“Cemetery without Crosses”: This “Baguette Western” revenge saga starred director Robert Hossein

By on July 5, 2017

Cemetery without Crosses — aka Une corde… un Colt… (France) and Cimitero senza croci (Italy), among other titles internationally, including The Rope and the Colt and Death Valley Gunfighters in the U.S. — is a French/Italian/Spanish co-production, a “Baguette Western” lensed at the height of the European Western craze, and you’ll find it streaming over in our Arrow Video collection over on Night Flight Plus!

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First, a word about Night Flight’s partnership with Arrow Video titles:

Back in March of 2017, we announced that we were adding a curated selection of Arrow Video’s titles, featuring grindhouse cult classics in numerous “Midnight Movie” cult genres — including exploitation, horror, spaghetti westerns, NSFW drive-in sleaze and more.

The U.K.-based Arrow Films have been nicknamed the “Criterion of Cult” for always going above and beyond — much like the Criterion Collection have with their beautiful DVD/Blu-ray releases — and for paying careful attention to detail in their digital transfers, and if you’ve never explored our streaming collection of Arrow Video titles, now is your chance to catch up to what you’ve been missing.

Go here to read more about titles the we’re offering on Night Flight Plus.

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We’ve become so comfortable with the term “spaghetti western” to describe the westerns made by Italian filmmakers — like the legendary Sergio Leone — but perhaps this one could more accurately be called a “Baguette Western” since it was mostly a French production.

“Baguette Western,” by the way, was a clever term that was actually coined by director Alex Cox during an interview for Film Comment magazine (“Allez Ouest!,” November 2008).

Cox also said that Cemetery was “the one film to prove that the Italian Western was not solely Sergio Leone’s.”

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Cemetery without Crosses — as you’ll note — begins in black & white, and as the credits for the film roll we find ourselves watching three men raising dust on horseback because they’re being chased by members of the Rogers clan, a wealthy cattle ranching family.

While this is happening, we hear the movie’s memorable theme song, “The Rope and the Colt,” which was sung by Sixtie cult icon Scott Walker in his distinctive baritone. Then, as the song ends, we switch over to color.

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The camera tracks one of the three riders — Ben Caine (Benito Stefanelli) — as he splits from the other two — his brothers Thomas and Eli (Guido Lollobrigida and Michel Lemoine) — and we watch as ends up falling from his horse, wounded, at his isolated farm.

We learn later that the Rogers family have been trying to force the sheep farming Caine brothers to sell off their land, which they don’t want to do, and in retaliation, the Caines steal a shipment of gold coins that was meant to go to the Rogers.

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There was a showdown between the two rival families, and one of the Rogers clan was killed, which is why they’re in hot pursuit of the Caines at the top of the film.

The Rogers clan choose to follow Ben, and not his brothers, and they end up catching up with the wounded man and then hang him in front of his horrified wife, Maria Caine, played by beautiful French actress Michèle Mercier.

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From that moment onwards, Maria Caine seeks to avenge her husband’s death.

She turns to an old friend, a lone gunfighter named “Manuel,” clearly patterned on Clint Eastwood’s brooding “Man with No Name” and played by the film’s director, Robert Hossein.

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The retired gunfighter is initially reluctant to the plan (we learn he was once involved in relationship with Maria and Ben) but eventually joins the Rogers clan, who are led by their despotic patriarch Will Rogers (Daniele Vargas).

In a diabolical plan involving a kidnapping plot, Manuel helps exact vengeance for Maria Caine, infiltrating the widow’s enemies in order to force a showdown against those who killed her husband.

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The film’s taglines tell part of the rest of his story:

“He always had to be first to shoot. Not out of a thirst for money or revenge… something else drove him to dare, to fight. By now, time was running out. There was no time to think, to live… there was only time to hate and die. A rope was ready to be tightened. A coffin was ready to be shut. A six-shooter was ready to judge. An entire desert was ready to become a great… CEMETERY WITHOUT CROSSES.”

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Hossein — born Robert Hosseinoff in Paris in 1927 — is probably best known to English-speaking audiences as the actor who played the drug-addicted hoodlum “Rémy Grutter” in Jules Dassin’s 1955 French crime thriller, Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes).

He was trained in the theatre, which he preferred to film, studying at the Rene Simon School, and he went back and forth between acting on stage and on screen for his entire career, memorably starring opposite Brigitte Bardot in Love on a Pillow (Le Repos du guerrier, 1962).

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All total, he appeared as an actor in over one hundred films, which other than Rififi, notably included 1963’s Vice and Virtue — with Annie Girardot and Catherine Deneuve — and Roger Vadim’s 1973 film Don Juan (Or If Don Juan Were a Woman), once again with Bardot.

Hossein made his directorial debut in 1955, with Bastards Go to Hell (Les Salauds vont en enfer), which starred his first wife, Marina Vlady.

He then continued on, mostly directing crime thrillers and a couple of westerns among his seventeen films as a director.

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Ginette Vincedeau’s DVD essay “Western without Americans,” which accompanies the 2005 DVD release by Arrow Films, compares Hossein’s directorial style to the then-recently released films of fellow French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville (particularly 1967’s Le Samouraï, and 1969’s Le Cercle rouge).

She quotes from Melville’s interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, in which the director justified the futility of his character’s actions by saying “death is the only winner in this dubious combat.”

Vincedeau: “Perhaps most European, or French, in Cemetery without Crosses is the bleak pessimism that permeates the film. Even granted the tendency for Spaghetti Westerns to focus on low ethics, venality and cruelty, Hossein’s narrative paints a particularly dark picture.”

