Film

'Gunfight at Red Sands' Is Not, As the Lyrics to Its Featured Track Suggest, a Racist Film

Gunfight at Red Sands is the best Spaghetti Western I have seen that was made before Sergio Leone's genre defining Fistful of Dollars.


Gunfight at Red Sands

Director: Ricardo Biasco
Cast: Richard Harrison, Giacomo Rossi-Stuart, Mikaela, Sara Lezana, Daniel Martin
Italy and Spain Release Date: 1963-09-19

Featuring Ennio Morricone's first western score, Gunfight at Red Sands (1963) is the best Spaghetti Western I have seen that was made before -- and therefore not influenced by -- Sergio Leone's genre defining Fistfull of Dollars (1964). Much like its opening and closing song, "A Gringo Like Me," which Morricone composed for the all-American folk singer Peter Tevis, the film works within the boring boundaries established by early American westerns while embracing the creative conventions developed by Spaghetti Westerns.

Here are some examples of how Gunfight at Red Sands manages to walk what is essentially a barbed-wire fence separating the two western sub-genres: there's the predictable American do-gooder of a lead in Gringo (Richard Harrison), but there's also the emotionally complex and morally conflicted Mexican mistress in Maria (Mikaela); it's set in the typical Hollywood Wild West town populated by a bunch of on-looking innocents, but the town is bordering Mexico and has the colorless backdrop of the spanish Almeria desert; the entertaining fistfights are straight-out of the excessively choreographed early American westerns, but the final showdown has the tension that became the garlic bread of Spaghetti Westerns and it consequently provides a satisfying, sauce-soaking conclusion.

"Keep your hand on your gun / Don't you trust anyone / There's just one kind of man that you can trust / That's a dead man, or a gringo like me" -- are the Morricone lyrics Tevis sings to start and end Gunfight at Red Sands. They are, like the chords that frame them, rather straightforward. But their content, like the Morricone conducted orchestra, has force. It's a force the builds as the song progresses: "Be the first one to fire / Every man is a liar / There's just one kind of man who tells the truth / That's a dead man, or a gringo like me." And by the time Tevis howls out the last line in unison with the increasingly urgent Morricone instrumentals, we're convinced that what he's saying is true -- that there's just one kind of man we can trust and that's a dead man or a gringo like him.

Although the hero of the film is a gringo named Gringo, Gunfight at Red Sands is not, as the lyrics suggest, a racist film. Rather, it has an anti-racist theme running through it that is surprisingly effective in depicting the harsh hatred that many whites in the Wild West had of Mexicans. Throughout the film the grinning white villains make jokes about Mexicans smelling, and the friendly faced all-American looking but corrupt Sheriff Corbett (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart) is the blue-print for today's racial-profiling lawman. The entire film, in fact, is based around what the Mexican Lisa Martinez (Sara Lezana) explains to her adopted older brother Gringo the gringo: "For Mexicans there is only one law -- kill or be killed."

What is most impressive about the film's commentary on racism is that it isn't preachy. Instead, the writers of -- Albert Band along with its director Ricardo Blasco -- expertly infuse it into the story. On paper, the story is just a mediocre tale of vengeance that follows Gringo who, after fighting in the Mexican civil war, returns to his adoptive family to find his Mexican father murdered and, as he searches for the murderers, learns that the money-hungry Sheriff Corbett has something to do with it. But the story's lack of originality is easy to forgive because of its well-structured screenplay which balances the exposition, romance, and action of the tale in equal measures.

It's obvious that the screenplay went through as many drafts as needed, and this I credit to producers Arrigo Colombo and Giorgio Papi (of Jolly Films) because just a year later in 1964 they produced Leone's trendsetting, equally well written Fistful of Dollars. And like that first Leone film, Gunfight of Red Sands has a solid cast which Colombo and Papi in all likelihood also played a major role in putting together. Blasco, the film's director, never again made a quality film -- or even had the opportunities to, for his filmography shows him working mostly in television in the following years -- so I doubt he was responsible for all the achievements of Gunfight of Red Sands.

But I will give the unknown Blasco credit for getting the best out of his cast. The acting is good across the board -- with Mikaela's depiction of the sensuous Mexican saloon keeper Maria verging on great. One of the all too frequent flaws of Spaghetti Westerns is that they suffer from weak spots in the cast. Even in some of the genre's very best films there are enormous gaps in the acting talent between the leads and the supporting roles... and occasionally there's an actor who is so bad compared to the rest of the cast that the entire film suffers as a result; Alberto Cevenini as Andy in Sergio Corbucci's Minnesota Clay, for instance, is so terrible that I refuse to ever watch that otherwise quality film again. Every actor in the cast of Gunfight of Red Sands, however, has at least some talent, and the film itself is easily the best pre-Leone Spaghetti Western available.

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