Thursday, 22 April 2021

Five Bloody Graves

Yaqui Doodle Dandies

Five Bloody Graves
(aka Five Bloody Days To Tombstone)

Directed by Al Adamson
USA 1969 IIP/Severin Blu Ray Zone A

Warning: Some very slight spoilers here.

It’s ‘Cowboys and Indians’ time again for Al Adamson, as he follows in his father’s directing footsteps to produce this luridly titled Western, written by the main male lead Robert Dix as ex-lawman Ben Thompson. Now, in a ten minute extra which includes an interview with Dix (it must have been made shortly before he died in 2018), I learned that Ben Thompson was an actual person and a bit of a notorious one at that. Dix said that, because he wasn’t as well known as some of the Western legends, he wanted to write something which would highlight this character. That being said, when I looked at an article on Thompson’s life in preparation for this review, the short episode depicted by this movie has no resemblance to anything that actually happened (including the back story about what happened to the character’s wife) and so it would be fairly safe to say, I think, that this is a highly fictionalised account at best.

Also, just for the record, the title of this movie, Five Bloody Graves, is a bit questionable too. There are plenty of deaths here (way more than five) and the last shot of the film includes... um... four graves. So, yeah, not sure where that title comes from but, still, it sounds pretty good to me.

Anyway, once again Adamson surprises me because... it’s not a bad Western in some ways. Although, perhaps unsurprisingly, it also has it’s problems but, I know Adamson was always proud of what he could do for the incredibly low budgets he was working with so, yeah, this is pretty good for the money. A low budget western but it has some very nice things in it to counter the terrible stuff.

This film deals with a Yaqui called Sartago, who once shot Ben Thompson’s wife on their wedding day. So Ben wanders the land looking for the Yaquis in the hopes he can get his revenge and, along the way, makes friends and enemies of various characters played by people like Vicki Volante, future director John 'Bud' Cardos (in two roles), Scott Brady, Jim Davis, Paula Raymond, Julie Edwards and Darlene Lucht. There’s even a role for the director’s famous father, Victor Adamson, playing a supporting character... I didn’t know what he looked like but I recognised him straight away as bearing a striking family resemblance.* Al Adamson also makes a quick uncredited cameo near the start of the film as one of the Yaqui’s trying to kill Thompson but, true to form, his character doesn’t survive more than a few minutes of the movie.

It also features John Carradine as a preacher who is a very strange character in that he’s very Christian but is not above sneaking a peek at a lady as she undresses nor, indeed, saving everybody’s lives when he pulls a derringer from behind his bible and kills the current threat. A decidedly ambiguous character who, like a lot of people in Al Adamson movies (I’m starting to discover), is not cut and dried when it comes to first impressions.

Another addition to the cast is Gene Raymond as the voice of death. I quite liked Dix’s somewhat poetic writing here and, although you never see the character of death, he gives a voice over commentary as he is the constant companion of Ben Thompson, riding on his (invisible) pale horse beside him wherever he goes.

Well... I say you never see death but, on the print which carries the Five Bloody Graves title, the opening animated credits sequence, which is pretty good for the low budget, features various skulls on a cartoon of the rocky canyons and the skeleton of death riding that very same pale horse. The music on the credits, however, sounds more like a 1940s horror movie and... after a while I realised why (I’ll get there in a minute, okay?).

Once again the cinematography here is by a young Vilmos Zsigmond and, it really shows. There’s some nice stuff done with double mirrors (Adamson seems to like using mirrors, I’ve noticed), a shot of Thompson approaching the camera from under a stationary horse and a truly spectacular series of shots where one cowboy is chasing another on his horse which does some amazing things with the way its focused and, frankly, just keeping up with these riders is an art in itself, I suspect. He also does that thing which I think is kinda ahead of its time, where he uses the camera pan to search for and then pick out a detail like a Yaqui standing on the edge of a cliff in the distance. That being said, there’s also a scene where he uses rack focusing on two characters facing the camera, changing from one to the other when each speaks, which is a bit excessive and was getting on my nerves a little, to be fair.

There’s a lot of bad stuff here too. For example, when a cowboy finds a squaw staked out and left for the ants, he rips her clothes off and then rapes her. After he’s raped her it cuts back to her and we see she is still wearing the clothes she had on when the cowboy found her... this is followed by a long shot of him throwing her clothes back on her body (now naked once more) before he puts two bullets in her. So, yeah... continuity, probably caused by a rearrangement of elements in the edit, is not good here.

And then there’s the music. There are a couple of scenes where I was watching the cowboys battle the Yaquis and, on the soundtrack, was the music they use for News At Ten, here in the UK. I was just waiting for the Big Ben chimes to go off at the end of each Indian raid. Apparently the piece of music is called "The Awakening" by John Pearson and that tipped me off why I didn’t see a composer’s name at the start. This movie is scored entirely by needle dropped library music and, it shows. It needn’t show but, honestly, whoever was running this music in didn’t know much about how you fit image to score, it seems to me. The music here is fine to listen to but has been used so inappropriately, with slow leisurely scenes where nothing is happening suddenly invaded by fast, jazzy action music for no apparent reason, for example, that it really harms the film in places because it’s so laughable. I understand the technique of trying to actually add pacing with the music (something Elmer Bernstein excelled at with his score for The Magnificent Seven)... but it kinda falls flat here, it has to be said. So, yeah, there’s that.

Other than that though... the actors are mostly pretty good in this one (especially Dix himself) and, while Five Bloody Graves is not a spectacular, or even great, entry into the Western genre... it’s not a bad watch and one wonders what Adamson might have been able to do with a bigger budget and a more leisurely work pace. I did find this one entertaining and I could easily watch it again. It’s a bit like a road movie infused into the American Western and it’s really not an odd fit at all.

*a very good friend advised me to tone down my
description of Al Adamson’s singularly arresting features. ;-)

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