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Vincedeau — a French-born British-based academic who is a Professor of Film Studies at King’s College London, writes for Sight and Sound, and has authored numerous books on film studies — also wrote:

“Hossein appears as a French filmmaker appropriating an American genre and pushing it to the limits, through pared-down mise-en-scène, pessimism and gratuitous gestures, such as Manuel repeatedly pulling a black leather glove on one hand and shooting from the other.”

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Michèle Mercier — who you may recognize from her segment, “The Telephone,” in Mario Bava’s excellent horror omnibus Black Sabbath — was born in Nice, France, in 1939.

She broke into show business after first working as a dancer.

At age eighteen, she was discovered by director Léonide Moguy, who wanted her to appear in his 1957 film Give Me My Chance (Donnez-moi ma chance), which was appropriately a film about a young woman’s dream of becoming a film star.

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Mercier made some twenty films before her own star rose in ascendance, and had her biggest success with the 1964 historical romance Angélique, playing Angélique Marquise des Anges, her first film in which she was paired with Robert Hossein.

That film’s huge success led to four sequels, made between ’64 and ’68, three with Hossein and Mercier.

The success of these films also led to Hossein obtaining the financing for Cemetery without Crosses.

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Cemetery without Crosses was co-written by Hossein and Claude Desailly.

You will occasionally see Italian horror maestro Dario Argento credited as a co-writer on this film, and his name still appears in most surviving international prints (on the Italian and German versions but not on the French version).

However, according to Hossein, Argento — who had originally started out as a screenwriter, as we mentioned in this previous post — had nothing to do with this film beyond suggesting about two dozen lines of dialogue to Hossein.

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Cemetery — a dark, sometimes melancholic spin on the spaghetti western genre’s familiar revenge storyline — feels like a French-language homage to Italian director Sergio Leone’s Dollars films (the film is even dedicated to him).

Leone did, however, direct the movie’s dinner scene.

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There’s an interesting and perhaps apocryphal story still in wide circulation which makes the claim that Sergio Leone actually played the part of the hotel desk clerk in Cemetery.

It appears that this bad information can be traced back to author Sir Christopher Frayling, who had watched the film that of such poor in quality that he had mistakenly identified actor Chris Huerta as Leone.

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Frayling further claims that everyone he spoke to while researching his book Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death (2000) told him that Leone had played the part.

This led Frayling to believe that Leone had perhaps appeared in an earlier version of the scene which was then re-shot by Hossein, who then brought in Huerta as a replacement.

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Frayling — who has penned a number of books on spaghetti westerns — also writes, in his Preface (dated October 2005) to Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (originally published in 1981) that “Dario Argento… went on to co-write among others Cemetery without Crosses and The Five Man Army before becoming the Sergio Leone of Italian horror films,” and so his calling Argento a co-writer on the film seems to confuse the matter even more, and actually calls into question whether he may have been wrong about Leone’s participation as an actor as well.

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Hossein — in an all-new interview segment titled “Remembering Sergio” which was filmed exclusively for the 2005 Arrow Films DVD release, and includes English subtitles transcribed from French — says that he was an admirer and friend of Leone’s and had seen all of his films, and that he was supposed to appear as the sheriff in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which Leone was shooting in Almeria, Spain, but he was prevented by the Gaumount production company from appearing in Leone’s classic spaghetti western.

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Hossein — who expresses his regret that he was never able to appear as an actor in any of Leone’s films — met with Leone in Almeria, and it was there that Leone filmed a dinner sequence (providing one of the only moments of comic relief in the film) which Hossein then inserted into Cemetery.

In the filmed interview from 2005, Hossein adds:

“I admired [Leone] greatly and saw him often. We had one thing in common – neither of us liked flying. So we went by train. Can you imagine, going all the way to Almeria? So we travelled together. Sergio wanted to shoot in Almeria. That was where he always filmed and where I met him. He came along and wanted to film a sequence himself. He filmed the sequence with the meal. He shot it magnificently. He’s a great director.”

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Cemetery — which features great cinematography by Henri Persin — also features an evocative background score by Hossein’s father, composer André Hossein.

Walker’s “The Rope and the Colt,” by the way, was Walker’s first soundtrack commission, and it was released as a single in France, where the film was released in theaters on January 25, 1969 under its original French title Une corde… un Colt…

In Ginette Vincedeau’s essay, she mentions that the trade newspaper Le Film Français featured the film while it was still in production during the spring of 1968, on their March 17, 1968, issue.

She also claims that Cemetery “did respectable business when it was released in February 1969 (attracting almost one million spectators in France),” but then sums up its failings by stating “it left hardly a mark on film history, whether as a French production or as a Western.”

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According to IMDB, however, the film, after its initial release in France, was then rolled out in a staggered release across Europe, in West Germany (February 27, 1969), Italy (April 19, 1969), Denmark (June 15, 1970) and a few other countries.

It then went out-of-circulation for many years until Arrow’s DVD release revived the film again on July 21, 2015, and we’re so happy they did.

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We here at Night Flight HQ consider ourselves lucky then, all these decades later, to be able to see Cemetery without Crosses today, and have Arrow Films/Arrow Videos to thank for it being so lovingly restored and treated with the utmost respect; now we can all decide for ourselves where Hossein’s film should be placed in the pantheon of all the great spaghetti westerns (or “baguette westerns”).

Check out Cemetery without Crosses and the rest of our selection of Arrow Video titles, and be sure to also read our other blog posts and then check out some of our other spaghetti westerns, they’re all streaming for you over on our Night Flight Plus channel!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.