Named after a mysterious signpost in Beaumont, southeast Texas, set between U.S. 90 and the adjacent Southern Pacific railroad tracks, that inexplicably reads “China 9 Liberty 37”, with the genre fading quick into obscurity in both sides of the Atlantic, this, Monte Hellman’s and Warren Oates’ final western, seems to be trying to succeed despite itself, setting pitfalls for itself and falling into them but still somehow remaining a formidable picture, not just worthy of bearing Monte Hellman’s name (a vastly under-appreciated American auteur with an incredible run in the early 70’s that saddly never took off) but doing justice to it.
If the movie can work despite Fabio Testi’s unintelligible Italian accent, then it can overcome almost everything. I say almost because Pino Donaggio’s score (a jumbled mess of muzak apart from the fitting opening credits theme that seems to be consciously channeling Morricone) defies overcoming and Hellman’s inexplicable fixation to not only squeeze a heartfelt romance out of two actors (Testi and Jenny Agutter) who simply don’t have it in them to look “in love” but to go ahead and film not one but two long “making love” scenes, y’know, the ones where the two lovers are lost passionately in each other’s eyes, kiss like fishes and rock back and forth in a rhythmic staccato all of which is played to horrible “making love” muzak, threaten to throw the whole thing permanently off.
But just when you think he’s lost control, all Hellman needs to do to suck the viewer back in is cut to Warren Oates. A man not only made from that late 60’s mold of cinematic badass but also a naturally charismatic actor who gave some truly electrifying performances for Hellman (COCKFIGHTER and TWO-LANE BLACKTOP), Oates, as the grizzly homesteader fighting the railroad company he once worked for that is now trying to steal his land, makes the movie, has the gravitational pull to keep everything together. Even in his early 50’s he has so much charisma he can spare some for bland hunk Fabio Testi.
With the spaghetti western dead by 1978 (the last major release was MANNAJA the previous year – and the Italian genre industry moving on to a not-so-eclectic mix of MAD MAX and JAWS rip-offs to sustain itself in its waning years, before the advent of home video and movies opening worldwide killed it off) and Clint Eastwood continuing to carry the American western on his shoulders almost single-handedly, China 9 Liberty 37 is more of a throwback to Hellman’s previous westerns, a particular niche unto themselves that take from both national western schools but subscribe to neither, than anything contemporary, certainly not as violent and cynic as most 70’s westerns. Seen with regards to an overall oeuvre, China takes its proper place somewhere between THE SHOOTING and RIDE THE WHIRLWIND. More the sum of their author’s fixations, clearly works bearing a distinct auteurial mark, Hellman’s westerns seem like the late 60’s equivalent of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown westerns. The minimalism of the plot, the isolated settings, the lone female characters… but that’s for another post.