[27 August 2014]
God’s Gun (1976), one of the few Spaghetti Western’s filmed in Israel, opens with a catchy theme song as a puppet show being held for children in the middle of the street transitions into a show of violence when a gang of bandits ride into the town of Juno City, rob a bank, and kill everyone in sight. This promising start to the film is quickly forgotten after learning that a young boy named Johnny (Leif Garrett) is going to be a major player in the story. It’s not that Garrett is a terrible child-actor; it’s just that his character gets on my nerves due to the predictability of his melodramatic antics.
Johnny is the son of the beautiful saloon keeper Jenny (Sybil Danning). She tells him that his father died after being shot in the back, but his father is actually Sam Clayton (Jack Palance), the leader of the gang that has invaded Juno City and who, many years before, raped and impregnated Jenny. The town priest, Father John (Lee Van Cleef), acts as a mentor to Johnny and after Clayton shoots him down for trying to stop the gang, the boy steals a horse and rides off into the desert for help. “Stealing horses—that’s how I got my start,” says Clayton like the proud father he doesn’t yet know he is. After crossing into Mexico, Johnny runs into the dead priest’s twin brother, Lewis (also played by Van Cleef), and together they go back to Juno City for revenge.
Richard Boone, who plays a passive sheriff with a drinking problem, is said to have walked off the set of God’s Gun before it was completed—which accounts for his limited screen time and his lines being unnecessarily dubbed by another actor. According to what David Rothel writes in his biography, David Richard Boone: A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land (2000), Boone did an interview before quitting the movie in which he said the following: “I’m starring in the worst picture ever made. The producer is an Israeli and the director is Italian, and they don’t speak. Fortunately it doesn’t matter, because the director is deaf in both ears.”
Boone was exaggerating. God’s Gun is not the worst picture ever made, or even the worst Spaghetti Western, but its many low-points bury its few high-points. Director Gianfranco Parolini, known for ‘The Sabata Trilogy’ (1969-71), glosses over the gunplay as if our focus should be somewhere else—but there isn’t much else to the film. There’s the annoying child-actor, there’s a decent story plagued by weak dialogue, and then there’s the tasteless treatment of women; in contrast to the better films in the genre that contain moments of misogyny to highlight the savagery of their villains or the flaws of their heroes, Parolini has the anonymous bandits of Gun’s Gun chase the saloon women around in circles, beating and groping them, in a lengthy scene that develops neither the characters nor the story.
As I watched the film progress, I kept waiting for Van Cleef, easily the most beloved actor in the genre, to save the picture with his duel roles. When he’s at his best, his characters sweat with an intensity that is captivating even when the film he’s in isn’t. But in God’s Gun he seems to have divided his powers between his two roles as Father John and Lewis, making him half the actor he usually is and resulting in two unremarkable performances. Someday all I’ll remember about Van Cleef in God’s Gun will be his merm—which, for those of you who aren’t hip to the newest lingo, is when the hairstyles of a mullet and a perm become one.
When Lewis, dressed up as his twin brother Father John, returns to Juno City and faces off against the members of Clayton’s gang, I had hope that God’s Gun would at least end with a memorable revenge sequence. The bandits believe Father John has risen from the grave—“He’s Back!”, they scream in terror—and, as they enter the church one by one while the bells bellow above and a fog-like substance creeps in from every corner, I became excited… but then good-old Johnny boy had to pop his blonde-haired baby-face out of the fog and announce to us poor viewers that he was there to assist Lewis and consequently ruin the entire sequence.
There are, however, two reasons why God’s Gun isn’t a complete disaster and might even be worth watching for the Spaghetti Western fanatic: one, Parolini’s genius decision to make Johnny go mute half-way through the film; and, two, Palance’s powerful performance as Clayton. Not only does his permanently grinning, wrinkled yet somehow youthful face burn holes in the screen, but his manic gestures and natural charisma channels a liveliness that, when contrasted to the rest of the cast, makes the film come off as a lifeless corpse. And if God’s Gun is a corpse, Palance is the mortician who makes an open-casket possible… but only the most devoted fans of the genre with the strongest of stomaches should attend this funeral of a film.