Film reviews

The Specialists (1969) – Blu-ray Review

A feature set in America’s Old West, filmed in the Italian mountains, starring France’s answer to Elvis Presley, and featuring a bunch of hippies. Sergio Corbucci’s movie The Specialists (Gli Specialisti) definitely isn’t your average cowboy picture.

‘Spaghetti Western’ is a truly fascinating genre-within-a-genre, or perhaps it could be considered a subset. It dates all the way back to 1913, with La Vampira Indiana, which was a hybrid of Western and vampire pictures, made in Italy by director Vincenzo Leone, father of the legendary Sergio Leone, a man who helped make Spaghetti Westerns known globally with his Dollars trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name.

The heyday of the Spaghetti Western was in the 1960s and 1970s, with multiple movies being churned out in a bid to make as much money as possible before the format fell out of favour. Usually they feature a multi-national cast, with the films being dubbed into a single language for the target market; shooting would be carried out in Italy, with international co-productions often being the order of the day. As a genre of its own, it burnt brightly and also left an indelible mark on cinema.

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Besides Leone’s noteworthy contributions, one of the most infamous examples is Django, which is renowned for being one of the most violent movies of the period, being refused a certification in the UK by the BBFC until 1993. It spawned dozens of ‘sequels’, many of which were unofficial, despite using the lead character. The Django movies had provided the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, with the original Django himself – Franco Nero – turning up in a cameo, as a homage.

The director and co-writer of Django was Sergio Corbucci, who was also behind The Specialists, a co-production with France and West Germany. Taking on the lead role of Hud Dixon was Johnny Hallyday, someone virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, but renowned within France as being the person who brought rock and roll to the country, and seen as the Gallic Elvis. Hallyday has been described as “the biggest rock star you have probably never heard of”. Like Elvis, Hallyday also had a movie career, but – unlike Presley – it wasn’t predicated solely upon him singing.

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In The Specialists, Hud (referred to throughout by his first name, which inspires a mixture of awe and fear, due to his infamy) is riding to the town of Blackstone, where his late brother was wrongly accused of robbing all the townsfolk’s money from the bank, resulting in his being lynched. Hud’s goal is to clear his brother’s name, by getting to the bottom of what really occurred, and in the process dealing with the town’s Sheriff, as well as the one-armed Mexican bandit El Diablo, who was a former friend of Hud.

Spaghetti Westerns tend to have their own very distinctive visual aesthetic and texture, due in part to all their filming locatIons being outside of America; this is very apparent in The Specialists, where the prairies, flatlands and deserts you’d usually associate with the Wild West are replaced by the largely verdant mountainous terrain of the Dolomites. However, there’s still plenty of familiar-looking Western touchstones, like a beautifully-shot sequence of Hud and Sheriff Gedeon (Gastone Moschin) riding through a canyon along a dried-up riverbed.

It’s also highly stylised in terms of the costumes being a rather ‘60s-inspired take on traditional Western garb in places, incorporating some of the influences of the era in which it was filmed. One of the most notable differences comes in the form of Hud’s waistcoat, which is made of chainmail, rather than conventional fabric – it appears to be dictated by the needs of the script, instead of being an outré decision by the costume designer.

Perhaps the most jarring break with the traditional look of the Western comes with the inclusion of a group of hippies, an anachronism which stands out starkly against the usual American frontier trappings. The decision for styling them in this distinct way is all down to Corbucci having become disenchanted with the counterculture of the time, and his wanting to use this as a vehicle for his retaliation against hippies and all they stood for, hence his artistic choice to portray them in an unflattering light.

The Specialists certainly bears many of the hallmarks of the Spaghetti Western, such as having the enigmatic lone hero hell-bent upon seeking vengeance and justice. With this Blu-ray release, Eureka! has done a fine job of making sure that not only is the movie given some context within the genre as a whole, but also ensuring plenty of essential background is given for those not well-versed in Spaghetti Westerns. A limited edition version of the Blu-ray contains a collector’s booklet about the movie by Western authority Howard Hughes.

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There’s also an exclusive interview with Austin Fisher, the author of Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western, as well as a commentary track by filmmaker Alex Cox. While Cox is probably best known either for films like Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, or for the six years fronting BBC Two’s Moviedrome, he’s also written 10,000 Ways To Die, a book all about the Spaghetti Western, so he manages to provide an informed look deeper into the movie.

For the linguists (as well as purists) in the audience, there are original French and Italian dubs of the film, along with the corresponding trailers. For the less adept, there’s also a partial English dub, which was taken from an edited release of The Specialists in the UK, under the title Drop Them Or I’ll Shoot (the relevance of which is rather starkly revealed towards the end of the picture); while incomplete, it at least gives the viewer an option to avoid watching the film with subtitles, for the most part.

Something of a curate’s egg as a film, this Blu-ray release by Eureka! does manage to make this particular Spaghetti Western accessible, rather than being something purely for the specialists.

The Specialists is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.

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