Thursday, 22 November 2012

Spaghetti Western Film Review: Return of Ringo

This review of a spaghetti western classic first appeared at:

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

Il ritorno di Ringo (to give the film its Italian title) begins with some truly spectacular use of a typical Spaghetti Western theme song, in this case delivered by the sublime voice of Maurizio Graf. Not only is the music the perfect balance between overblown theatricality and serious drama, but the opening shot of an empty plain, defined only by the black figure of a horseman in the distance, provides a useful metaphor for the film's themes of a returning avenger.

Not that this should really be seen as a 'Return' for the Ringo character Gemma played in the earlier A Pistol For Ringo. This character is completely different, and indeed is only called 'Ringo' when the actor speaking the name has his or her back turned, which probably means the references were dubbed in later when it was decided to cash in on the success of the earlier film.

What makes the issue a little more confusing is that the two films share an almost identical cast. However, Gemma's portrayal of this Ringo in the first five minutes of the movie makes it clear we are dealing with an entirely different character.

Una Pistola Per Ringo

His Union blue uniform may be a little costume store, but Montgomery Brown's white hair, accentuated scar and trembling cheek mean that Gemma is portraying a character who is carrying some amount of trauma around with him. The efficient way he outwits two would-be assassins in the opening scene of the film in the tavern also shows that this is less childlike, much more sinister character than the original Ringo of 'A Pistol For Ringo'.

It's clear he likes a drink too, lying on a bunk when we next see him, slumping languidly and dangerously with an empty bottle in his hand. That bottle then gets smashed on the floor. This is a soldier with issues: anger, disappointment and violence have clearly taken their toll, despite Gemma's natural jauntiness and good humour informing aspects of his performance.

He then changes himself, disguising himself as a Mexican for the purposes of outwitting the Fuentes brothers who have taken over his hometown of Mimbres, appropriating the town's gold for themselves and telling the Anglo inhabitants that it's on Mexican territory.

His friend the barman obtains the herbs for the disguise from a Native American, who looks more like a Hippie, dispensing potions and dried herbs from a mountain retreat. In fact, given the film's 1965 date, one can speculate (with tongue firmly in cheek) whether this is perhaps the first depiction of a Hippie on the silver screen.

Nieves Navarro & Fernando Sancho

Our introduction to the Mexican gang is where things start to get Spaghetti Western interesting though. Fernando Sancho is in typically excellent form, infusing the role of Esteban Fuentes with his usual gusto and Latin bombast. His brother, played by George Martin, is a blue-eyed bully whose suaveness works well alongside the more bestial Sancho.

Nieves Navarro, meanwhile, is as sexily vulpine as her name suggests; the beauty spot on her cheek forming an interesting comparison with Ringo's own scar, prompting thoughts that perhaps her character, Rosita, not Hally Montgomery, is Ringo's true match. Not that the drunken Ringo welcomes her attentions and her foxy invitation to read the Tarot for him. Rosita appears to be Esteban Fuentes' girlfriend, but her attitude to monogamy is apparently much the same as the Fuentes' attitude to human life.

Sancho and Martin are such perfectly arrogant Latin pseudo-aristocrats that one sometimes cannot help but admire them , their post-funeral ambush of an assassination attempt being one such occasion. The film's conceit of Mexicans oppressing Anglo-Americans would be absurd to anyone without nutty far-right tendencies, but Sancho and Martin never make it absurd within the context of the film. They are more Old World than New though, and they more resemble something from Franco's Spain rather than 19th Century New Mexico.

It can sometimes be difficult to suspend disbelief about the film being set in America, the settings look so European to a knowledgeable eye, with the showdown scenes at the mansion occasionally resembling a violent garden party rather than an Old West shootout. But the film is realistic to itself and in its own contexts, so the shortcomings of setting do not jar as much as they can in other European Westerns.

Callous violence and flower arranging

There is plenty of callous violence from the oppressors to keep us interested, whilst another surreal twist sees the disguised Ringo working as a florist's assistant whilst hanging about not really plotting his revenge. Indeed, there is a lot of aimless hanging around from the eponymous hero, with him at one stage even whining: "It's too much for just one man. And I've got a broken gun hand!"

Tellingly, Rosita is the person who provokes him into action, reading the Tarot cards and saying, "A man who hopes, fears." She shows him a card, adding, "You see? Now you're afraid." The gunfighter then begins his one handed target practice, his determination restored by his knowing that he was afraid of fear itself.

Rainbow Coalition

The coalition Ringo puts together to beat the Fuentes is such a collection of misfits and the oppressed that perhaps we are given a glimpse into the film's true political message. A bar tender, a Native American, a flower arranger and a prostitute all work together under Montgomery Brown's direction to foil the Fuentes' savage plans for Mimbres, with even Ringo's impossibly cute daughter lending a hand to bring about a conventionally happy ending.

Keen eyed viewers will spot nods to 'Frankenstein' as well as Shakespearean attitudes to disguise along the way, and there is some admirably skilled direction and camera work in what is a very satisfying Spaghetti Western all round; a film which completists should own and everyone interested in film should see at least once.

Remember that my debut novel 'Stumbles and Half Slips'  is out, from Epic Rites Press. Also available from

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