'Savage Guns' Is Not the Best, But the First of Its Genre

Before film audiences got A Fistful of Dollars, they got their first taste of the Spaghetti Western in 1961 with the release of The Savage Guns.

The Savage Guns

Director: Michael Carreras
Cast: Richard Basehart, Paquita Rico, Don Taylor, Alex Nicol, Fernando Rey, María Granada, José Nieto, Ví­ctor Israel, Rafael Albaicí­n, Manolita Barroso, Ví­ctor Bayo, Xan das Bolas, Pilar Caballero, Francisco Camoiras, Félix Fernández, Antonio Fuentes, José Manuel Martín (Segura), Sergio Mendizábal, Manolo Peiia, Alfonso Rojas, Rafael Vaquero
MPAA Rating: NR
Studio: MGM
Year: 1961
US Release Date: 1962-10-01

A Spaghetti Western is a title that generally refers to any Italian produced and directed western from the '60s and '70s that has post-synched audio due to a multilingual cast of Spaniards, Germans, and up-and-coming or has-been American actors, in addition to Italians. Because they were often low-budget productions, directors shot them at locations in Europe—usually southern Spain or Italy—that resemble the American Southwest. At first, like all Euro Westerns, they sought to reproduce the characters and places from the traditional westerns that Hollywood had long used as vehicles for box-office juggernauts like John Wayne. But because of the artistic and political sensibilities of their Italian filmmakers, even the earliest Spaghetti Westerns oozed with a style and substance that was far removed from any Hollywood western.  

While Hollywood manufactured its westerns using carefully regulated formulas meant to turn an easy profit, low-budget Spaghetti Westerns were put together by small crews and featured unknown or has-been actors who worked to fulfill one man's vision. Since this one man was, more often than not, an Italian director outside the confines of the big studio system, he was able to take risks, and it was these risks that eventually created the foundation of the genre. In contrast to traditional westerns, the men in Spaghetti Westerns are dirty, the women are sensual, the violence is extreme, the music is experimental, the cinematography raw, and the themes thoughtful.

Although the ingredients that make-up the genre's foundation were not blended together into a flavorful whole until Sergio Leone, the master chef of Italy, came onto the scene with his 1964 Clint Eastwood classic Fistful of Dollars, audiences got their first taste of the Spaghetti Western in 1961 with the release of The Savage Guns. Taking place near the American-Mexican border in 1870, the film tells the tale of a retired Confederate officer named Mike Summers (Don Taylor) who, after vowing to never use his gun again, has settled down in a small town where he hopes to live at peace with his wife. The town of his choosing, however, is soon terrorized by Danny Pose (Alex Nicol), the violent leader of a gang of outlaws. Summer avoids picking up his gun for as long as he can, but when the drifting gunslinger Steve Fallon (Richard Basehart) comes to town and confronts Pose and his gang, Summer has no choice but to help.   

I can't offer an accurate review of the film, because its English version is buried deep in the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) archives and is shown so infrequently that I couldn't find a single bootleg copy, which forced me to watch it in Spanish, a language I don't speak. But I can say that in spite of it being a British rather than Italian production, missing the operatic musical score that would later define the genre, having a lead actor who tries way too hard to imitate John Wayne, and being overly reliant on dialogue (though this conclusion of mine could be due to the language barrier), The Savage Guns did evoke enough of what I know as a Spaghetti Western for me to consider it the beginning of the genre.  

Supposedly, it was the first western shot on location in southern Spain, and regardless of whether this is true or not, The Savage Guns is certainly the first western to put that beautifully colorless wasteland of a desert on full display. If the soulless town and hellish agaves of the film are not enough to conjure the feeling that later Spaghetti Westerns would embrace, the supporting cast of Spanish B-actors playing Mexican outlaws along with the anti-hero protagonists—"the good and the bad, the strong and the weak," the trailer for the film states, "sometimes it was hard to tell which was which"—certainly does. Then there is the splendidly violent scene in which the gunslinger Fallon's hands are crushed under the wheels of a wagon, which obviously inspired the hand-crushing scene in Django (1966), one of the best films of the genre.

Since I watched The Savage Guns in Spanish, I can't comment too much on the story, but I can say that the gunplay is better than the standard Hollywood affair in its creativity and immediacy. Towards the end of the film, for example, the character of Fallon shoots down a line of outlaws when their backs are turned to him. I can't recall any John Wayne-type protagonist ever doing, or even considering, such an act. And it's these types of desperate anarchic acts of violent vengeance that give Spaghetti Westerns their edge; it's how they, at their best, exploit the virtues of the traditional Hollywood western while subverting the morality of them. While The Savage Guns is nowhere close to being the best the genre has to offer, it is the first offering of its kind, and for that reason alone it's worth learning Spanish, or at least sending TCM a letter requesting them to release the English version to the public.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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