Chato’s Land (1971)

Country: United States
Director: Michael Winner
Charles Bronson, Jack Palance, Richard Basehart, James Whitmore, Simon Oakland, Richard Jordan, Victor French
Music: Jerry Fielding

Chato’s Land is a very interesting film. It is not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but all the characters are fleshed out, and have multiple layers, and some traditional western stereotypes are turned on their head.

The film opens in a saloon, and an Apache, Chato (Charles Bronson) has a shiny silver dollar down on the bar, and he is expecting to be poured a drink. At that moment, the Sheriff of the town, Eli Saunders, enters the saloon through the swinging doors and makes his way to the bar. The bottle of whisky intended for Chato, is snatched up by the barkeep and handed to the lawman. The Sheriff pours a goodly portion into his glass, and then approaches Chato saying that it is a ‘white man’s saloon and sells white man’s liquor’. He tells the Indian to leave before he kills him.

The lawman keeps pushing Chato, and then pulls a gun. But he is not fast enough. Chato spins, aims and fires. Eli Saunders falls down dead.

With the Sheriff dead, justice falls to Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), an ex-soldier who craves authority and command. From an old trunk, he drags out he old Confederate uniform and puts it on. Then he assembles and leads a posse, setting out to apprehend the renegade Apache. However, many of the posse members are not really ‘bring to justice’ types – particularly the Hooker Brothers. They are racist killers with their own perverted agendas to fulfill.

Of course, as played by Charles Bronson, Chato is not easy to track, let alone kill.

The main problem with the film is the lack of explanation for Chato’s initial reaction. Sure, the sheriff was a loud mouth racist; but if Chato had left the bar when he was initially asked, then there wouldn’t have been a killing. It’s probably a safe assumption that Chato had been bullied and victimised his whole life. And he certainly had the right to have a drink in the bar as much as the next man. But enough was enough, and he acted. On the flipside, however, is he killed the sheriff, and as such should be brought to justice. His act of defiance perpetuates the negative attitude that all American Indians are savage animals. Chato’s actions are not the way of a ‘noble savage’; this is more an example of ‘might is right’*. Chato was the better gunman, and that is why he won in the brief gunfight. It was not because he had ‘right’ on his side.

All the characters in the film are drawn in shades of grey. No one is right. The casting of Charles Bronson as the central protagonist negates any social commentary that the film may have provided. Maybe if Will Sampson had been cast, then it may have been a different story.

Admittedly, the Hooker brothers, all driven by racist hate, push the posse on to further extremes than their lawful mandate would warrant. But despite the individual idiosyncrasies, good or bad, of each man in the posse, the group is treated as a whole. After the rape of his wife, Chato as he seeks retribution, kills everyone (or at least that’s his intention). He doesn’t divide them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ posse members. As far as he is concerned, they are all responsible.

As I said at the top, Chato’s Land is an interesting film, but it never makes any profound statements, beyond life in the old west was tough, which is a shame, because the film had a solid framework, and could have served up, not only an action packed western, but a thoughtful one too.

* Before anyone comments, that I am a racist and missing the point of the film, and this may seem strange for someone as parochially Australian as I am, but my great great grandmother was an Apache, so I am not pumping out some politically correct agenda or ‘anti-political correct’ agenda as the case may be. In fact the racist slurs in the film I find particularly repellent, but I also understand that they are part of a performance by actors portraying repellent characters.
4 Comments Posted in Film
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  1. Thanks for notifying me CKDH… for some reason comments were turned off – fixed now.

  2. Okay, let me try again. :)

    I’ve read that Chato’s Land was supposed to be a Vietnam war allegory and that Chato and the desert represented the jungles of Vietnam while Palance and company symbolized the U.S. military headed towards its doom in that conflict.

  3. That’s interesting… and it clarifies the start of the film, where Bronson is presented as the aggressor.

  4. I always liked this flick…God, I remember seeing it IN the movies as a kid!!!

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