“The Wild & The Dirty”: A spaghetti western tragedy ripped from the pages of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

By on August 30, 2016

There’s no shortage of Shakespearean tales adapted into American Westerns, and, hell, a great number of Anthony Mann’s oaters alone reflect this (particularly those with “man” in the title, like Man of the West and The Man from Laramie).

Horse operas made during the 1960s across the pond weren’t void of the Bard’s influences either, and today we present The Wild and The Dirty (original title: Johnny Hamlet) — now streaming over in our Spaghetti Western collection over on Night Flight Plus — as one such example.

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Here our Hamlet is returning Civil War soldier Johnny Hamilton, who is visited in his sleep by his father’s ghost and informed of his murder. His father pleads his son to avenge him.

When Johnny reaches home, he finds that his mother has shacked up with his skeezy uncle. Johnny is told that bandits shot down his father, but it is pretty obvious who the real culprit is and Johnny plans to do something about it.

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German actor Horst Frank — who made a mini-career of playing villainous roles in these movies — plays the villain here, and if you know the plot of Shakespeare’s tragedy then you know who murdered the father, and if you don’t know the tragedy but know spaghetti westerns, you know who the killer is because Horst Frank never played a white hat in his life (even when he wore white hats on screen).

Johnny begins to delve into what happened while he was away with the help of his old friend Dazio (Gilbert Roland).

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Originally released in 1968 as Quella sporca storia nel West (which literally translates as That Dirty Story in the West), the film initially bombed at the box office, and so it was later re-titled and distributed to theaters in the U.S. in 1972 as The Wild and the Dirty.

Then, it was later re-titled again, this time as To Kill or Not to Kill?, yet another Shakespearean riff on Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.

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To further confused matters, when the film was released in Germany it came out as Django – Die Totengräber warten schon, and in France they know the film as Django porte sa croix.

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The original Shakespeare-inspired story idea came from Sergio Corbucci, who of course directed the hugely popular cult hit Django — starring his frequent leading man, Franco Nero — in 1966, although four other writers –Tito Carpi, Francesco Scardamaglia, Enzo Girolami, and Sergio’s brother, Bruno Corbucci — are credited with the screenplay.

Indeed, what happens here to Hamilton in this film’s last scenes will indeed remind some of you of the final scene in Corbucci’s Django.

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The inventive art direction by Enzo Bulgarelli finds the film using variations on some of the locations and settings we’ve come to expect in spaghetti westerns.

The Wild and The Dirty‘s opening scene is on a beach where Johnny is awakened by a troupe of Shakespearean actors. The traditional cemetery scene is set in an interior of a cave, and instead of the usual Almerian landscapes found in other Westerns of this type, we’re treated to the alien-like rock formations of Spain’s “La Ciudad Encantada” in Cuenca.

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Actor Andrea Giordana — who during his career also used the names “Burt Nelson” and “Chip Corman” — had a monopoly on Spag-Western titles featuring the word “dirty” in them; the previous year, he helmed a double and triple cross ranger, filled to the gills with mud, called The Dirty Outlaws (1967).

Perhaps his best Western is the nihilistic A Taste of Death (1968), which was a harsh entry made even bleaker by the snowy landscape it is set in. One of the few light moments in the film is where Giordana and the obligatory American actor (this time played by John Ireland) blow a snowman to smithereens during target practice.

The Wild and The Dirty is not the only Italian Western that is ripped from the pages of Shakespeare’s oeuvre. The previous year saw The Fury of Johnny Kid, a takeoff of the most popular of high school plays, Romeo and Juliet.

That film features, perhaps, the most surreal moment of any Italian horse opera: after a massive firefight claims the lives of most of the two leads’ warring families, the personification of death finishes off the dying with his Colt .45.

Director Enzo Castellari — who also directed 1978’s Inglorious Bastards — grew up in a movie industry family and started out as an actor himself before moving behind the camera.

He quickly found work in Italy’s budding genre film franchise and rose through the ranks from there. The Wild and The Dirty (1972) marks Castellari’s first foray into more serious oater fare.

Before that, he was directing lighthearted action entries like Any Gun Can Play (1967).

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Castellari’s Spaghetti Western career can be broken up into two halves.

The first would be a prolific two-year period in the late 1960s (’66 to ’68) in which he would direct six examples of the genre (including Johnny Hamlet), each starring a revolving door of leading men. Two of them — Edd “Kookie” Byrnes from “77 Sunset Strip” and ex-athlete Chuck Connors from “The Rifleman” — were American television stars hoping to find a movie career a la Clint Eastwood with his international success in A Fistful of Dollars.

What followed this productive period was a seven-year hiatus from the genre when Castellari decided to focus his efforts on the fad that ultimately replaced the Western in Italy: crime films.

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The young director would make some of the best cop thrillers of this genre (High Crime and Street Law), all starring Italian native, Franco Nero. It is these collaborations that solidified the duo’s famous working relationship.

This partnership bled into Castellari’s second string of Westerns, including two films that boasted large budgets, one of which was the bonkers comedy, Cry Onion (1975), in which Nero plays a goofy onion farmer (the English dub features him sporting a Jimmy Stewart type voice) who runs afoul a cyborg oil tycoon and his nefarious band of lackeys, including a cross dressing sheriff and his anachronistic Gestapo deputies.

It’s this crude, throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attitude one expects from an Italian comedy, but it’s so much more wild.

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For those audiences that cannot appreciate such lunacy, the film still boasts one of the best soundtracks ever made by the De Angelis Brothers: a group so prolific during the ‘70s, they had to put out music under different pseudonyms (Oliver Onions and Dream Bags) in fear that they would flood the market under their original moniker.

The following year, power team Nero/Castellari scaled things back a bit and made the visually marvelous but empty headed Keoma (1976), a movie about a veteran returning to his hometown from the war between the states and finding all sorts of trouble that has befallen his family and neighbors.

Sounds okay, right? Well, Nero plays the veteran, who is a half-breed Native American, with a pretty laughable wig crowned on his scalp.

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What’s worse is some of the most important scenes in the film are laughably over-dramatized and are not helped by the polarizing De Angelis score, which sounds like unrestrained Leonard Cohen outtakes (for the record, this author likes it a lot).

The film found an audience, but it did little to change the trajectory of the genre as a whole, which by the late ‘70s, was in the grave.

Both Nero and Castellari would pursue other ventures during the following decade when the Italian genre scene was crumbling, but they’d go on to doing so separately. They would re-team one last time in 1994 for the ecologically-minded Western, Jonathan of the Bears, an Italian/Russian production which is a lot like Keoma, only a little bit worse.

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A third period of oaters might be on the horizon for Castellari as the recently announced Keoma sequel, Keoma Rises, is set for a 2017 release. The cast is a gaggle of old Italian Western stars alongside some new blood, yours truly being among them.

In truth, Keoma Rises is a re-tweaking of a project that has been in development hell since the turn of this century, but hopefully now, with it taking advantage of a name brand, it will find its footing.

Check out The Wild and The Dirty — fully restored to the original uncut English version — now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Eric Zaldivar

Eric Zaldivar is a filmmaker, screenwriter, researcher and Spaghetti Western film historian. He co-wrote the original screenplay for Django Lives! and remains involved on the project as a producer (writer/director John Sayles is also now involved). He also co-produced The Scarlet Worm (the world's first "abortion Western"), assisted on the documentary about Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie, and was the second-unit director on Mike Malloy's Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled The 70s documentary. Zaldivar has also penned film reviews for Spectacular Optical and other cinema publications. He lives in Miami, Florida.