The plays of William Shakespeare have provided a bottomless well of material for filmmakers as either faithful adaptations or unacknowledged inspirations since the birth of cinema. Yet, the western genre seems under-represented in this regard with only a few examples coming to mind such as a thinly disguised version of Othello (Delmar Daves’ Jubal,1956) or a re-imagining of The Tempest (William A. Wellman’s Yellow Sky, 1948) or a gender twist on King Lear (Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance, 1954).
Hamlet would seem an ideal choice for a western remake but, apart from a sequence in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine where a drunken actor (Alan Mowbray) recites a soliloquy from the Bard’s play, the brooding Prince of Denmark has not been repurposed by Hollywood as the hero of a frontier revenge drama. Leave that to the Italians, who during the heyday of the spaghetti western, created Quella sporca storia nel west (1968), which was released in an English-dubbed, U.S. version as Johnny Hamlet. Outside of a handful of genre enthusiasts, most American movie buffs probably don’t know about Johnny Hamlet, which is directed by Enzo G. Castellari (The Inglorious Bastards, 1978), but this extremely loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s play is full of imaginative touches which often capture the dark, gothic spirit of the original. Purists may find it ridiculous but there is something refreshing and entertaining about seeing the play’s classic storyline cannibalized and retold as a spaghetti western.
The hero, Johnny Hamilton (Andrea Giordana), returns home from the Civil War to discover that his father has been murdered and his mother Gertie (Francoise Prévost) is now married to his uncle Claude (Horst Frank). Haunted by dreams of his dead father, Johnny suspects his uncle of treachery, despite evidence that his father’s murderer was a bandit named Santana who was allegedly killed. There is also more than $300,000 in gold missing from his father’s estate. When Johnny launches his own investigation into the case, he becomes a potential target for Claude’s two henchmen, Ross (Ennio Girolami) and Guild (Ignazio Spalla), as well as Polonio, the town sheriff (Giorgio Sammartino), and Santana (Manuel Serrano), who is very much alive and in cahoots with Claude. Johnny’s only ally is the mysterious Horace (Gilbert Roland), who always seems to turn up when the protagonist is in danger.
Those familiar with Hamlet will notice the obvious similarities between the names of the main characters in both versions but director/screenwriter Enzo G. Castellari and his co-scripters Tito Carpi, Francesco Scardamaglia and Bruno Corbucci have expanded or reduced the roles some of these figures played in Shakespeare’s original and, in some cases, changed their motives completely. Plot details are also fair game for creative makeovers. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as Ross and Guild are not former student friends of Johnny (as they were in Hamlet) but Claude’s hired gunmen who stalk him every step of the way toward a final shootout. Johnny’s mother, Gertie, transitions from a deceived, weak-willed woman into a gun-toting defender of her son. There is no equivalent for the character of Laertes but there are new characters introduced – a traveling band of performers and an outlaw gang led by Santana. The brief appearance of Emily (Gabriella Boccardo), the Ophelia character, is probably the most faithful to the original source. The gravedigger is played for comic relief and is one of the few survivors at the film’s fadeout. Probably the most radical change is the finale [Spoiler Alert]: Johnny survives and rides off into the sunset with his pal Horace. And anyone expecting a reasonable facsimile of Shakespeare’s rich language should look elsewhere because the dialogue is crude and unsubtle in the manner of most subtitled or dubbed spaghetti westerns.
So you can’t exactly call Johnny Hamlet a tragedy and there are moments of playful absurdity and pure fun that would never surface in a Shakespearean drama. A case in point is the frequent physical confrontations between Johnny and the obnoxious Ross and Guild duo, which start out like typical fistfights and then escalate into theatrical brawls on the order of a WCW event with wild gymnastic stunts that often look goofy as if choreographed by The Three Stooges. The pre-credit sequence of the film has an almost hallucinogenic quality that switches between Johnny’s dream of his father (set in a red, Hades-like underworld), a lyrical flashback of happier times with Emily and his current situation which is accompanying some wandering players who are cavorting on the beach while they recite lines from Hamlet. If only the whole movie had maintained this freewheeling, almost experimental approach! The casting could have been better as well. The supporting actors, in particular, either play their roles as broad caricatures such as Ignazio Spalla, who specialized in Mexican stereotypes like Guild, or make little impression at all. The principal leads are better in most cases. Anthony Perkins was rumored to have been the first choice to play Johnny but that didn’t pan out. Tomas Milian would have made a more compelling protagonist but Andrea Giordana is adequate as a Hamlet on the range with his brooding looks and perpetually embittered persona (The actor looks like a composite of Jeffrey Hunter and Giancarlo Giannini after a sun-bronzed skin color treatment).
