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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Chato's Land (Blu-ray)
Chato's Land (Blu-ray)
Twilight Time // PG // April 12, 2016 // Region Free
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Twilighttimemovies]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted May 27, 2016 | E-mail the Author
DVD Talk Collector Series
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A vastly underrated revisionist Western, Chato's Land (1972) is star Charles Bronson's best film in that genre after Sergio Leone's masterly Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). A supporting actor in Hollywood movies from the early 1950s, Bronson was a huge star in Europe and Asia but not the U.S. from about 1968 until 1974, headlining often extremely good primarily French and Italian movies like Farewell, Friend (1968), Rider on the Rain (1970), and Violent City (1970). Initially these movies, when released in the United States at all, played downtown grindhouses, but their growing popularity led to American financing from United Artists, beginning with Chato's Land, though most continued to be produced in Europe for the next few years. Chato's Land, for instance, has a British director, Michael Winner (Bronson often worked with him and Terence Young during this time), and an American and British cast, but was filmed in Spain with a Spanish crew.

Winner, in his first of six Bronson films, is remembered today for his trashy, later films with Bronson and a few even worse than those (Bullseye! for one). But he had made some very interesting British films and shorts during the 1960s, and in the ‘70s directed Lawman (1971), with Burt Lancaster, and The Mechanic (1972) and Death Wish (1974) with Bronson, all excellent.

Probably Chato's Land isn't as highly regarded because Winner is so routinely dismissed by critics, and perhaps by Bronson fans because, as it turns out, he's not its central character. Though top-billed the movie really isn't about his half-breed Apache Indian at all, but rather about the posse that pursues him. Of its 100-minute running time Bronson is onscreen perhaps 15 or 20 minutes, and probably says fewer than a hundred words, half of those in unsubtitled Apache.

But the film itself is superb, an understated allegory to an America then mired in an unwinnable Vietnam War. It's best quality is writer Gerald "Gerry" Wilson's script. As he did in Lawman, Wilson tells a familiar story, of a posse pursuing an outlaw, with an unusually high-degree of authenticity and verisimilitude, with characters that are rich and distinctive. In most Westerns, for instance, posses are generally little more than a faceless mob, with one or two heroes/bad guys leading them, with maybe a sidekick or juvenile male tossed in with the heroes, or a sadistic lieutenant with the bad guys. The posse in Chato's Land consists of about 15 men, all of whom are different from all the others, with widely varying motives and attitudes.

Another example: Where movie Westerns often feature scenes of one set of characters tracking another, just how this is accomplished is almost never explained, as if the trackers simply followed horse's hoof prints through the wilderness. Wilson's script has a simple but fascinating scene where the posse picks apart the horse droppings left by Bronson's Appaloosa, determining how far away he must be based on the dung's texture, temperature, and moistness. This exemplifies the many details most Westerns simply ignore.

Twilight Time's Blu-ray uses an older MGM-provided transfer, but it's in very good shape, if more than a little grainy during dissolves and other lab-generated effects like fades and superimpositions. Extras include a new interview with Gerry Wilson, who clearly knows his stuff from personal experience living among the Indians and Eskimo in remote northwestern Canada and Alaska.

The premise has half-breed Chato goaded into a gunfight with a racist sheriff who draws on him first. Chato guns him down and simply leaves town, sparking an almost giddy posse led by former Confederate officer Capt. Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance).

Others join the posse for various reasons. Jubal Hooker (Simon Oakland) is an unapologetic racist. Farmhand Earl Hooker (Richard Jordan) is a sexual deviant while brother Elias (Ralph Waite) a pragmatic sadist. Nye Buell (Richard Basehart) is an old-time mountain man seemingly looking for adventure in his late middle age. Joshua Everette (James Whitmore) dutifully joins in, but only until his crops back home need tending. The most interesting character among the posse is Scottish immigrant Gavin Malechie (Roddy McMillan), repulsed by the lynch mob mentality and Jubal's racism, but worried that, if he were to decline joining in his newly-arrived family might be ostracized from his adopted community. In a brief but interesting scene one man, Ezra Meade (a bare- and barrel-chested Peter Dyneley), does adamantly decline, on religious grounds.

In Quincey's case, it's clear his enthusiasm stems from having lived through early, invigorating victories followed by humiliating, costly defeats during the Civil War, and that his pursuit of Chato offers him a chance to restore his personal dignity. Whether Chato might have acted in self-defense is never mentioned even once, let alone becoming part of the narrative.

Nice touches abound. At the beginning of the film Chato is dressed like a stereotypical Hollywood half-breed, wearing a mix of Indian and white man's clothes. Over the course of the story, he gradually sheds all vestiges of white Americanism, becoming almost like a primitive man and sporting little more than a loincloth.

Bronson makes his pivotal character totally believable, partly because of his impressive physique. Though 50 at the time there doesn't seem to be an ounce of fat on his agile, muscular body. His stoic, enigmatic screen persona is even more circumspect than usual, but this works to the picture's advantage and the film allows a warm scene where he's reunited with his wife and son and Bronson even smiles. Regardless, there's obvious intelligence behind Chato's steely-blue eyes, and combined with that prime physical shape he helps sell the idea that Chato could physically and psychologically outwit so many men.

Contemporary critics generally hated the film, singling out its, for the time, graphic violence. But what happens in Chato's Land was no different from what Americans were seeing in nightly news reports from Vietnam, and like that war Chato's Land is, impressively, uncompromisingly brutal, at times morally ambiguous and, ultimately, unforgiving.

Video & Audio

Licensed from MGM, Chato's Land is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen in 1080p. Dissolves and title elements are on the grainy side but mostly the film looks great. The DTS-HD Master Audio mono (English only, with optional subtitles) is fine also, with the film's score offered on a separate track. Limited to a 3,000-copy run, the disc is region-free. One important note: the film was apparently released in some markets in Europe and perhaps Asia with even more graphic violence. Reader Sergei Hasenecz points to a comparison of these versions here: http://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=949883

Extra Features

Limited supplements include a good, 18-minute interview with screenwriter Wilson, who confirms the script's Vietnam War-basis, and an original trailer.

Parting Thoughts

Vastly underrated, Chato's Land is an excellent Western drama, and a DVD Talk Collector's Series title.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian and publisher-editor of World Cinema Paradise. His documentary and commentary, for the British Film Institute's Blu-ray of Rashomon, as is his commentary track for Arrow Video's Battles without Honor and Humanity boxed set.

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