THE PRICE OF POWER: Italian western about a presidential assassination

23 Jun

I first heard about THE PRICE OF POWER (1969) at a table selling videotapes of Italian genre films at a Chiller Theater convention some 30 years after the film’s release. It was described as an Italian western that was a thinly disguised allegory about the Kennedy assassination with Van Johnson as President James A. Garfield (who was himself assassinated). I didn’t purchase it at the time even though it sounded right up my alley. (I think I might have already reached my limit of purchases at that convention.)

Long story short: I didn’t see the film until last Sunday, June 17, when it played at the Film Forum in Manhattan as part of their Spaghetti Western series. The film was shown in Italian with English subtitles, which I found pretty jarring, especially since Van Johnson and a couple of other actors are clearly mouthing their lines in English. Like most Italian films, the entire thing was post-dubbed. I would have preferred an English dub, which is how I’ve experienced pretty much all other Italian westerns I’ve seen. (Given the international makeup of so many of the casts involved in these films—Italian, Spanish, French, German, American, etc.—I find it difficult to consider Italian the original language for such films .)

There were other other jarring elements. The setting is Dallas, Texas in 1881, yet it was shot in a typically ramshackle western town set, complete with dirt roads, built smack dab in the middle of Spain’s Almeria desert, and familiar from so many other Italian westerns.

Dallas in 1881 was already a bustling metropolis with paved roads, multi-story brick buildings, street lamps, and public transportation.

The plot involves a trip to Dallas by President Garfield (never actually named, as far as I can tell), ostensibly to drum up support for his reforms, particularly equal treatment for blacks, a radical concept which doesn’t sit well with the racist town bosses. The president is on a train and knows he’s riding into a hotbed of plotting and conspiracy and even survives an attempt to dynamite the train, thwarted by a local man who’d fought for the union in the Civil War (despite looking about 15 years too young to have served that long ago).

This man is the film’s hero, William Willer (Giuliano Gemma), who’d served under Garfield, who was a colonel at the time, during the war and been charged with treason in an incident involving William’s father, a Confederate officer, all seen in a flashback. So we start off with an overly complicated backstory for the hero, something we thankfully didn’t get in too many Italian westerns (think The Man with No Name).

To underscore the danger inherent in the president’s visit to Dallas, there are signs posted around town with the president’s picture under the words, “Wanted for Treason,” echoing a famous ad with Kennedy’s picture under those words that appeared in a Dallas newspaper on the morning of the JFK assassination.

Given this backdrop, it’s somewhat startling to see that the only people accompanying the president on his visit are his wife and a single aide named McDonald—and that’s it! There’s a mention of the Secret Service, but we never see any of them. I imagine the budget was too low to accommodate such casting or the screenwriters had determined that the presence of actual bodyguards would already complicate the simple-minded script.

Once in “Dallas,” the president meets with local big shots and delivers an actual quote from Kennedy: “…I look at things as they could be and ask, ‘Why not?’” He goes for a carriage ride with his wife, past a handful of well-wishers, and gets shot by two gunmen parked in the crawlspace under a bridge referred to as the “overpass.” A black man named Jack Donovan (Ray Saunders) is hiding from the corrupt Sheriff Jefferson (Benito Stefanelli) and sees the shooters from the window of his hiding place and shoots at them to try to stop them. He, of course, is then captured and pegged as the “lone gunman,” with the sheriff providing “eyewitness” testimony.

There is intrigue involving the Vice-President, a Texan (sound familiar?) who’s in league with the local big shots who engineered the shooting, but reveals himself as sympathetic to the president’s aims, thus setting off a conflict with the local bank owner, Pinkerton (Fernando Rey), who threatens to make public some incriminating documents about the Vice-President if he doesn’t play along.

The presidential aide, McDonald (Warren Vanders), is at first skeptical of the sheriff’s story about the alleged assassin but then seems anxious to hide the truth for rather confusing reasons. He then appears at an inquest, held in Dallas but meant to invoke the Warren Commission, to seek testimony supporting the second assassin scenario and to poke holes in the sheriff’s story.

