CAUTION: CONTAINS “SPOILERS”
Sergio Corbucci’s 1967 film “Hellbenders” (“I crudeli”) is a bit less visually flamboyant than some of his better-known westerns and unfortunately less well-known. The title refers to a regiment of Confederate cavalrymen led by the ruthless Col. Jonas. This was one of Joseph Cotten’s better late-career roles. By now he had pretty much settled into playing villain roles–dope-dealing doctors, ruthless Hollywood moguls, ghoulish noblemen raised from the dead via ancient incantations–and Cotten’s hard blue eyes let audiences forget that he had ever played such softies as “Broadway Jed” Leland, Eugene Morgan and Holly Martins. His Jonas refuses to accept the fact of Lee’s surrender and with his three sons has an audacious plan to re-ignite the Civil War in the Southwest–a sort of Confederate John Brown. The plan he hatches involves the hijacking of a Yankee convoy conveying old, worn-out greenbacks to be destroyed. The hijacking involves murdering every trooper in the convoy which makes the Jonas clan a very wanted crew.
The resourceful Jonas has an answer for that. The stolen loot will be nailed inside an empty coffin, the coffin will be draped with the regimental Hellbenders flag, and the money becomes Capt. Ambrose Allen, Col. Jonas’ son-in-law, fallen in combat and now being escorted to the family ranch for burial. There’s a coffin, a bogus permit signed by a Yankee general and a bogus grieving widow to complete the picture. What could go wrong? Nearly everything.
The Widow Allen is Kitty, an alcoholic prostitute who has dreams of absconding with Jonas’ booty to buy herself lots of pretties. Jeff, Jonas’ drooling idiot son has dreams of raping Kitty and takes rejection badly. Claire, the replacement Widow Allen recruited by Jonas’ smart son Ben, is a gambler and is smart enough to know that she’ll never see the $2,000 promised her by Jonas when they reach his ranch. She saves the day for Jonas when a suspicious posse tries opening the coffin by fainting over it, but then nearly blows Jonas’ plan to smithereens by first agreeing to visit the fort commanded by her late “husband” before the war and then agreeing to allow his burial in the fort cemetery. But the ever resourceful Jonas orders the boys to dig the coffin up again in the dead of night and in the midst of a rainstorm.
“Hellbenders” is an episodic film–there are encounters with posses, encounters with Indians, encounters with Mexican bandits (led by the redoubtable Aldo Sambrell), encounters with demented desert rats–and each frays the fabric of Jonas’ dream a little more. Jonas despised Kitty for her boozing and warned his boys to stay off of it for the duration, yet by the closing episodes of the film he himself is hitting the bottle. When Sambrell’s bandit leader Pedro, about to be hanged at the fort Capt. Allen once commanded, mockingly tells Jonas that he’ll see him in Hell, it perhaps unnerves him. He would be even more unnerved to learn that crazy son Jeff and quiet son Nat plan to steal the money and take off for parts unknown.
Everything comes to a head when the brothers shoot it out and the good brother, Ben, tries to intervene. When the smoke clears Jonas has no sons, but he still has his money and his dream. Himself mortally wounded, he gamely attempts to drag the coffin to the river that separates him from his ranch, but it slips from his grasp and breaks open–revealing the dead bandit. In the confusion of the driving rain the sons had dug up the wrong grave. Jonas indeed meets Pedro one last time, and he didn’t even have to go to Hell to do it. As he dies, the Hellbenders flag floats in the Hondo River and slowly sinks to the accompaniment of Ennio Morricone’s mournful trumpet theme.
“Hellbenders” gives the lie to a lot of careless assumptions made about the Italian westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. It is tightly plotted, not scatter-shot or logic-free, despite its being a “road movie” dealing with the various travails that Col. Jonas and his sons encounter en route to their far-away home. It is well-acted with the rest of the cast taking their cues from Cotten’s buttoned-down performance–no grimaces or eye-popping. Maria Martin may overdone the drunken whore routine a bit–although this may also have been a fault of the actress doing the dubbing, but Norma Bengell’s Claire is a well-crafted performance as she moves from being an independent woman to a pawn in Jonas’ plot and from a woman determined to survive to a woman coming to terms with her own immanent death. There are no “goof-ball moments,” no throw-away comic bits, Al Mulock’s desert rat appears to be going that route, but Ugo Liberatore’s script quickly pulls us back from the comedic as Mulock’s crazy old coot soon proves himself to be anything but. This is one very serious western-adventure. “Hellbenders,” like “Navajo Joe” and, to a lesser extent, “Minnesota Clay,” all early Corbucci westerns, serve as necessary correctives to the view we may have of Corbucci if we watch only films like “Django,” “A Professional Gun,” Companeros!” and “Sonny and Jed”–entertaining as these films may be. “Hellbenders” is certainly a film that deserves to be better known.