Friday, June 4, 2010

The Arizona Kid (Philippines, 1971)



Calling The Arizona Kid a “Filipino Spaghetti Western” might seem a little glib, but, honestly, I can’t think of a more accurate way to describe it. The film -- which sees the unlikely pairing of famed Pinoy exploitation producer Cirio H. Santiago with a script co-written by Lino Brocka, the man who would go on to become the Philippines’ most internationally recognized art house auteur -- seems to consciously strive to combine the Filipino penchant for broad comedy and melodrama with all of the most distinctive markers of the typical Italian oater of its day.

To begin with, there is the movie’s international cast, a must-have for any Spaghetti Western. Probably the most telling inclusion here is that of Gordon Mitchell. One of many American born actors who made their living in Italian genre cinema during the boom years of the 60s and 70s, Mitchell started out in Peplums and, by the time of making The Arizona Kid, had become a mainstay in European Westerns, often -- as is the case here -- playing bad guy roles. Further adherence to the Italo-Western norm is evidenced by the presence in the cast of a post-expiration-date, minor U.S. star, in this case 50s B-Movie bombshell Mamie Van Doren. And rounding out the film’s assemblage of low wattage, non-Filipino star power is former Miss Venezuela -- and 1967 Miss Universe runner-up -- Mariela Branger as our heroine.

Of course, The Arizona Kid’s most prominent roles are reserved for players from the home country. Thus we get a lead performance from Chiquito, a man who holds a place alongside the likes of Dolphy and Panchito as one of The Philippines’ most beloved screen comedians. And to carry out the more traditionally heroic duties there’s Bernard Bonnin, a popular action star who first made his mark as the hero of a series of films based on the exploits of the Diabolik-like Filipino comic book character Palos.

But The Arizona Kid’s bid for Spaghetti Western cred doesn’t end with its casting. Composer Restie Umali provides a score rich with insistent strings and strident guitar strumming, and there is also the requisite use of Spanish locations as a stand-in for the American West. It is this last, I think, that has lead some to describe the film as either an Italian or Spanish co-production, even though my feeling is that that’s not the case. Aside from the sequences shot in those Spanish locales -- as well, reportedly, as some actually shot in Arizona -- the majority of the film appears to have been filmed on sound stages back in the Philippines, with Pacific Islanders standing in for Mexican villagers. In any case, it’s clear that said location shooting constituted a dear enough expense to Santiago’s Premiere Productions that they wanted to get the absolute most out of it for their money, as the film suffers from a few overlong establishing shots and instances of the camera sticking with a rider’s traverse across the horizon far longer than necessary. You could literally take a brief nap and wake to find the journey still in progress.

Despite all of this, there is one, I think very Filipino way in which The Arizona Kid departs significantly from the Spaghetti Western formula. Whereas the majority of such films strove for either a vague feeling of “American-ness”, or, at least, a limbo-like non-specificity in terms of place and nationality, The Arizona Kid exploits to the hilt its star and protagonist’s identity both as a Filipino and an outsider in the film’s turn-of-the-century American setting. Here Chiquito plays Ambo, a cheerful, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant from the Islands who arrives in San Francisco with hopes of reuniting with his uncle. Unfortunately, Ambo learns that his uncle has since moved on to Mexico, and so must make the long stage journey across the border -- along with some white fellow passengers who regard him as if he were some kind of entirely new, and completely distasteful, life-form. (“What nationality are you”, they wonder. “Chinese?” “Japanese?” Once given an answer, it turns out that none of them has even heard of the Philippines.)

After the stagecoach is robbed and all of Ambo’s money is taken, he’s left by the coach driver to fend for himself. He finds shelter in a small border town, which he soon learns is being terrorized by the bandit Coyote (Mitchell). Don Jose, the kindly cantina owner who has taken Ambo in, has put the call out for a legendary gun-for-hire by the name of the Arizona Kid, in hope that the gunfighter will not only aid in the fight against Coyote, but also embolden the timid townsfolk to take up arms in their own defense. Unfortunately, while being escorted into town by Ambo, village belle Ramona (Branger) and dashing Leonardo (Bonnin), the Arizona Kid is quite handily dispatched by Coyote’s men in an ambush.