Our hero, Willer, gets into various shootouts and fights but is unable to rescue Donavan, his friend, from an ambush as he’s being taken to Fort Worth in a prison wagon. The guards escorting him are in on the conspiracy, but they’re then slaughtered by another gang of conspirators, which makes no sense and would seem to give credence to the whole conspiracy scenario. It would be as if, in Dallas on November 24, 1963, a team of hired gunmen had stormed the jail as Oswald was being brought out and then killed Oswald, all of his police escort and Jack Ruby!

The film tries to be both a conspiracy thriller (in the years before Hollywood began making such films as EXECUTIVE ACTION and THE PARALLAX VIEW) and a traditional Italian western with lots of gimmicky violence and a high body count. Willer has this routine that would be more at home in a Sartana western, where he begins a showdown by providing his opponent and himself with lit cigars and then turns out the light so that the two will shoot it out in the dark, with only the tiny light of the cigar to provide a target. In a more generic Italian western this might have been amusing, but it’s wildly out of place here.

By singling out racial issues as the key motive for the assassination, something that in all likelihood had nothing to do with the Kennedy assassination (and certainly not the Garfield one, for that matter), the film sidesteps all the foreign policy and governance issues (Vietnam, Cuba, the Cold War, JFK’s threat to dismantle the CIA, etc.) that conspiracy theorists have suggested as motives for the actual assassination. Which is ironic, considering that in the years between the assassination of JFK and the beginning of Jim Garrison’s prosecution in New Orleans of Clay Shaw on charges of conspiring to kill JFK, European journalists were among the few members of the global mainstream press to actually research conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination and publish their theories in newspapers and books. (In the U.S., the leading conspiracy researchers were lawyers or private researchers who had no links to the mainstream press.) But this film is so heavy-handed that you’d never know what European journalists had turned up.

I have this film on DVD in Mill Creek’s Spaghetti Westerns box set. I checked this DVD when I got home from the screening and found it to be an English-dubbed edition. Van Johnson’s voice is nowhere to be heard. He’s dubbed by someone else. And I suspect the other Americans in the cast (Vanders and Saunders) were dubbed by voices other than their own. Apparently the film was never released theatrically in the U.S. Was the film’s showing at the Film Forum an American premiere? Evidently, the film’s producers never saw a need to pay for a session with Johnson in the recording studio. I don’t know that this film was ever even shown on TV in the U.S. The credits on both prints (the Italian-language and English dub versions) are in Italian only.

The other two Americans in the cast, Warren Vanders as McDonald and Ray Saunders as Donovan, both had long careers in Hollywood, although I’d never heard of either before seeing this film. Saunders evidently had a background as an acrobat and is billed as a tumbler or acrobat in many of his early film appearances, e.g. ROGUES OF SHERWOOD FOREST. He gets out of captivity in one scene here through an elaborate acrobatic move.

Warren Vanders:

Ray Saunders:

The only other big international name in the cast, aside from Van Johnson, is Fernando Rey, best known for his Bunuel films and his portrayal of the French narcotics smuggler in THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Star Giuliano Gemma made quite a number of Italian genre films, especially westerns, in which he was sometimes billed as “Montgomery Wood.” He’s still active in Italian films and appears in Woody Allen’s current film, TO ROME WITH LOVE, as a hotel manager.

The supporting bad guy roles are filled with familiar faces from Sergio Leone’s films. The only one I can identify is Benito Stefanelli, who plays the corrupt sheriff. He was also in all five of Leone’s westerns, plus MY NAME IS NOBODY. José Calvo, who played the sympathetic cantina keeper who befriends the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, plays a doctor here.

Benito Stefanelli:

Familiar faces:

José Calvo:

There’s a black female singer who plays the girlfriend of Donovan and has quite an anachronistic saloon number. The only name in the cast list on IMDB that seems to match her is Norma Jordan.

So my curiosity about this film has finally been satisfied. Now it’s back to fun stuff like SARTANA IS HERE, TRADE YOUR PISTOL FOR A COFFIN.

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One Response to “THE PRICE OF POWER: Italian western about a presidential assassination”

  1. J. Walter Puppybreath June 26, 2012 at 6:04 PM #

    Good overview of a very (imo) underrrated film
    Just FYI: It was nominally released stateside, in 1978 (!), as ‘A Bullet For The President’, with Gemma billed as ‘Clint Eastman’.

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