflict with the aggressively racist Jubal Hooker (Simon Oakland) and his brothers Elias (Ralph Waite) and Earl (Richard Jordan). The rest of the band is made up of an assortment of types, including Whitmore’s old friend Joshua (James Whitmore), a Mexican scout (Raul Castro), and a couple of recent settlers (Roddy McMillan and Paul Young) who go along because they don’t want to risk offending their neighbors, even though they don’t believe in what they’re doing. But there are also some white folks who refuse to partake in this hunt, and chases the Hooker brothers away when they come looking for men to join the ‘expedition.’ Anyway, even if Whitmore’s in command, it’s the Hooker brothers who are calling the shots. So, it’s no surprise that Whitmore looses control of the posse within hours of embarking on the hunt.

Meanwhile, Chato, who’s always staying one step ahead of the posse, does everything he can peacefully to dissuade them from chasing him; he destroys their water supply, and drives off their horses. But the members of the posse are so dumb, and blinded by revenge that they can’t admit the possibility that Chato might be more skilled than them in the desert, and that he maybe giving them a chance to return home without any casualties. The posse also does not seem to understand that Chato is drawing them further and further into his territory; where he has the upper hand; even if the posse have more men and superior weapons, they would not stand a chance if Chato goes on the warpath. As the hunt drags on bickering sets in among the members of the posse – particularly due to the dictatorial behavior of Jubal, who threatens to kill anyone leaving the chase – and they start turning against one another. But this cat & mouse game turns ugly when the posse stumbles onto Chato’s Hogan and finds his wife there; despite Whitmore’s protestations, four of the gang rapes Chato’s wife; then they hogties her naked outside the Hogan as bait to lead Chato into a trap. Chato devises a plan with his full Apache kinsman, who creates a diversion allowing Chato to rescue his wife. Chato’s kinsman is wounded and the posse hang him upside down and burn him alive. Whitmore, disgusted, shoots the burning man in the head.

Chato now realizes that he had committed a big mistake by being lenient to his pursuers. He decides to turn the tables on his hunters by becoming the hunter himself. He abandons his European wear and switches to the traditional Apache wear of moccasins and loincloth. Using his knowledge of his land to his advantage, Chato starts hunting down the posse members one by one – and in rather inventive ways: one of them is killed by a rattlesnake, another one is castrated; but whatever the means, he makes sure that their death is long and painful, and that each death would lead to more bickering and disharmony among the posse. He doesn’t have to work too hard; the inherent stupidity and savagery of the white men would soon find them fighting and killing each other. Jubal kills Whitmore when the latter objects to the former killing two deserters, inciting the last two members of the posse, Malachie and Logan, to beat Jubal to death with rocks. After that Malachie and Logan rides back into town, but on their way they loose their horses. Soon, Chato kills Malachie and allows Logan to flee without supplies, alone and horseless, deeper into Apache territory as Chato watches impassively from his horse. The final moments find the film entering surrealistic territory, with Chato and the land becoming one and the same. Bronson’s body and face that looks carved out of stone almost feels part of the landscape itself- which haunts, traps and kills the white men.

The cantankerous and controversial British director, Michael Winner, made uncomfortable films throughout his career; not only uncomfortable, but also controversial and exploitative. Though by the end of his career he had deteriorated into a real-life cartoon who made outrageous statements and made only cheap, exploitative fare, but his early to mid 1970s films – despite showing his sensationalist and exploitative tendencies – possessed a certain amount of intelligence, social consciousness and inventive visual style. Winner made his American film debut in the early 1970s – after a career of more than a decade in the British film industry. And most surprisingly for a British director, he started out in Hollywood by making Westerns: he began with the western, “Lawman (1971)“, shot in Spain and starring Burt Lancaster, which I believe is the best film he ever made. Written by Gerald Wilson and photographed by Robert Paynter, “Lawman” explored themes of hypocrisy and primitive savagery inherent in the (so-called) civilized American society. It was also a testosterone-fuelled revenge fantasy or a Vigilante-fantasy (something that would become a hallmark of Winner) where we had Lancaster’s lawman ruthlessly hunting down and killing (perceived) enemies of the state; and thus proving himself to be no better than the outlaws he’s hunting. “Chato’s Land” take these themes to the next level by adding elements of racism, and portraying the civilized white folk as more savage and brutal than the Apache half-breed that they are hunting. The land inhabited by Chato and invaded by the posse is harsh, dry, rocky, ugly and pretty useless. But the men still wants to burn down and kill everything they find on it- their actions being driven purely by arrogance and bloodlust alone.

