Yesteryear’s Westerns: China 9, Liberty 37 (1978)
by Fred Blosser
A lot of different things were going on in western movies over the decade from the mid 1960s to the mid 1970s. There were the traditional films starring old timers like John Wayne (“The Undefeated”) and James Stewart (“The Rare Breed”). There were the violent, closing-of-the-frontier psychodramas of Sam Peckinpah, almost a genre in themselves in terms of the sheer volume of critical writings they have engendered. The spaghetti westerns packed the drive-in theaters, and their American-made offshoots with Clint Eastwood benefitted from the star’s box-office draw, if you’ll excuse the gunslinging puns. There were westerns about teenagers growing up fast when they have to learn to use a six-shooter (“The Spikes Gang”), and revisionist, counter-culture westerns set in muddy, oppressive little frontier towns (“McCabe & Mrs. Miller”). There were Vietnam westerns (“Soldier Blue”), blacksploitation westerns (“Take a Hard Ride”), Nixon westerns (“Chisum”), and Watergate westerns (“Posse”).
By the late ‘70s, all of these categories were on the wane, and the western in general was on extreme life-support. The Duke had made his final film. Peckinpah had two more left, neither one a western. The spaghettis had run their course. And hippie movies, whether set in the past or the present, were passe. The growing conservatism of the Reagan years, coupled with the box-office and critical failure of “Heaven’s Gate” in 1981, would soon slam the lid on counter-culture westerns, at least for a long while.
Monte Hellman’s “China 9, Liberty 37” (1978), an odd Italian-Spanish-U.S. production and one of the few westerns released at the end of the ‘70s, was a late-era summation of the spaghetti, Peckinpah, and revisionist trends. I doubt that it has much appeal for today’s younger audiences, but western fans may be interested in its conglomeration of styles and its somewhat sad attempt to keep the genre alive in the dawning era of “Star Wars.”
In a cliche that reappeared in last year’s ill-conceived reboot of “The Lone Ranger,” big business casts an evil shadow over the frontier. The tycoons of the Great Southern Railroad free pistolero Clayton Drum (Fabio Testi) from hanging when he accepts their assignment to kill homesteader Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates). Sebanek, once a hired gun for the tycoons himself, owns a patch of land that the railroad wants. Drum and Sebanek strike up a friendship even though Drum has agreed to kill the older man, and Sebanek in turn suspects Drum. The relationship is also strained by a mutual infatuation between Drum and Sebanek’s young wife Catherine. And no wonder, since Catherine is played by Jenny Agutter, and the first time Drum sees her, she’s bathing in a stream nude.
I saw “China 9, Liberty 37” for the first time years and years ago on cable TV. Apparently an edited, pan-and-scan, public domain version is available in various PG-rated DVD editions, minus nude scenes. Watching it again on Turner Classic Movies recently in a nice, properly letterboxed print that restored the skin scenes, I found that the film was better than I remembered from watching it three decades ago on HBO. The romantic scenes drag, in a strange combination of R-rated nudity and soft-focus women’s-fantasy schmaltz, with syrupy background music by Pino Donaggio, but the shootouts are well staged, and Testi, Agutter, and especially Oates offer heartfelt performances.
Sam Peckinpah has a walk-on role as a greedy dime novelist who wants to buy the rights to Drum’s story. “My life isn’t for sale to anyone,” the gunslinger says. “Well,” the dime novelist responds, “it’s only a question of who pays, and when.” With his burned-out, imperturbable alcoholic’s gaze, Peckinpah looks amazingly like Gig Young at the forlorn end of his career in two of Sam’s own movies, “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia” and “The Killer Elite.”