In this pet project of star and executive producer Eric Braeden, the Western meets the plantation melodrama, and neither genre survives the encounter. In the post-Reconstruction South, benevolent overseer and Confederate Civil War hero Reece Paxton (Braeden) crosses plantation owner Judge Duke (George Kennedy) and his son Billy (James Patrick Stuart) over ill treatment of the sharecroppers who work the Dukes’ land. When Paxton demands justice for a worker lynched by Billy and his followers, the judge tries and convicts Paxton for the murder.
Billy and company kill Paxton’s young son, then rape and kill his wife, all while a bound-and-gagged Paxton watches from the prison wagon. After several years, Paxton escapes from prison, and with the help of the sharecroppers, now on strike, exacts his revenge. Many of the striking workers die in the struggle.
Despite a notice at the end of the film that “The ‘Thibodaux Massacre’ left as many as 300 strikers dead, most of them black”, the strike and the ensuing violence that took place in Thibodaux, Louisiana, in 1887 provide the barest plot contrivance for the pure melodrama of The Man Who Came Back. Aside from the Ken Burns montages of period photographs that accompany the opening and closing credits, along with a few sentences locating the action in the post-Reconstruction South, there is no attempt at grounding the film in history.
The Man Who Came Back takes place entirely in the realm of movie clichés. The judge subsists on a steady diet of whiskey, bile, and pieces of the set. Billy and his gang are irredeemably BAD: in between their regular forays into rape and murder, they intimidate the townspeople, terrorize the denizens of the Thibodaux whorehouse, bust up headstones, and shoot mules.
As sheriff-turned-overseer Amos, Armand Assante assumes an accent so thick it renders his character impossible to understand much of the time. Perhaps it was the only way he could bear uttering the lines he was given to say. The stock characters who fill out the cast include a carpetbagger lawyer (Billy Zane), a shrewish wife (Sean Young), an undertaker, a preacher, and a hooker with a heart of gold (Jennifer O’Dell)—really.
Locations fail to convincingly portray Louisiana, or any other real place on Earth. Scenes move from the lush plantation to the dusty Old West main street of Thibodaux, complete with the obligatory sheriff’s office, saloon, and whorehouse. Never mind that Louisiana towns did not follow the Dodge City model, and that most likely the preacher would have been a parish priest.
Absurdly ahistorical dialogue matches the set design. “Slavery’s over! We can leave if we want!” a sharecropper announces when Billy confronts him on his way out of town. At one point the lawyer says, “Whatever.”
The film reaches without success for the metaphoric heft of other, much better revenge Westerns, like Clint Eastwood’s 1973 High Plains Drifter, in which the unnamed figure of the title revenges the death of a town sheriff. After Paxton’s first attempt to escape from prison fails, the (naturally) sadistic warden (Peter Jason) vows to break him.
In a particularly clumsy sequence, a clearly living Paxton is taken for dead and dumped in a box for burial. Evidently the prison staff has been instructed to take figurative death for the real thing. In case we didn’t get it, Paxton later tells The Whore (as O’Dell’s character is credited), “There’s nothing left of me. I’m dead inside.”
Attempts at underscoring the depth of Paxton’s loss in order to justify his lawless vengeance veer close to comedy. After the murders, Billy and the boys throw the bodies of Paxton’s wife and son down his well. When he returns and seeks refuge in his old cabin, now occupied by sharecropper Grandpa (Ken Norton), he pauses before sipping from the cup of water he’s offered. He only drinks when Grandma assures him that they draw their water from a rain barrel or the nearby creek. I had hoped Paxton would spy a piece of waterlogged homespun in the cup.
Before he begins his rampage, Paxton retrieves the bodies and gives them a proper burial. It never occurred to anyone else in the intervening years to clear the well—either out a sense of decency or because of the undeniable convenience of a reliable water source?
The Man Who Came Back even has the hubris to make an explicit comparison to Eastwood’s 1973 film, when Paxton tells the undertaker to order coffins, echoing Eastwood’s Drifter, who asks the town undertaker for more boxes.
Norton and the other African American members of the cast never have the chance to rise above the role of extras. In the premiere footage included among the DVD extras, Braeden mentions that he put details of the Thibodaux Massacre into the script, including the use of a Gatling gun on strikers, but all of that must have been nixed by the studio, or lost in rewrites. It’s a pity, because that story, unlike the one The Man Who Came Back tells, deserves to be brought to the screen.
The extras include the Red Carpet Premiere of The Man Who Came Back, deleted scenes, trailer gallery, and commentary by the director and writer.