The film can be seen as an allegory for the conquest of America by the Europeans, especially the post-civil war, westward expansion into Indian nations; ‘Manifest destiny’ was as much driven by racism as by capitalism. The whole plot is set in motion only because a racist Sheriff tries to kill Chato for being a ‘breed.’ All throughout the chase, Chato tries his best to avoid further bloodshed, and even advices other Apache tribesmen not to attack the posse; only to find both his home and his wife invaded. From that point on he gives up his ‘white-half’ and fully embraces his native side, and goes on a rampage of revenge. The film’s denouement is both rousing and ironic: Chato manages to kill the white men who had invaded his land, but history proves that Chato’s (and the American Indians’) victory was just transitory; they will be finally suppressed by brute force of the white men. Of course, this treatment of the Native as a mythic, almost supernatural force rising from the land is a very rousing concept, but almost as dehumanizing as depicting him as a no-name savage. But within the context of the film’s larger-than-life narrative, and its ultimate aim being to depict the self-destructive stupidity, arrogance and self-righteousness of the civilized white men, it’s acceptable.

This – as well the timing of the film’s making and release at the height of the ‘Vietnam war’ – also makes the film a more pronounced allegory of American intervention in Vietnam; this film was one of a series of Westerns like “Ulzana’s Raid,” “Soldier Blue,” “Little Big Man,” “Valdez is coming,” and of course, “Lawman” to either implicitly or explicitly comment on America’s folly in intervening in Vietnam. This film is inferior to both “Ulzana’s Raid” and “Lawman” in the sense that it’s much too minimalist and stripped down. It does not have much substance to it, and a lot of the commentary is on the surface level. Winner’s directorial style is primal, basic, and perfectly suited to framing the minimalist narrative, and he brings the same writing & technical team he had on “Lawman” to this film as well, but the richness and depth in themes, characterization and visuals that he brought to “Lawman” is missing here. The screenplay is very incoherent and too often leaps from one crucial moment onto the other unstructured. The first act dealing with the formation of the posse and the initial stages of pursuit is very sluggish. From then on it picks up momentum, with the last act feeling more like a stalker\slasher thriller when Chato becomes an avenging angel. Mainly, the film works purely on a visceral level, and it works really well too, but it’s not that intellectually stimulating. The visuals of the film also reflect this raw, stripped down quality: Robert Paynter’s photography is totally unglamorous- it portrays the American west as an arid, barren landscape completely devoid of any life or greenery, and there are plenty of graphic images of human and animal carcasses being devoured by vultures; it’s a far cry from the painterly visuals of a John Ford or a Anthony Mann Westerns; though, as he did in “Lawman,” Winner employs a mobile camera that continuously circles and boxes in the characters- which i find very exciting. The film also gives a very good indication to Winner’s exploitation tendencies – in the gang rape and subsequent scenes of extreme violence. One may argue that Winner is trying to replicate the horrors of the ‘My Lai massacre,’ but it appears gratuitous and extreme.

Thankfully, Gerard Wilson’s gift for good dialogue is present throughout; and just like Lancaster got all the best lines and philosophical musings in “Lawman,” here it’s Palance- who in the prolonged absence (and silence) of Bronson takes on the mantle of real star\actor of the film; and who gets to deliver some great lines. Palance is really good in the film, unusually restrained and providing his character with a lot of depth and intellect. As a military man who ended up on the losing side in the civil war, Whitmore represents all the oppressed hatred, rage and humiliation of the ‘south’; and all that comes out in his words. Even though he initiated the manhunt against Chato (and one must add: for all the wrong reasons), by the end of the film, the audiences grow to care for him and even like him. The rest of the cast are all pretty good, though they may strike as one-note- men overflowing with hate and machismo and constantly fighting with each other. Bronson, of course, is perfectly cast as the monolithic native who simply is a force of nature in his own land. He’s dressed in only a loincloth for the second half of the film, showing off his ripped physique to the maximum. He was fifty-one when he made this film, but one cannot say that from the way he looks, or moves, runs, jumps and ride horses.

This film was the first collaboration between Bronson and Winner; they would go on to make six films in total, including the most popular film in both their careers: the 1974 urban-vigilante drama “Death Wish”- which led to a franchise. We can find a lot of thematic similarities between “Chato’s Land” and “Death Wish”; especially the main protagonist being a pacifist who seeks revenge after his home is invaded, and his wife is raped (& a kin killed). Elements of this same plot are also to be found in another 1974 Bronson starrer, “Mr. Majestyk.” The film is also remarkably similar to Sylvester Stallone’s “First Blood.” I know that film was adapted from David Morell’s novel, but the film does deviate from the novel considerably. I feel that Stallone was very much influenced by “Chato’s Land” while writing the script of the first Rambo picture: the way Vietnam vet Rambo (who’s also part Native American) is ‘pushed around’ by Brian Dennehy’s Sheriff Teasle; and then the long pursuit through the jungles, where Rambo only handicaps his pursuers (and does not kill them) and asks them to return; and the final act in which the hunted becomes the hunter, are all reminiscent of “Chato’s Land.” One can also find elements of Quincy Whitmore in both Teasle and Col. Trautman. I don’t know whether these similarities were by design or purely accidental, but that was the first thing that struck me when I finished watching this film (i saw this film after i saw “First Blood”). Anyway, the theme of a ‘marginalized civilian\commoner\outsider singlehandedly wrecking violent vengeance on a corrupt & unjust social order that had injured him’ would become a staple of Bronson’s (and subsequent American action) films.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s