‘A Town Called Hell’ Divides the Argument Over What Is a Spaghetti Western

Blood and sweat, revolution and revenge, close-up shots and sun-baked sets, and anti-heroes and voluptuous vixens -- is that enough?

At the start of A Town Called Hell (1971) the always fantastic Robert Shaw, in what is arguably his only foray into the spaghetti western genre, goes by the name Aguila and is shown leading an army of Mexican revolutionaries as they brutally shoot down a group of federal soldiers along with every nearby innocent.

Ten years goes by, and we see that this Aguila has forsaken his name and become a priest of a small village in an attempt to hide from his past. But when a widow named Alvira (Stella Stevens), whose husband was one of the murdered innocents, arrives to the town, Aguila’s past comes back to haunt him.

Alvira offers a carriage full of gold to anyone that can help her get revenge on her husband’s murderer, which launches the corrupt town tyrant, Don Carlos (Telly Savannas), into a haphazardly manic and incredibly violent search for a man named Aguila who, little does he know, is preaching right under his nose.

Things get even more difficult for the hiding Aguila when Colonel Benito (Martin Landau), an old comrade and friend of his during the Mexican revolution, arrives to the town. In the decade since the revolution, this Benito has joined the Mexican army and is now on a official mission to kill Aguila.

Because more than enough of the expected genre conventions are present — blood and sweat, revolution and revenge, close-up shots and sun-baked sets, and anti-heroes and voluptuous vixens — most cinephiles, myself included, will categorize A Town Called Hell as a spaghetti western without a doubt. But some of the more anal fans of this genre beg to differ. They don’t believe the film qualifies as a spaghetti western because it is neither directed nor produced by an Italian.

The problem is that no two fans of this genre seem to agree on the specifics of what does and what doesn’t make a spaghetti western a spaghetti western, or where to draw the Euro-western line. While most agree that the genre’s title should apply to any Italian produced and directed western from the ‘60s and ‘70s shot on location in the American southwest-looking deserts of southern Spain, there is no concrete, agreed upon definition that encompasses every spaghetti western.

It is, for example, true that most spaghetti westerns have post-synched audio due to their multilingual casts and also that they all ooze with a style far removed from the standard Hollywood western. However, there’s little consistency in the make-up of these casts with the ratios between Spaniards, Germans, up-and-coming or has-been American actors, and Italians differing entirely with each film. And although most of these films are all heavily stylized to emphasize violence, revel in their anti-heroes, and both demystify and glorify the Wild West of the American frontier, the goals and results of the many directors in the genre vary widely.

A Town Called Hell doesn’t have any Italians credited in its production, which automatically puts it on the fringes of the genre. However, because it was filmed in the deserts of southern Spain, released when the genre was still at its peak, stylized in the Sergio Leone tradition, and infused with many of the genre’s most familiar faces such as Fernando Rey, Aldo Sambrell,Tito Garcia,Cris Huerta, and Antonio Mayans in minor roles, it should definitely be considered a spaghetti western. Only the most demented and devoted advocates of the devil would disagree.

With that said, the film isn’t a very good spaghetti western. The cast is astonishing on paper and Shaw, Stevens, Savalas, and Landau all live up to their well-deserved reputations as thespians of the highest order. Savalas is particularly good in his role as the town’s manic tyrant who sits sweating in a chair with a military jacket draped over his bulking shoulders while laughing, sweating, smoking, and ordering executions. But he is killed off way too early in the film and everything that follows is confusing.

While the story by Richard Aubrey is good, it seems to be too complex for director Robert Parrish to tell with any clarity. He has difficulty handling all the characters, and the far too lengthy flashbacks that are meant to make some sense of their backstories only confuses you further. The pace is erratic and the editing must have been rushed. A Town Called Hell doesn’t live up to its potential, but it’s definitely a spaghetti western.

RATING 4 / 10