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Born of Lithuanian immigrants named Bunchinsky, Charles Bronson's unique craggy looks (he once suggested he resembled "a rock quarry someone has dynamited") often led him, by the peculiar logic of Hollywood, to play a number of ethnic characters, notably Hispanics and Italians (including the notorious Mafia boss Joe Valachi). But whatever the role, he was most often a man of very few words who resolved most problems with his fists or a weapon. In Chato's Land (1972) he played an Indian (not for the first or last time) in one of a wave of revisionist Westerns that came out in the 1960s and '70s. Taking a much more cynical approach to Hollywood's once mythic view of the American West, movies like Soldier Blue (1970) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964, directed by the great Western mythmaker himself, John Ford) attempted to show the injustices visited upon Native Americans in the conquest of the continent.
Chato is an Apache - usually depicted as the most warlike of tribes - who kills a bigoted White sheriff and is pursued by a posse. But when members of the posse rape Chato's wife, he turns the table on them, and the pursued becomes a vengeful pursuer. Even in more traditional Westerns from Hollywood's golden age, posses are often depicted negatively as a vigilante force with the potential to become a bloodthirsty mob, however just or necessary their cause may be. In this story, the posse is irredeemably nasty, given to much squabbling and sniping at each other, and the mechanics of the plot call for the viewers to cheer as the Apache picks them off one by one.
Chato's Land was British producer/director Michael Winner's second Western. His first was a Burt Lancaster vehicle, Lawman (1971), also scripted by Gerald Wilson. The two teamed again, along with Bronson, for The Stone Killer (1973). Bronson and Winner worked together four more times, including The Mechanic (1972) and the first three Death Wish movies (1974, 1982, 1985), hugely successful pictures in which Bronson's laconic, vengeful violence was put into a bleak contemporary urban setting. The series made the actor, already middle-aged, a box office star for the first time in his career.
Chato's Land was shot in Spain, a location that became a frequent substitute for the American West following the success of the Italian-made "Spaghetti Westerns," which starred Bronson's rival for similar tight-lipped roles, Clint Eastwood. The undisputed master of that sub-genre, Sergio Leone, directed Bronson to great effect as the harmonica-playing seeker of vengeance in one of the most powerful and intelligent revisionist tales, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Bronson made several other Westerns, but few reached the classic status of the Leone film or Bronson's earlier foray into the genre, The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Aside from any other similarities to Spaghetti Westerns, Chato's Land - with a cast featuring Bronson, Jack Palance and Simon Oakland - certainly rivals such films as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) for having one of the roughest looking casts on record.
Hollywood did manage to cast Bronson in roles a little closer to his true ethnicity, in such movies as You're in the Navy Now (1951), as a character named Wascylewski; Diplomatic Courier (1952), in an uncredited bit as a Russian; and most bizarrely as Igor in House of Wax (1953). In all those pictures, he was still billed as either Buchinski or Buchinsky. He changed his name, he claimed, to avoid any taint during the Red Scare of the 1950s. But it did little to change his image. He once said he wished he could do a role that required nothing more of him than holding a cocktail and leaning against a mantelpiece. But when he died in August 2003, it was the man of action that audiences remembered and loved.
Producer/Director: Michael Winner
Screenplay: Gerald Wilson
Cinematography: Robert Paynter
Editing: Frederick Wilson
Art Direction: Manolo Mampaso
Original Music: Jerry Fielding
Cast: Charles Bronson (Pardon Chato), Jack Palance (Quincey Whitmore), Richard Basehart (Nye Buell), James Whitmore (Joshua Everette), Simon Oakland (Jubal Hooker), Ralph Waite (Elias Hooker).
by Rob Nixon