In the latter half of the 1960’s, the Western genre got a new lease on life due to the enormous success of the Spaghetti Western as well as the Production Code being phased out in favor of the MPAA rating system in Hollywood. Caught up in the middle of these two circumstances, the genre began to push boundaries on how violence was shown on the screen and opened up the world to new personalities both in front of and behind the camera; that would be apparent with the international co-production of Guns for San Sebastian. Previously released on VHS, Warner Bros. has given the movie it’s Blu-ray debut as part of the Warner Archive line.
The Production: 3/5
In 18th Century Mexico (under the rule of Spain), army deserter Leon Alastray (Anthony Quinn) flees from his pursuers into a church, where he’s granted asylum by the priest Father Joseph (Sam Jaffe). When the church transfers the priest to the desolate village of San Sebastian, Leon manages to escape with him, but soon becomes confused for an actual priest by the villagers when Father Joseph is killed by a Yaqui warrior. For an avowed atheist and womanizer, Leon – guided and inspired by a persistent Kinita (Anjanette Comer) – soon will inspire the village to start fighting back against the Yaquis and flush out the true intentions of Teclo (Charles Bronson) for the village and its inhabitants.
For a Spaghetti Western, Guns of San Sebastian is rather unique for the genre for a couple of reasons. First, the movie bucks the genre’s tradition of filming in Spain; here the movie is entirely filmed in Mexico and the location photography adds a great deal of atmosphere to the proceedings. Second, the movie – based upon the novel A Wall for San Sebastian by Jesuit priest William Flaherty – deals with the contrast between religion and atheism in its main character when he’s mistaken for a priest; it’s interesting to note that in the original novel, the main character was an actual priest and former soldier rather than the deserter and atheist depicted here (one of the two notable changes from the source material here). Despite these two chief production virtues, the movie is felled by a mostly inconsistent script (credited here to James R. Webb, but featuring contributions by Serge Gance, Miguel Morayta and Ennio de Concini) that falls into the dramatic doldrums a little too often; however, the action sequences – especially the climatic Yaqui attack on the village – come off best here, which likely means that the script just couldn’t find the right balance between action and drama to really pull it off despite the rather solid direction of Henri Verneuil. So while Guns for San Sebastian offers up some new wrinkles in the Spaghetti Western formula, it’s flaws keep it from completely succeeding in being one of the greatest in the genre; it’s still good enough as a solid piece of entertainment.
For a man who has made a career playing many nationalities, Anthony Quinn is rather decent here as Leon Alastray, the rebel who becomes an inspiration to the beleaguered village of San Sebastian; he would return to the Spaghetti Western genre a few years after this movie portraying American frontiersman Erastus “Deaf” Smith in Paolo Cavara’s Deaf Smith & Johnny Ears (1973). Anjanette Comer – no stranger to the Western, having already appeared in The Appaloosa (1966) – is also decent as the village woman who inspires Leon and later earns his love; she’s better known today – to cult film fans at least – for her leading turn as a social worker in Ted Post’s horror thriller The Baby (1973). Coming in the same year in which he had one of his best pre-Death Wish role as the mysterious Harmonica in Sergio Leone’s opus Once Upon a Time in the West, Charles Bronson is his usual stoic self as the half breed vaquero leader who has a dark secret of his own; like Quinn, Bronson also had a knack for playing different nationalities due to his world weary and weathered features and like Quinn, he would return to the Spaghetti Western years later with John Sturges’ Chino (AKA The Valdez Horses) (1973). Some familiar faces to keep an eye out for are Sam Jaffe as the sympathetic Father Joseph, Jaime Fernández Reyes as the leader of the Yaqui tribe threatening San Sebastian’s existence, Leon Askin (known during this time as General Burkhalter on TV’s Hogan’s Heroes) as the church vicar who sends Father Joseph to San Sebastian, Ivan Desny as the army colonel tasked with retrieving the deserter Leon, Fernand Gravey as the governor and Pedro Armendáriz Jr. as a fellow priest.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio for this release, taken from a brand new HD transfer created for this release. Film grain is organic with fine details and color palette faithfully represented; there is a golden tint in the picture – likely intentional to set the mood – during the opening credits that reverts to normal following its end. There’s next to no instances of issues like tears, dirt, or scratches present here, which means that this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.
Although the film’s original soundtrack was recorded in mono, the movie’s soundtrack is presented on a 2.0 Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is strong and clear with the sound mix and Ennio Morricone score also given faithful representations as well; there’s no instances of distortion, dropout, crackling or hissing present here. Overall, this is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 2/5
San Sebastian 1746 in 1968 (9:54) – This vintage promotional featurette goes behind the scenes of the making of the movie.
Theatrical Trailer (3:25)
While it’s certainly not the gold standard of the genre, Guns for San Sebastian is still a nicely done Spaghetti Western that (mostly) works due to the strength of Anthony Quinn in the lead as well as a few novel twists. Warner Archive has breathed new life into this overlooked movie with a stellar HD transfer as well as providing the original promo featurette from the movie’s release as a bonus feature. Highly recommended and worth acquiring if you’re a die hard Spaghetti Western fan.
Amazon.com: Guns for San Sebastian [Blu-ray]: Henri Verneuil, Anthony Quinn, Anjanette Comer, Charles Bronson, Sam Jaffe, Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, Silvia Pinal, Jaime Fernandez, Rosa Furman, Pedro Armendáriz Jr: Movies & TV
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