Saturday, October 18, 2008


Many American leading men trailed Clint Eastwood to Europe during the heyday of the Spaghetti western in the 1960s and 1970s. Reportedly, not only did Lee Van achieve superstar status on the continent, but he also surpassed Eastwood's popularity in westerns. Burt Reynolds took top billing in Sergio Corbucci's "Navajo Joe," about a revenge seeking redskin. Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson tangled in Sergio Leone's "Once Upon A Time in the West." James Coburn and Eli Wallach anted up for a couple of oaters. Most American stars were either solidly established or whose careers were riding the rails to the big sundown, such as Guy Madison, Rod Cameron, Stewart Granger, John Ireland, Yul Brynner, etc. Surprisingly, lightweight leading man James Garner crossed the Atlantic for "War & Peace" producer Dino De Laurentiis to star in a savage western "A Man Called Sledge" with former "Combat" star Vic Morrow at the helm. Fellow "Combat" alumnus Frank Kowlaski co-scripted "A Man Called Sledge" with Morrow. This formulaic shoot'em up saga qualifies as James Garner's most unusual role. "Maverick" star James Garner shunned his affable image to play against type as a no-holds barred outlaw who is clearly on the wrong side of the law. Dennis Weaver of "Gunsmoke," Claude Akins of "Return of the Seven," and "Colt .45" star Wade Preston fleshed out the "Sledge" cast along with fellow Americans Ken Clark and Tony Young. Shot on location by seasoned lenser Luigi Kuveiller against the sheer, raw beauty of Spain, this frontier western adventure told a tale about greed and revenge. Essentially, "Sledge" emerged as an impossible heist western, similar to director Don Taylor's "The 5-Man Army" (1969) with Peter Graves and James Daly.

"A Man Called Sledge" opens--in Sergio Corbucci country--with Luther Sledge (James Garner) and Mallory (Tony Young of "Taggart") robbing a stagecoach on a snowy mountain trail. During the hold-up, the shotgun guard chucks his weapon. Incredibly, a freak accident--that neither Sledge nor Mallory anticipated—occurs. The shotgun discharges and kills the driver. Talk about coincidence! Sledge and Mallory make off with the loot to a secluded saloon known as 'the 3 Ws. They feel awful about the accidental death of the driver. Sledge has come to meet his girlfriend Ria (Laura Antonelli of "Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs") and he joins her upstairs in a room. Overconfident Mallory decides to play poker. "You're the worse poker player I ever saw," Sledge reminds Mallory. Ironically, Mallory wins hand after hand. Triumphantly, as he gathers his fortune, Mallory observes, "I just made a killing," and evil Floyd (Ken Clark of "Attack of the Giant Leeches") shoots him in the back. Sledge stumbles down the stairs and finds Mallory dead on the floor. Floyd and his cohorts ridicule Sledge. Sledge whips out Mallory's pistol and guns them both down. An old man (John Marley of "Love Story") witnesses the gunfight. Later, Sledge intercepts him in Rockville and suspects him for being a bounty hunter. The old man goes berserk after Sledge trusses him up so he cannot watch an escort of 40-armed riders take a gold payroll into a nearly prison for safekeeping. He explains that the riders lock up the gold—usually about $300-thousand worth—in the prison vault overnight before they continue to the clear house.

The old man recounts his prison days. "I never could sleep when that gold was next to me. You know gold gives off a scent. It's like an animal or a man. Paper money don't throw off a scent. Paper money don't whisper to you like gold does through six inches of steel." Sledge decides to steal the gold, but Ward (Dennis Weaver) and Hooker (Claude Atkins) are leery about the heist. Similarly, Sledge reveals a lot about himself when he says, "I ain't kidding myself that it is the last. I'm gonna finish my life with a white picket fence and the little woman making biscuits. Me sprouting gray like a tree in the fall. I wanna go out with a bullet in my head or a rope around my neck. I want a little taste of living before I go." Sledge and company follow the gold from mine to prison but find no flaw in the security precautions. They ride into Rockville for supplies and the Old Man poses as a head of a westbound family and an arsenal of weapons. "I feel like one of those Eastern war profiteers," Sims confides in Rockville Sheriff Ripley (Wade Preston) that the Old Man bought "enough firepower to save Custer. When Ripley enters the store, Sledge pokes a gun in his back. Another gunfight erupts and a Sledge man dies in a murderous crossfire. After the death of one of their own, Ward and Hooker are really reluctant about the gold shipment robbery, until Sledge devises a daring plan. Since they cannot take it from the outside, Sledge proposes to take it in the prison. Ward poses as Deputy Marshall and gains entrance to the prison because he has Sledge in his custody. They put Sledge in solitary with the rest of the other loonies and Sledge breaks out with Ward's help. Morrow generates considerable suspense in solitary with their breakout. The way that Sledge gets out of being taken by Ripley to the Rockville City Jail is clever, too.

Thematically, "A Man Called Sledge" concerns greed and the song 'the Curse that Follows Other Men's Gold' sums up the action. Everybody is after somebody else's gold, and greed consumes them to the point that nothing else matters. This western boasts some irony so that the action contains greater depth. Mallory wins at cards but loses his life. Audaciously, Sledge engineers a way into the worst prison in the Southwest where the authorities would dearly love to maintain him. Later, he ties a cross to his hand so he can fire his gun. "A Man Called Sledge" qualifies a gritty but entertaining Italian western!

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