Loose, flip, light-hearted, even goofy, PG-rated "impossible mission" Western shenanigans. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection, their M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) service that gives movie and TV lovers access to hard-to-find library and cult titles, has released The Wrath of God, the 1972 actioner from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, directed by Ralph Nelson from a book by Jack Higgins, and starring big, bad Robert Mitchum, Ken Hutchison, Victor Buono, Frank Langella, John Colicos, and Rita Hayworth, in her final big-screen appearance. Shaped like a Zapata spaghetti Western, the engagingly silly The Wrath of God plays more like a Three Stooges "south of the border" short, with lots of (enjoyably) bad jokes amid the frequent bloodletting. An equally hysterical original trailer is included with this nice widescreen transfer.
An unnamed, revolution-torn Central American country, south of Mexico, in 1922. Irish "adventurer" Emmet Keogh (Ken Hutchison) has finally gathered up enough money for a train ticket out of this bloody hellhole, where revolutionaries are lined-up in the streets and mowed down with blasť regularity. When Keogh turns down local "businessman" Jennings' (Victor Buono) offer to truck bootleg Scotch Whiskey across the border to the U.S., Jennings simply has Keogh's passport and train ticket stolen, finally convincing Keogh to sign on for the job. Meeting "Catholic priest" Father Oliver Van Horne (Robert Mitchum) for a second time on the road, Keogh learns the rather irreverent priest is from the Boston dioceses, sent to Central America on a fund raising drive. What Keogh doesn't know is that Father Van Horne relies on an earthly persuasion of a more...deadly nature, so to speak, to get people to cough up their dough-nations: a Thompson submachine gun he carries in a satchel. When Van Horne comes to Keogh's rescue after Keogh tries to save the beautiful native Indian Chela (Paula Pritchett) from being raped by renegade soldiers, Keogh and Van Horne team up...only to be imprisoned with Jennings by Colonel Santilla (John Colicos). The charge? Selling arms to the counter-revolutionaries. The sentence? Death...unless the boys do a small job for Santilla: assassinate warlord patron Thomas De La Plata (Frank Langella), a dangerous psychotic who despises the Catholic Church, and who holds his townspeople in an iron grip of repression.
A real oddball attempt to mimic the Zapata spaghetti Westerns that were finding favor in international releases at the time, The Wrath of God has to be taken as a spoofy parody of the subgenre...because what the hell else would you call it? As I've written in past reviews of his movies, I find it almost impossible to nail down Ralph Nelson, who unexpectedly wrote and directed this highly amusing actioner. Certainly Nelson had his mind on social problems and politics when he directed movies like ...tick...tick...tick... and Soldier Blue...but what the hell was he thinking about when he made crap like Father Goose, Once a Thief and Embryo? Could The Wrath of God have been a deliberate effort by Nelson to appease some of those critics who felt his shameful Soldier Blue was a grotesque, intellectually dishonest exercise in revisionist sadism? Possibly. The Wrath of God certainly tones down the intensity of its violence, while maintaining a breezy, light comedic tone that's not in Soldier Blue at all...but which does bring to mind earlier Nelson efforts like Lilies of the Field and especially the weird, masterful Soldier in the Rain.
Politics, even on a subtextual level, usually underpinned that subgenre of Zapata spaghetti Westerns, but in The Wrath of God, its minor grumblings about peasants, patrons, and the army, make no sense at all. Buono and Hutchison get political backstories that are supposed to make them deadly antagonists―Buono ratted for the Black and Tans; Hutchison was an IRA assassin―yet those revelations are merely a blip on their buddy buddy evolution; their fights are played like Moe and Curly going at it. In almost all of the Zapata Westerns, the army and its officers and soldiers are seen as agents of repression against the common people, but in The Wrath of God, Colicos is a cultured, amusing (and amused) antagonist who laughs at the boys' putdowns and who is never shown actually hurting anyone (his soldiers almost rape Chela and hang Keogh, but we don't connect them up with Colicos), while revolutionary Langella is a psychopath who murders priests, denying his resentful townspeople their religion. Even when Langella is given a Freudian explanation for his murderous psychosis, it doesn't register because we never see Colicos or his army again. Langella the revolutionary is the clear villain here, but his politics, just like Colicos', are of absolutely no importance in The Wrath of God: it's all about the laughs and the action here.