Gilbert Roland appears to have been cast for box-office appeal alone since his character Horace is completely implausible within the story framework (What keeps Claude and his minions from eliminating this constant troublemaker?). Still, Gilbert Roland, who was well over sixty when he made this, looks remarkably fit and his iconic presence provides a link back to the golden days of American westerns when Roland appeared as the Cisco Kid in a string of sagebrush programmers and genre highlights like Fritz Lang’s The Furies (1950).
As the hero’s worried mother, French actress Francoise Prévost (from Jacques Rivette’s Paris Belongs to Us) brings a touch of elegance to the part which is then stripped away in her climatic moments as she drags her wounded body up a rocky ravine in an attempt to help her crucified son. But it is Horst Frank who makes the strongest impression as the sociopathic Claude. The German-born actor had a long, successful career playing numerous villains, assassins and murderers and he is a genuine scene-stealer here, whether he is grinding a lit cigar into the palm of his own hand without flinching or laughing psychotically as gold dust spills all over his face and body in the final scenes.
Also known as Django Porte sa Croix, Dirty Story of the West and other titles, Johnny Hamlet has its detractors and defenders. Thomas Weisser, author of Spaghetti Westerns – the Good, the Bad and the Violent, wrote, “Turning the Shakespeare play into a Western is a “cute” idea that might have worked as a Senior High School skit, but it doesn’t do well as a full length feature film. Not one of director Castellari’s better films, and a dark day for Sergio Corbucci [who wrote the original story].” Director Alex Cox in his influential survey of the genre, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western, certainly had specific criticisms about Johnny Hamlet too but he also acknowledged the film’s numerous virtues: “How well made and postmodern Johnny Hamlet seems! Its style is exuberant, with the camera in restless motion around the protagonist. There are dream sequences, special effects, and enough crash zooms and telephoto shots-through-things to confirm Castellari as Corbucci’s heir apparent. But he was more, besides. Castellari’s editing – in particular his juxtaposition of cuts with musical beats – is very precise…His framing is bold, with the camera frequently dollying into striking close-ups, often pushing the edges of the Techniscope frame…There was always something acid-ish about the Spaghetti Western…In Johnny Hamlet, these hints, and tropes, become the visual structure of a film….Johnny Hamlet is Castellari’s best, most original Western.”
Cox is dead on about the visual look of the film. The cinematography by Angelo Filippini is often dazzling and adds tension and attitude to scenes which would otherwise be strictly formulaic. When Johnny is first united with Emily, we see only their shadows on an ancient stone wall as they embrace and kiss. Johnny’s emotional state is sometimes represented by the camera swirling around him or capturing him in a horizontal position and then slowly inverting it. And Emily’s death becomes a surreal apparition with her inert body glimpsed as a special visual effect reflected upon the rippling surface of a stream.
The art direction by Enzo Bulgarelli is just as striking, particularly the scenes set in the underground cemetery which add a horror film ambiance to the proceedings. The exterior locations are often unusual as well with huge, mushroom-shaped rocks and moon-like surfaces dominating the landscape; Johnny Hamlet was filmed in Almeria and Cuenca Minera (Huelva), Spain.
Last but not least, the evocative film score by Francesco De Masi, Alessandro Alessandroni and Audrey Nohra is good enough to stand on its own. You might find yourself humming the theme song, “Find the Man,” long after the film has ended. Johnny Hamlet might not stand alongside Sergio Leone’s Clint Eastwood trilogy, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence or Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown as a spaghetti western landmark but it is certainly intriguing and offbeat enough to warrant a viewing by anyone interested in this genre.
Currently Johnny Hamlet is not available on DVD or Blu-Ray in the U.S. but you can still purchase a DVD copy from the German label Koch Media under the title Django (an obvious attempt to cash in on the popular title character first seen in Corbucci’s 1966 Western). You will need an all-region DVD player to view it but the anamorphic widescreen print is quite good with vibrant colors and detail, a minimum of grain and various language/subtitle options. The disc also includes extras such as a featurette on spaghetti westerns featuring interviews with director Castellari, composer De Masi, and actor Franco Nero.
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