So what to do? Inform the townspeople of The Arizona Kid’s death, and thusly dash their last hope of having their sorrows lifted? Or should a stand-in for the gunslinger be found? Perhaps even a comically mismatched one who not only has no inclination to fight, but who could make no plausible claim to being from anywhere even remotely near Arizona? (Note: There will be no prize for answering correctly.) Another newcomer in town, the buxom ranch owner Sharon Miller (Van Doren), has ideas on the matter, and while Ambo -- gentle and carefree soul that he is -- is not entirely on board with things, it seems Sharon need only aim her el grande boobs in his direction to at least temporarily gain his acquiescence.

In the version of The Arizona Kid that I watched, all of the supporting players spoke or were dubbed in English (in Van Doren’s case, in the disconcertingly shrill tones of a Talking Tina doll), while Chiquito spoke all of his lines either in pure Tagalog or with a mixture of fragmented English (i.e. “Taglish”). I guess it’s possible that there exists an “international” version in which his dialogue is also dubbed in English, though it’s hard to imagine how that would work. While the film’s story is easy enough to follow as is, most of its humor derives from the misunderstandings generated by the language gap between Ambo and his English, Spanish and, at one point, Chinese speaking co-stars. (For one thing, everyone seems to assume that he is speaking their language.) The result is that, while the English-only viewer can easily engage with the simple cowboy movie plot, the film’s language-based humor is such that it can likely only be appreciated by a speaker of Tagalog. And this is not to mention the movie’s other “culture clash” based riffs, such as Ambo’s coach-mates highly displeased reaction to the fragrant pot of bagoong that he’s got secreted away in his luggage.

Now, as any regular reader of this blog knows, the Filipinos love their spoofs, and have certainly lampooned the Western genre on more than a few occasions. Given that, I think I need to make clear that The Arizona Kid is indeed, for the most part, a straight forward Western, albeit one with comedic elements, and not a parody. At least for the first hour or so, the character of Ambo is presented in a plausible, if broad, manner, with the instances of humor arising naturally out of his circumstances. In fact, the air of merriment that the film weaves around Ambo’s ability to create confusion in all around him -- merely by being himself -- comes across more than anything else as a gleeful expression of pride in the peculiarity of Filipino culture. Meanwhile, the traditional Western elements of the story unfold in about as grim and violent a manner as you might expect from the real Spaghetti Western article, with wild eyed and blood thirsty villains praying on the innocent, and bloody vengeance being sworn in return.

Sadly, The Arizona Kid ultimately disrupts this delicate balance, and tips the scales just a bit too far in the direction of comedy during its final act. Ambo’s sudden transformation from gentle innocent to cowardly reluctant gunfighter results in him becoming a tiresome caricature -- and his constant cries of “me no like!” are borderline offensive. Even more disappointing, the final showdown with Coyote ends up being played for laughs despite a sustained dramatic buildup. Still, The Arizona Kid is an odd and interesting film -- perhaps even more so than I initially thought, since I ended up writing a lot more about it than I had planned. There definitely seems to be a war going on within it between the rote and the thoughtful -- to the extent that one could probably make of it several very different films (which in fact might have indeed been the case). Yet there is something singular in its combination of elements, no matter how clangorous their coming together, and that alone is enough to grant it some value.

3 comments:

Andrew Leavold said...

Hi Todd,

Once again, a review crammed with insight and a delight to read.

Fred Adelman swears black and blue there's an English dubbed version he saw on US television, which makes sense, as Cirio was desperately trying to break the international market at the time in those pre-Corman days of '70, '71.

As to the filming locations - it's either Spain (he'd travelled there to film El Pinoy Matador with Dolphy the year before) or South West America (ditto with several Premiere productions for the Pinoy market). The question is, where was Mamie Van Dooren in 1971? And was she worth a plane fare to Spain? I'd say the odds are even.

Cheers again for a fantastic read,

Andrew

Todd said...

Thanks for the info, Andrew. A post on the Film Academy of the Philippines website describes the film as being shot both in Arizona and Colmenar, Spain, in which case Mamie Van Doren's location scenes were probably shot in AZ. It seems like Premiere had an awful lot invested in this movie, which is one of the things that makes it so interesting.

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