Most of the one-liners in The Wrath of God are connected up with the incongruity of Mitchum as a submachine-gunning Catholic priest; for instance, when Mitchum saves Hutchison from being hung (which is shot for laughs, as well), an obviously relieved Hutchison replies, "That was one hell of a mass, Father!" Jokes like that, and Mitchum calling bottles of whiskey "Holy water," and Mitchum giving Colicos a backwards two fingers-up salute, are the kind that can make you groan like you're catching a particularly dated episode of the The Dean Martin Show. However, they're delivered here with such laid-back good cheer that it's difficult not to get into the willy-nilly spirit of The Wrath of God and laugh along with the obvious clinkers. Certainly director Nelson deserves the majority of the credit for putting over scripter Nelson's goofball storyline and dialogue. Executed with a briskness I found unusual for him, The Wrath of God exhibits a playful, puppydoggish vigor that's contagious. Nelson designs a nice twist on the usual desert chase scene, having Mitchum outrun his quarry in his massive saloon automobile (good visuals of the car crashing and careening around the sandy hills as the pursuing horses try to keep up), while his action set-pieces are first-rate (there's a more-than-decent fistfight between Hutchison and Barney Miller's Gregory Sierra). If my own one-sheet of The Wrath of God is a good indication of how M-G-M saw The Wrath of God's appeal―a cartoon Mitchum, in priest robes, shooting people with a machine gun―you can certainly put that down to Nelson's PG-safe urgency during the big church mow-down. Even better, he tops himself with the showdown at Langella's fortified villa, pushing the already over-the-top silliness firmly into the red (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT! you start giggling when Buono sacrifices himself with a grenade and Mitchum pulls out a wicked switchblade cross and throws it upwind sixty yards, impaling Langella on a balcony...who turns out to be a double!!, until you really hit the floor when a crucified Mitchum kicks himself over and crushes the real Langella with the stone cross).
As for the cast, as much as I like Buono, it's hard to see him in the Bud Spencer-type role here (he may be big, as in fat, but he doesn't look strong), with his typically over-ripe delivery perhaps a little too over-ripe even for this silliness. Langella makes the right choice and plays his psycho straight, giving this essentially ridiculous character way more weight than you would expect, thanks to Langella's good thesping. Love goddess Rita Hayworth, only 54 but looking a good 10 years older due to alcoholism and the stress of dealing with undiagnosed Alzheimer's disease, acts as if she's in another movie (and world). She delivers her single lines (they had to break them up because she was unable to remember them) as if her very life depended on giving a good performance...in a movie, sadly, where no one would have or did, care (it's very sad seeing her here, and wisely, Nelson keeps her appearances down to a minimum). Hutchison, though, is the real find in The Wrath of God. Amiable and goofy, and looking somewhat like Gerard Depardieu's U.K. younger brother, Hutchison is quite funny with his animated face, moving correctly whether the scene calls for slapstick or action (it's too bad he didn't take off here in the States, where he's known primarily in the small role as Susan George's second rapist in Straw Dogs).
Headliner Mitchum, who frequently looks like he's got half a bag on here, is nice and loose as the defrocked priest, offering absolution to soon-to-be executed prisoners...before greasing a bunch of soldiers with his Tommygun. The Wrath of God came out right in the middle of a resurgence in the quality of Mitchum's movies (although you might not know that from the critics' notices at that time), following efforts like Secret Ceremony, Ryan's Daughter, and Coming Home, and leading up to some of his career bests: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Yakuza, and Farewell, My Lovely. Mitchum as a murdering man of the cloth wasn't exactly original in '72; he had played a variation on that four years earlier in the entertaining mystery Western, 5 Card Stud, so we know something is up with his character right from the start (...as did anyone who saw that one-sheet out in the theatre lobby prior to watching the picture). If you can't figure out what that something is―why Mitchum kills one moment and blesses the next―don't blame him: the script doesn't really bother to explain, either, and certainly Mitchum, entertaining as he always is regardless of his level of involvement, doesn't put forth an ounce of extra effort to tell us. But then again, he doesn't need to tell us why; that's not what the slap-happy, violent The Wrath of God is all about, anyway.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.