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Off The Chain: ‘100 Rifles’ & ‘Wild Wild West’

Django Unchained : Off The Chain '100 Rifles' & 'Wild Wild West'
To mark the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Southern-Fried Western, Django Unchained, Movie-Moron is taking a look at the cinematic rarity that is the black cowboy film. We’ll be highlighting some good, bad and downright ugly movies, and we’d like to have you along for the ride. So, welcome to the first grindhouse style double-feature in the series – Now Showing: 100 Rifles & Wild Wild West.

Django Unchained : Off The Chain

Given the time during which Westerns were at the height of their popularity it’s not really too surprising that black cowboy films never flooded the market, despite the fact that there were in the region of 10,000 black cowboys in the old West, Oklahoma was once home to a major black community, and THIS badass existed, Westerns with black leads are few and far between. Legendary director John Ford broke the mould in 1960 with Sergeant Rutledge, which saw former athlete Woody Strode – who gave a Golden Globe nominated performance in Spartacus that same year – star as the titular US cavalry sergeant on trial for rape and murder. At the end of the decade another sports star, Jim Brown, would saddle up as Arizona lawman Lyedecker in 100 Rifles, bringing his perfect afro and fashionable sideburns with him.

Django Unchained : Off The Chain
Jim Brown’s Lyedecker becomes embroiled in the affairs of Native Americans when the bank robber he’s pursued to Mexico (Burt Reynolds as Yaqui Joe) turns out to have used the money to fund a revolt. And it doesn’t hurt that the beautiful Sarita (Raquel Welch) is a part of it. The movie opens with stylish and colourful opening titles, accompanied by a GREAT theme by Jerry Goldsmith. It’s good. Like, Magnificent Seven good, listen:

100 Rifles: Main Title by Jerry Goldsmith on Grooveshark

See? The first character introduced is Raquel Welch’s Sarita, sharing water with a Native American about to be hanged out side of town. It’s a small, personal moment that sets up the stakes, made even clearer when we see a hanging taking place in the town en masse – the Yaqui people are being killed fairly indiscriminately. Yaqui Joe is in bed in that same town, with a prostitute who he can’t afford despite having stolen $6000 not long ago, when Lyedecker comes looking for him. Yaqui Joe exposes himself by having a fight with the prostitute on a balcony, providing a distraction for those about to be executed to take advantage of, but that of course means he’s apprehended. “On foot, on horseback or hanging across the saddle, you’re going back” are Lyedecker’s words to Yaqui Joe, and he has every intention of making that happen, no matter how persuasive Yaqui Joe might be or how complicated the situation gets. To quote him yet again “Ain’t my BIDNESS, ain’t my FIGHT, and it ain’t my JOB!”

I have to say it’s a bit weird that Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds are playing Native Americans, but then Burt Reynolds is playing a biracial Native American and does some Native American ancestry, so there’s that. And this was the 60s, it’s not like Johnny Depp is Tonto in the upcoming Lone Ranger movie or anything, right? We’ve progressed.

My favourite moments from the film include Raquel Welch flashing a guy and then stabbing him with a twig (it’s pretty awesome) and some hilarious bad guy posturing from Fernando Lamas in a bathtub (below). The production is notable for being the first major Hollywood picture with an interracial love scene.

Django Unchained : Off The Chain

Django Unchained : Off The Chain

A few decades later, despite not being a former athlete like Woody Strode and Jim Brown (although I have it on good authority that he has experience chilling out, maxing, relaxing all cool and shooting some b-ball outside of the school), Will Smith would take on the role of Jim West in the big screen version of the hit 60s TV show The Wild Wild West. It’s a shame Will Smith took this on but allegedly passed on Django Unchained… granted, re-teaming with Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld for a steampunk cowboy caper seems like a smart move, but the movie is a serious disappointment that’s less than the sum of its parts. Introducing us to the kind of zany contraptions that the movie is chock full of, the opening is a decapitation sequence by way of a magnetic collar and razor-tipped Frisbee. It’s off the wall, and should be crazy fun, but manages to be underwhelming regardless, which can be said of the rest of the movie too.

Django Unchained : Off The Chain
Django Unchained : Off The Chain
The opening titles are evocative of the era of the original show, but contemporary at the same time, and although you can see what they’re going for and why they’re going for it, it fails to work. Not a strong opening. The plot revolves around Jim West and Artemus Gordon (Kevin Kline) trying to thwart the evil genius known as Loveless (Kenneth Branagh) from assassinating the president with the aid of kidnapped scientists. Jim West also has a personal score to settle with Loveless, and they trade several race/disability-related barbs over the course of the movie to emphasize their dislike of one another. Kenneth Branagh and Kenneth Branagh’s facial hair ham it up nicely as Loveless, and there’s a reasonably grotesque secondary villain with an ear trumpet fixed to his head permanently, but neither is quite as frightening as the sight of Kevin Kline in drag.

Django Unchained : Off The Chain '100 Rifles' & 'Wild Wild West'
Django Unchained Off The Chain
Elmer Bernstein provides the score here, but despite being a great composer and an OBVIOUS choice, he really doesn’t fit the vibe they seem to want. It’s a score for a very traditional movie, and this isn’t that. Highlights include Will Smith smooth talking his way out of a hanging, lowlights include Kline’s dual role as Gordon and the president. It’s a movie that really just makes you want to watch Back to the Future 3, but at least it closes with the memorable hip-hop theme song!

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