Thursday, 15 November 2012

Film Review: Jonathan of the Bears

This is a review of an 'interesting' 1990s film, called 'Jonathan of the Bears'...

Franco Nero and Floyd Red Crow Westerman are the notable names in what amounts to a Russian re-imagining of spaghetti western madness with a nod to Keoma.

Review by: Zack Wilson, the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Franco Nero has done some interesting things in his career, with the Italian starring in the iconic and influential Django as well as helping make acid western Keoma more than just notable. It's probably fair to say though that Jonathan of the Bears (Jonathan degli orsi) will not be remembered as one of his finest moments.

Not that there isn't much one might think one would enjoy in this bizarre Russian/Italian co-production of a spaghetti western from 1993. The film presents a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, and even, perhaps uniquely for a European western, has a real Lakota in it, Floyd Red Crow Westerman.

Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma

Enzo G. Castellari also directs, renewing the partnership with Nero which produced Keoma, viewed by many as the film which brought down the curtain on the spaghetti western era.

The film even looks like it could actually set in America, albeit the pine woods of the North West rather than the Great Plains. But things get a little weirder after that.

The plot is patently absurd, to start with. Nero plays the son of seemingly Eastern European immigrants to the New World, who are ambushed by outlaws. His parents are killed, but the young Jonathan escapes to be raised, or so it appears, by bears. Then he runs into some Native Americans, who seem to raise him as one of their own, though there is an opaque sense to many of the events in the film. Whether this is deliberate or not is hard to decide, but one would guess not.

The film works hard to be true to the genre it is paying homage to anyway. There are flashbacks, theatrical shoot-outs and enough badly-written pseudo philosophical one-liners to keep fans of spaghetti westerns happy in spotting the references. But none of it makes much sense.

Django and Sartana

Nero seems in many ways to be playing a character very similar to the one he portrayed in Keoma back in the 1970s. Indeed, this film could almost be considered a Keoma film, in the sense that Django and Sartana and others prompted hundreds of supposed sequels and prequels that related with varying degrees of specificity to the original movies.

The way the film constructs its flashbacks is also very reminiscent of Castellari's earlier work. Nero's character sees the characters from his memories in front of him, just as in Castellari's 70s cult classic. Jonathan, like Keoma (who was after all followed around by an old woman who turns out to be Death), is also an almost super-natural avenger figure fighting on behalf of the Indians. His line "a man without freedom is dead anyway" clearly recalls the concluding line of Castellari's earlier film.

There is also a nod to Django, with a shoot-out scene set in an Indian burial ground, referred to as a "cemetery" throughout. Jonathan's surname is Kowalski, surely a nod to Nero's role in The Mercenary, especially as the film is dedicated to old master Sergio Corbucci.

Ennio Morricone and Leonard Cohen

The music of the film is a parody of Ennio Morricone by and large, though are some songs with wince-inducing lyrics, with Nero seemingly at one stage emulating his appalling Leonard Cohen impressions from Keoma and singing himself. Navajo singer Knifewing Segura also provides a catchy tune or two along the way, as well as adding some martial arts action to his role as Nero's adopted brother.


Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Sergio Leone-style lingering close-ups of faces are another clear nod to the genre, although to even use the name of the great Italian in relation to this film feels more than a little sacrilegious. Castellari could have done a lot better. There is a sense that he is working too hard on the homage and not hard enough on the originality, although the film's historical references could certainly be construed as original and imaginative.

There is no sense of discernible history in the film at all. There are so many anachronisms in terms of weaponry, clothing, infrastructure, the historical narrative of the West and just about everything else that it is wise to stop counting.

There is a clear political message though. The oil-drilling (yes, oil drilling) capitalists who come to the town to drill offer the oppressed of the town: "a paradise, where money flows with wine and women of all colours and shapes." They are clearly not to be trusted, especially not when it is announced later that "progress will win and they will die" in relation to the Indians.

Spaghetti Western Crucifixion

The townsfolk torture Jonathan, giving us a typically spaghetti western crucifixion/hero as Christ scene, in which Nero's character is eventually freed by a black man dressed in a white suit. Indeed, African Americans are portrayed positively in the film, in another nod to Keoma, in which Woody Strode played an alcoholic who redeemed himself. One of the concluding shots of a man playing a guitar whilst Jonathan rides away into the sunset is a clear reference to Strode's banjo playing wino.

But the fun in the film comes from spotting the references to older films. Much of the camera work, particularly that involving the bears, lacks continuity and has a jerky, hallucinogenic feel, and not in a good way. This is the kind of reality-bending associated with low-grade recreational chemicals, anxious rather than transcendent., although a huge orange explosion towards the end is certainly worth waiting for.

All in all, Jonathan of the Bears is more a footnote to some interesting careers rather than a bold concluding chapter. One for completists of the genre or the obsessively enthusiastic; casual viewers should probably save it until after the pub on a Friday night, with something exotic to smoke as an accompaniment.

The original of this article appeared at Suite101:

 Zack Wilson is the author of 'Stumbles and Half Slips' from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

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