This subpar spaghetti western struggles to keep the magic of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel alive.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, the 1883 swashbuckling coming-of-age adventure novel, is embedded into the Western public consciousness. The story of the young Jim Hawkins coming into possession of a treasure map after his mother’s inn is descended upon by a gang of pirates is known to countless people, and the adventures that take place after Jim and his guardians hire a crew of sailors, including the one-legged Long John Silver, to sail out in search of the treasure has shaped our idea of the gold-obsessed, hard-drinking, renegade pirate.
While the novel itself is still stocked in every bookstore and still considered a childhood favorite, much of its notoriety comes from the countless number of times it has been adapted to and/or retold on film through the centuries. Of the many retellings, Between God, the Devil and a Winchester (1968), the spaghetti western take on the story, is surely one of its oddest. (Those English speakers interested in researching the film more should search by its American title, God Was in the West, Too, at One Time.) Director Marino Girolami replaces seas with deserts and pirates with bandits. While it may smell like an attempt to make onion soup using garlic, this film isn’t as unsavory as one might assume.
The thought of having a little boy as a lead protagonist in a spaghetti western gave me the fear going into it, and the phony-laughing Tommy (Humberto Sempere) certainly doesn’t meld well with the genre’s conventions. Fortunately, Gilbert Roland’s performance as Juan Chasquido in the Long John Silver role makes up for the boy’s presence. Because his character embodies the complexity of the legendary pirate captain from the novel—with equal measures of menace and charisma, compassion and greed—Roland holds our hand in enough scenes to give us the courage needed to get through the bad parts of the film.
Plus, there really aren’t that many bad parts: yes, Sempere, the child actor playing Tommy, is annoying; the action is underwhelming at best; and Richard Harrison as Father Pat is a bore. Above all else is the fact that the sense of adventure that makes Stevenson’s Treasure Island so timeless is missing. Nevertheless, there is nothing in Between God, the Devil and a Winchester that makes you regret watching it. There are no scenes or dialogue that will torment your memory. In fact, you probably won’t have a memory of the film; it doesn’t offend and it doesn’t inspire. It could be a lot worse, but it could also be a lot better.
The best parts of the film are those that come closest to capturing Stevenson’s novel. As already suggested, Roland’s ability to conjure the contradicting and captivating characteristics of Long John Silver is what carries you through the story, but there are a few other elements from Treasure Island that director Girolami manages to reproduce. The suspenseful mood in the introductory inn sequence is spot on with its noirish lighting and the arrival of the unexpected guest in the paranoid Bob Ford (Folco Lulli). Then, when the grisly-faced bandits led by Butch (Raf Baldassarre) ambush Ford and burn the inn to the ground in search of the treasure map, we are introduced to villains that are just as bloodthirsty and greedy as Stevenson’s pirates.
Stevenson’s Treasure Island is sometimes considered a children’s book. While I don’t agree with such a label, I do understand why children are attracted to the story. Not only does it have a child as a lead protagonist, but it also has classic adventure, archetypical villains and heroes, and some basic moral lessons. While these aspects work magically in text, they don’t work very well in a spaghetti western, and Between God, the Devil and a Winchester therefore is a subpar entry in the genre.