Intriguing Brit Western from the early seventies produced by none other than Sir David Frost.
Quite a few Brits made the journey out West during the seventies. There were plenty of directors who, having made an impact at home, were now establishing themselves as international filmmakers. Seemingly, part of the process involved making a Western or two and so the decade saw the likes of Terence Young (Red Sun), John Guillermin (El Condor), J. Lee Thompson (The White Buffalo), Peter Collinson (A Man Called Noon) and more besides try their hand at the genre. Admittedly the results did have a tendency to be rather anonymous, though one or two did manage to imprint a little of their style on the material. Michael Winner, for example, was typically blunt in his handling of Lawman and Chato’s Land, though that’s not necessarily a criticism. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Anthony Harvey brought considerable poise to the sorely underrated Eagle’s Wing.
Sussex-born Don Chaffey came to the Western having travelled pretty much every path British filmmaking had to offer. He’d directed Jason and the Argonauts, worked on quota quickies and in episodic television (most notably The Prisoner), made features for the Children’s Film Foundation and Hammer Studios (including One Million Years B.C.), helmed starring vehicles for the likes of Terry-Thomas and Bob Monkhouse, and been responsible for one of British cinema’s more serious sex films, Clinic Exclusive. Eventually he would see out his career with Disney family fare and episodes of Charlie’s Angels and T.J. Hooker, but in 1973 – the year of Charley-One-Eye’s release – he was an interesting case.
Indeed, this isn’t your typical Western. Shot in Spain with an international cast it was nevertheless very much a British picture. The company behind it was David Paradine Productions, which had been formed by David Frost a few years earlier (Paradine being his middle name) with an eye primarily on television. Its first big screen efforts had been comedy vehicles – the Ronnie Barker featurette Futtock’s End; the full-length Peter Cook satire The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer – which makes Charley-One-Eye seem a little incongruous. Perhaps the ill-fated Rentadick, written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman only for both to remove their names from the credits, had prompted a change in tact. Either way, there is something quite odd in seeing the name David Paradine crop up onscreen during the opening credits just as Richard Roundtree has wrestled a piece of raw meat from a pair of vicious dogs.
Roundtree plays a soldier gone AWOL following a tryst with a white officer’s wife that also ended in the man’s death. The credits name him as ‘The Black Man’ for maximum symbolic weight and he’s soon joined by ‘The Indian’ (Roy Thinnes) as he attempts to make his way to the Mexican border. The pair’s relationship with their surroundings is made clear on Charley-One-Eye’s original poster, reproduced on this disc’s sleeve: “Somebody told the black man he wasn’t a slave anymore. Somebody told the red man this land was his. Somebody lied. Somebody is going to pay.” This no doubt makes the film sound like exploitation through and through, but there’s a bit more to it than that. Certainly, the casting of Shaft in the lead role prompts connection with the ‘blaxploitation’ movies of the time (I wonder whether Tarantino gave Charley-One-Eye a spin when working on the screenplay to Django Unchained) and the violence is rather brutal, although that was very much the flavour of the times thanks to likes of Ulzana’s Raid, Hannie Caulder, The Hunting Party and Soldier Blue.
Charley-One-Eye isn’t really a revenge flick nor does it have that kind of easily defined narrative. Whilst the phrase ‘art movie’ is perhaps a step too far, the film does at least attempt to be something other than your standard Western. For the most part it plays out as a series of extended dialogue scenes between Roundtree and Thinnes, albeit with the latter barely speaking a word. There’s a mixture of absurdity and heavy-handedness to these moments as the two men square up to and cajole one another, in the process gradually breaking down the stereotypes surrounding their ethnicity. Chaffey opts for a claustrophobic approach, shooting as though he were filming a play and reducing the wide open spaces of the West (actually Andalucía) through low-angle, tightly composed shots that emphasise the queasy proximity between the pair. The intermittent bouts of violence are arguably all the more shocking in such a setting; not only do their interrupt the intimacy between these two men, but they also help maintain the tension until Nigel Davenport’s ‘The Bounty Hunter’ arrives on the scene.
This meandering brutality matches the amoral landscape perfectly. No-one is afforded any sympathy except for the Charley of the title, who happens to be a chicken. The bleakness that often typifies seventies cinema is well and truly alive here, not that it necessarily translates itself into great filmmaking. That meandering quality could also be interpreted as a lack of direction and, on occasion, Charley-One-Eye does test its audience’s patience. Similarly, the symbolic use of its main players could be read as reductive, though not to the point that would satisfy a more honest exploitation flick (the two Fred Williamson Nigger Charley films, for example). The failing is that the film wants to be both intelligent and a piece of trash despite, in this instance at least, those separate impulses pulling it in opposite directions. The end results are certainly interesting – and there is much to appreciate about Charley-One-Eye – but in never quite settling on what kind of picture it wants to be it also never quite satisfies as an overall experience.
A barebones release from Odeon with not even a trailer to accompany the main feature. It does, however, have a solid presentation with the film freshly restored and digitally remastered. The image is crisp and clean throughout (the flashback scenes are intentionally on the ultra-grainy side) with barely any damage evident. Colours are also strong, especially the redder-than-red Kensington Gore so beloved during the seventies. The soundtrack, presented here in DD2.0 form, is similarly sharp and presents no problems when it comes to either the dialogue or the score by John Cameron (whose credits also include Kes and Psychomania). There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise. I suspect questions will be asked about the aspect ratio given how the film is presented here in 1.33:1 though it would appear to be open matte as opposed to pan-and-scan. Given the British origins a ratio of 1.66:1 would have likely been utilised during theatrical showings and there is perhaps a little excess headroom to accommodate. (It’s hard to be 100% sure given the claustrophobic framing that Chaffey favours throughout.) Of course, having been restored and remastered it would be more than a little odd to then crop the film especially for DVD.
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum