Всадник без головы (1973)

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Reviewed Movie: The Headless Horseman (USSR, 1973)
Original Title: Всадник без головы (Vsadnik nez golovy)
Directed by: Vladimir Vaynshtok
Starring Oleg Vidov, Lyudmila Saveleva, Aarne Üksküla, Enrique Santisteban, Eslinda Núñez

This blog is dedicated to “unamerican” Western, and what could be more unamerican than a Russo-Cuban movie produced during the apex of the Cold War era? In “Vsadnik nez golovy”, based on the novel “The Headless Horseman” by Scots-Irish novelist Thomas Mayne Reid, the Crimea stands in for Texas, Cubans represent Mexicans, and “Western traditions” undergo a strange metamorphosis…

Russians are no strangers to the Western genre. In fact, during the late 19th and early 20th century, many adventure and Western Novelists like Jack London or James Fennimore Cooper were quite popular in Russia.  There were even a couple of early attemps of putting these stories to film even under Soviet Rule. For example, the 1926 silent movie По закону (By the Law) was based on Jack London’s short story “The Unexpected” – though one might argue that its overall themes are less “Western” and more “Psychological Drama” in nature (if anyone is interested, the roughly one-hour-long movie can be found in its entirety on YouTube, though only with russian title cards).

As the decades went on however, American Westerns were effectively a banned genre in the USSR. Under communist rule, most american films – or pretty much anything from the US, such as pop or rock music or many US-American products – were considered to be the result of a decadent and reactionary culture. So the Soviet regime prohibited or severely limited the availability of anything that could spread “the imperialist and capitalist ideologies” of the US; and since Westerns in general were set in an era “When the West was won”, showcasing a time where the US spread its rule over North America, these movies were a particular blight in the eyes of the Russian censors.

During the 1960s though came the big wave of the Eurowesterns – and Soviet Russia also got caught in it. Westerns had been popular throughout Europe, and especially in those countries of the Warsaw Pact that were immediately bordering European-NATO countries (like for example the Czech Republic, the German Democratic republic aka “East-Germany” or Yugoslavia), a certain fascination for the “Wild West” had always remained; and even though American Culture was frowned upon or outright banned under communist or socialist rulers, people managed to find ways that allowed them to express their love for the Western without breaking any laws; for example, people liked to dress up as Native Americans, claiming that this was a sign of criticism leveled against American Imperialism, which had driven the Indians from their lands. In doing so, they could still research American folklore, read old Western stories and do their own reenactments of the “Wild West”, but under the guise of Anti-American criticism (this would also lead to a certain brand of European Western in its own right, were Native Americans were the titular characters; I will go into more detail about these movies at another time).

A defining year would be 1962, ironically enough the year of the Cuba Missile Crisis. During that year, the Soviet Regime of the USSR allowed a limited screening of John Sturges Western-Classic “The Magnificent Seven”. Itself a remake of the Japanese movie “Seven Samurai”, the idea may have been that this movie was less ideologically tainted than other American Westerns.

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Maybe the fact that the movie was considered a box office bomb in the US, but became immensely popular in Europe, also factored into that decision. (On a side note, in many ways this movie set the template for many films that were produced during the Eurowestern craze of the 1960s.)

However, the movie proved to be a huge hit among Russian audiences; one source I found (a book on European Western Movies called “Europas Prärien und Cañons“) even speaks of a “regular Western frenzy” that caught the nation – much to the chagrin of its regime, who now had to fear youngsters might want to emulate the likes of Yul Brynner or Steve McQueen as their new big role model.

In order to rein this Western enthusiasm in and to make sure it doesn’t infect people with the wrong ideas, a decision was made: party officials decreed that filmmakers had to produce “heroic adventure movies” in their own right. These movies took typical Western tropes (clash of civilization vs Wilderness, outlaw vs lone gunman, Avenging vs Protecting etc) but transferred them into a russian setting – they were Westerns, just not taking place in the Wild West. In Europe (particularly in Western Germany, where the Eastern Block also was called the “Ostblock”) these movies were known as “Ostern” movies – Movies with Western themes, but being produced in the Eastern Block. And every once in a while, a russian director would be able to put a movie forward that was actually set in the American West. Such is the case with “Всадник без головы”, or Vsadnik bez golovny in romanized script.

About the Movie

The movie is an adaptation of Thomas Mayne Reid’s novel “The Headless Horseman, or A Strange Tale from Texas“, a story that was first published in 1865. The novel was already quite popular in pre-Soviet era Russia  – the novelist Vladimir Nabokov called it one of the favorite novels of his childhood years in an interview once, back when he still lived in Czarist Russia – and it still held quite some popularity even during Communist rule. So, the Russian director Vladimir Petrovich Vajnshtok was allowed to adapt the novel into a movie.

Now, producing a Western movie that is actually set in the Wild West is more complicated than just taking Western themes and translating them into an appropriately communist environment. The novel takes place in Texas – right after the American-Mexican War, the biggest expansionist campaign the US led in the 19th century. So already there is a certain conflict of ideologies in the subject matter. Getting Hispanic actors to play Mexicans was the least problem: Cuban actors like Enrique Santisteban or Eslinda Núñez filled these roles. Most of the filming was done in the Crimea, mainly in Jalta and Bilohirsk if IMDB and Wikipedia are to be believed. Which is a bit of an odd stand-in for the Texan prairie, but most of the time the scenery fits alright. But how to shoot a Western set in the actual Old West without appearing too pro-American?

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Translation: “From 1846 to 1848, as a result of a bloody war with Mexico, the United States of America invaded Texas.”

Before we even get a title card the film starts with an army bugle, billowing smoke, and 20 seconds in we see this introductory text over a burned landscape. It further continues: “Thus it began conquering vast territories from the borders of Louisiana to the Rio Grande”. While you might argue that this may be technically correct  history-wise, I’m sure US-Americans would tend to phrase that a little differently… 😉 Also, here’s a fun fact: Thomas Maine Reid, the author of the novel this movie was based on, served as a volunteer for the US army in the Mexican-American war.

(Spoiler-heavy summary coming up next. Click here if you want to jump directly to the spoiler-free verdict.)

The Plot

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Ignoring the title card (because it really carries no bearing on the events that are to follow), a long wagon train is slowly but steadily maling its way through the Crimea Texan plains. This is the Poindexter household, freshly arrived from Louisiana and on their way to their new home. Unfortunately, they are also hopelessly lost – a recent fire on the prairie has extinguished their route. Men, horses and cattle alike are getting thirsty, yet there’s neither food nor water to be found in the burnt prairie. Which isn’t helped by Kaptain Kassius Kalhoun Captain Cassius Calhoun, an officer and apparently the head scout / leader of the trek. Not only is he quite full of himself, he also throws a tantrum even at the smallest perceived slight.

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Maybe it’s just me, but somehow she’s not looking like someone about to die from thirst.

This lady staring straight into your soul is Louisa Poindexter, the daughter of the household and apparently completely oblivious to their plight. Calhoun, though, takes her remark about “watering the mules” as a personal affront, which results in him angrily tossing her canteen away, thirst be damned.

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I didn’t edit this scene by the way; the movie really is cut that awkwardly.

I guess the scene is supposed to be poignant – Calhoun being the egotistical tyrant who is wasting water ignoring the gravity of their situation while the slaves can’t do anything to prevent this. Nobody is raising his or her voice, nobody is even trying to make a grab for the canteen, they all just… stand there. I suppose that’s the point – the slaves being helpless against their masters’ irrational whims, but it all seems so insincere. These actors don’t get any character or incentive of their own, they don’t flinch, or act in any capacity, they don’t do anything, really. It’s like the filmmakers, ironically enough, just treated them like set dressing, like items to be used, nothing more.

Sorry, the movie is just five minutes in and I’ve already started to overanalyze individual scenes. Moving on…

While this is going on a rider comes riding across the nearest hill. The head of the household, Woodley Poindexter, and Cpt. Calhoun react wearily to the figure.

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Pictured here: An Irishman dressed like a Mexican, as interpreted by Russians.

However, the stranger proves friendly enough. Woodley Poindexter provides a little infodump exposes their reason for being in the area, in these exact words: “We recently arrived in Texas. We are from Louisiana. I bought the Hacienda Casa del Corvo. The one that is on the bend of Rio Leone, near Fort Inge. We broke up for the place a week ago and got lost here. We have no water. This is my daughter, Louisa. Sir, can you help us out?” Spot the one sentence that seems out of place here.

The stranger tries to help the Poindexters out by pointing out a few landmarks that could help them find their way to the river. This isn’t fruitful, since they seem unable to comprehend his instructions.

The stranger (who still hasn’t given any name yet) is in a hurry and cannot stay any longer to help them out any further. However, a longing gaze into Louisa’s face apparently causes him to reconsider. He dashes off, telling the others to follow his trails. “However, you really are no Scouts, sir,” he adds. “Send the blacks and horses first.”

Captain Colhoun doesn’t trust the stranger, assuming that he simply lied. Henry, however, the young – and a bit naive – son of Woodley Poindexter, felt that the stranger had “the face of a noble man”.

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Henry Poindexter is also wearing what might quite possibly be the dorkiest Cowboy hat imaginable though, so you may take his notions on what constitutes nobility and what not with a grain of salt.

Stuck in the Prairie with little to no water and not knowing their way, however, the Poindexters are pretty much out of options. So they follow the starngers advice after all, which leads to, well, this image:

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A silent vigil for those lost in the desert? Souls passing on into the afterlife? Mid 19th-century prairie-streetlights? Well, kind of. Apparently the mustanger had ridden ahead and informed the nearest townspeople that they should light some torches to help the Poindexters find their way after nightfall. Mind you, we don’t get this explanation until about twenty minutes later, so I understand if you were confused.

With the Poindexters finally save at their new home, a celebration is in order. The Poindexters throw a ball, and it is indeed a nice little shindig. It is here where we also get introduced to our two major “Mexican” characters, Isidora Covarubio and Miguel Diaz. Isidora is immediately depicted as the strong, independent type; while all the other women are dressed in ball gowns, she’s wearing Vaquero pants and a leather vest. She also immediately gets catty towards Lousia Poindexter, derisively calling her “The new queen of Texas”, while Miguel states that he likes her father, he’s “a regular bag of gold.” Hu-humm. He also tries to make a pass on Isidora, swearing to God thet she is the most beautiful woman to him (“I swear to Christ” being that character’s catchphrase), but she just brushes him off.

A Major of the Cavalry, a man that (we learn about an hour later) is the local judge and Woodley Poindexter meanwhile discuss local affairs. For not apparent reason, Woodley quotes “the words of General Sheridan: ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian'”. I wonder if the filmmakers are trying to tell us something…

A greater concern than the Indians, which we are assured were already ‘thoroughly driven out’ by the army, is a local Mexican bandit, by the name of “El Coyote”, whose true identity remains unknown. A mysterious Mexican bandit, hm?

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“Oh, Gee! I wonder who this MYSTERIOUS MEXICAN called El Coyote might POSSIBLY be???”

The festivities are interrupted when one of the ladies present spots a couple of horses approaching, which she mistakes for Indians. Immediately all the men are reaching for their guns, and I must admit this movie really starts to feel like a ‘proper’ Western.

There’s no need to panic, however, as our good-hearted stranger from earlier makes his return. And we finally also get a name to the face: He’s Gerald Morris, a wrangler and breeder of wild horses – or a “Mustanger”, as the locals keep calling him. He says that he’d heard Mr. Poindexter was looking for a horse, so he decided to crash the party with an entire herd of them. Sounds reasonable. Poindexter himself takes this with amusement, and assures the good man that “he is in a house where we are accustomed to the expensive.”

This may be a minor gripe now, but the movie has a problem: It constantly (and clumsily) exposits things rather than showing them or providing them in any sort of meaningful manner – most of the times, these explanations come in several scenes after the fact. Through dialog we are given to understand that the Poindexters are a rich and kind of snobbish family while Gerald Morris is just a pennyless Mustanger (apparently there is little money in the horse trade in this version of Texas; though this may also be due to Gerald Morris’ business acumen, as we’re bound to find out). However, it doesn’t feel like that – which isn’t helped by scenes like the one that’s immediately following: Louisa spots a white horse and is immediately infatuated by it. Captain Calhoun offers to buy it for her, but Miguel Diaz, trying to impress Isidora, is immediately offering a higher price, which turns into an improptu bidding war that goes up to 500$ within seconds. Morris, however, is having none of that.

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Next time I’m in Ireland I’ll have to check whether giving away highly priced horses as a housewarming gift is still a thing.

This is the first time we learn that the Mustanger hails from Ireland, by the way, another example of the movie just flat-out stating background information á propos of nothing. Also, I now understand how an Old West horse trader can be constantly broke. Anyways, Gerald Morris just gifts the horse to Lousia instead of accepting the money people were practically throwing at him. Lousia is overjoyed, but Isidora also tries to get her hands on the animal, which immediately causes some tension between them.

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With Gerald about centered, Louisa to the right and Isidora to the left, this scene quite literally sets up a love triangle! Also, hey, did you know that the movie takes place in 1850? Now you do!

Cutting away from the Hacienda de la Cova to the nearby settlement, a town that is given no name. Here, Mexican Tejanos and American-Texan Anglos are roaming the streets, with a Mexican showing his skill by expertly whipping bottles from a narrow wall and an American responding by simply shooting them with his gun.

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This image is inserted into the proceedings as randomly as I put it into this text, by the way. I guess they’re supposed to be Indians, although I am not quite sure: At no other point do Indians ever appear in the movie, only their absence is mentioned from time to time.

The saloon in this town is run by Diaz, and even though the clientele is quite mixed it is a distinctly Hispanic affair, with a Latina singing a spanish tune amidst the hard-drinking and poker-playing gentlemen. Captain Calhoun also arrives and immediately starts inquiring about the Mustanger, Gerald Morris. The Major and other guests throw a few wild stories about, calling him “the illegitimate son of a Spanish Queen” and “the viceroy of India” in jest. Diaz, in return, derisively calls him “just a rustler and a beggar”. The other men agree that he seems to be quite popular with the ladies though. A drunkard immediately asks Diaz how Isidora’s doing, since she was looking so pale at the ball. Diaz is taking that remark… not particularly well.

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The movie may be Russian, but it gets your typical Western Saloon service across splendidly.

Speaking of the devil, the Mustanger arrives at just this very moment. He orders a shot of Whiskey along with some water, but Diaz, still vexed, orders the keeper to just serve him water, assuming that he couldn’t pay anyway. Captain Calhoun breaks the tension by buying the entire Saloon a round, though. So Gerald gets treated his Whiskey, and we, the audience, get treated to this… interesting toast.

Morris takes offense to that, especially since Calhoun also deliberately bumped into the Mustanger and caused him to spill his drink onto his shirt. Calhoun feigns ignorance and adds another layer by stating that “judging from your lush costume, I thought you were a Mexican”. Morris returns the favor by tossing the rest of his drink into Calhouns face. Both men go for their six-shooters, but the Major immediately goes between them.

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And he’s also breaking his sword on the counter in the process (apologies for the blurriness of the pictures, I do not have a better resolution of the video – it’s more obvious in full motion).

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The Mustanger would be willing the let things slide if Calhoun apologized, but Calhoun refuses to apologize to a “costumed monkey”. So a duel seems inevitable. The Major at least tries to keep things fair, if anything: He asks both men to give him their weapons, leaving them only with one revolver and six bullets each. This also leads to this interesting exchange:

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“And I’m certain that this quirk will in no way come back to bite me in the ass at some point.”

Maybe it’s just me, but owning monogrammed bullets seems kind of counter-productive if you intend to shoot another person. (Captain Calhoun owning monogrammed bullets is actually lifted from the source material, believe it or not. However, in the novel it’s introduced in the context of hunting: Calhoun does it to prove that he was the one who dealt the killing shot to a deer. Which seems way more reasonable than just casually stating “I monogram all my weapons – including my bullets!”).

The duel itself is set up in an… interesting fashion: Everyone clears out of the Saloon, with Morris and Calhoun placing themselves in front of opposing entrances. On the ring of a bell, both men then dash inside and start shooting at each other.  While this is an odd way to set up a gunfight, it does indeed make for an exciting fight scene.

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The combatants may stumble about awkwardly, and the camera angles and cuts are quite confusing, but that somehow makes the gunfight charmingly chaotic / authentic.

The townspeople, meanwhile, wait outside, counting down the number of shots fired. Until after the eleventh shot, the Saloon falls quiet. Has a duellant fallen? No, not quite: The Mustanger has managed to overpower Captain Calhoun and, with one bullet left in the chamber, Morris forces his opponent to apologize and surrender.

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“You know, somehow I don’t believe you really mean it!”

