- Directed by Michael Winner
- May 25, 1972 (US)
A half-Apache is wrongly pursued by a posse of ex-Confederate soldiers and their sympathizers, but it soon becomes clear that they have bitten off more than you can chew.
It is a scientific fact you really can’t go wrong with a movie containing Charles Bronson. Seriously. He is one of the classic film tough guys. He just stepped on the screen and you knew his character was tough. Bronson did not have to say or do anything. And despite some of his better known films, it helps that he was a talented actor that could handle quality material.
As Chato, Bronson utters very little dialogue during the course of the film. I believe his first line of dialogue is in English with the remainder in the character’s native Apache language. Truth be told despite the name of his character in the title, Chato is in very little of the film but Bronson does a lot with what little he has. He makes Chato’s a genuine threat to the posse that’s after him. He’s almost a supernatural force who is able to take out his pursuers through superior skill and cunning. From the start his character is in control of the entire situation even if the posse believes otherwise.
Normally it would feel like a bait and switch with Chato being more of a background character than a central figure in what we see on screen. Though he is not in the majority of the film he has a presence throughout. Somehow director Winner made the minor character the main character and the main characters the minor characters.
Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance) and the members of his posse are much more significant characters than Chato is when it comes to screen time. Because of them this story touches on racism in that some members of the posse are driven by a sense of justice based on a flawed story they’ve been told by the surviving witness Martin Hall (Victor French) that plays into their prejudices. Others are driven to go after Chato based on pure racism and need no real excuse.
Whitmore is clearly a bigot, but he is a little more complex than that as well. He really believes the story but as the narrative of the film goes on the character slowly comes to the realization that not only is the story he was told not entirely true but that this pursuit is against a much superior individual than any one or the entirety of the posse he has assembled are equipped to handle.
Some have suggested this is a thinly veiled allegory to Vietnam. Whitmore is the US with Chato being the Vietnamese. I can see the parallels and given when this came out this somewhat revisionist Western could be making a comment of the Vietnam War. That is the beauty of a good concept: it can be taken as is or something deeper.
As the story goes along Chato embraces his Apache heritage to the point of eventually shedding European dress. The posse begins to fall apart as what they believed would be a short and easy effort drags on and costs lives. They succumb to infighting and hatred and an unwillingness to know when to quit. All things people at the time saw in Vietnam.
You could even take Whitmore’s realization of his group being in over their heads as a realization of the wrongness of racism by an individual. Unfortunately realizations like that often come to eat in life much as it did in this film.
If nothing else you could take Chato’s Land as a great story where the hunted becomes the hunter and supposedly righteous men are quickly revealed to be the monsters that they truly are. The film is brutal and does a great job of portraying the downward spiral of the posse. These are men who feel entitled to the land and think everyone that is not white is a mindless savage.
These men go out and destroy and rape and pillage all in the name of whatever they view justice to be. And there’s Earl Hooker (the late, great Richard Jordan) who gets a bit of poetic justice from Chato. Earl has taken a serious interest in Chato’s wife and decides he is going to keep her once they deal with Chato. Chato catches Earl and the posse eventually finds Earl dead with his crotch burned. Holy crap! That was perhaps one of the best hits of violent justice I have ever seen on film.
Chato’s Land is a great bit of old Hollywood Western genre filmmaking with some more modern sensibilities. With names like Bronson and Palance in the two significant roles of the movie, you are delivered a great film. I highly recommend this one!