Some time later – we never learn how much time has passed, which is a general problem in this movie – Louisa and her brother Harry talk about the duel while frolicking in their Hacienda’s gardens. When Louisa hears that the Mustanger was “carried away, drenched in blood”, she reacts with shock, though she denies it. She pretends not to care about Morris, calling him  “just a horse trader”, to which Henry amusedly replies, “yes, but he was fit to be an officer. More so than others.” Captain Calhoun, who happens to overhear them talking, doesn’t share that amusement. We also learn, á propos of nothing, that Captain Calhoun wants to marry Louise – a thought which she finds “really scary”.

Later that night, Calhoun pays Diaz a visit in the Saloon. He comes to pay for the damages in the Saloon – and offers an extra deal: 500 dollars now, and 500 later, for the removal of a certain rival. Diaz is amused by the offer. Calhoun urges Diaz to at least help him find the one Mexican who spits at the law – El Coyote. To which Diaz knowingly replies that whoever sees El Coyote is a dead man already.

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By the way, the Mexican is giving that line to the American – not vice versa.

Diaz gets immediately more serious the moment Calhoun brings Isidora into play, casually mentioning how there are rumors of her chasing after the Mustanger. The Saloon owner introduces the Captain to two of his associates – “Excellent guys, I swear to Christ” – and a plan is formed to ambush the mustanger.

The movie immediately jumps to the next day, with Calhoun trying to dissuade Louisa from riding out on her own. Of course he can’t tell her anything about any ambush, so he tries to warn her of Indians or El Coyote. Louisa, however, just makes fun of him.

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Maybe something got lost in translation there, but I can’t make much sense out of that line of argument.

And off she goes, galloping into the prairie english-style. We are treated to a few more beautiful shots of the white rocks of Bihosirsk Texas. As fate would dictate though, Louisa soon gets into trouble. Not because of any Indians or Mexican bandits however. Rather, she encounters a herd of silver-maned wild horses.

The next couple of sequences are rather hard to describe, due to the fact that, again, the movie is cut in a very awkward way. Which isn’t helped by the fact that the filmmakers never get our actors and the herd of horses into the same shots together. One moment Louisa is watching a herd of horses from a distance – we see a few close-ups of the animals – then we see the mustanger riding through a few cacti – then suddenly we’re back with Louisa at full gallop, who is now apparently being chased by the wild mustangs.

Gerald Morris comes to Louisa’s aid, and with a little help from some movie magic good equestrian skill, they jump a chasm and manage to get a little more distance between them and the herd.

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Apparently this place is called the “Canyon of Death” that “once wiped out an entire tribe of Indians”. Seems legit.

But the danger isn’t quite over yet. So while the Mustanger tries to hold off the horses with his gun, he sends Louisa to the relative safety of his nearby cabin. Relative, because in the hectic he neglected to mention that Isidora Covarubio is already there.

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“Sorry, did I forget to tell you about the temperamental Latina who’s got the hots for me staying at my place? My bad!”

Turns out that she spent the past few days and nights at the cabin actually, nursing the Mustanger back to health after his duel (again, no idea HOW much time had passed). The fiery Latina and the cool, reserved aristocrat clash immidiately, and Isidora chases Louisa off – the Tejana calling out that the Mustanger belongs to her, her alone. However, in riding away Louisa feels the need to get another jab in, telling Isidora that she might be interested in him herself – she just hasn’t decided yet. The brat.

Calhoun, meanwhile, is looking for Lousia but lost track of her, when he runs into a strange old coot. Every classic adventure story that takes place in the Old West seems to need a quirky old trapper or hunter of sorts.  That role is filled by Zeb Stump, who never answers directly to questions, but rather, without being prompted, spouts musings that can be interpreted as wise words or random gibberish. He is an experienced hunter and tracker, though, so he can determine the route Louisa took by her tracks – and also the fact that Gerald Morris has come to her aid (all that despite not knowing the lady’s horse and with an entire herd of Mustangs having trampled over her tracks). He also seems to be the only man (besides Henry Poindexter) who has taken a liking to the Mustanger.

We also finally learn what actually happened: Louisa’s horse is a mare, and apparently she’s in heat (the mare, not Lousia… though I’d understand if you were confused), which caused the herd to chase after her. The herd dispersed however when Gerald put a bullet into its leader’s head. Would’ve been nice to see or learn that while it was going down, instead of being told all that by a random old coot we’ve never seen before about ten minutes afterwards.

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Is he talking about horses or people? You decide!

Calhoun takes the news that it was Morris who saved Louisa from trouble not well, promising to make the “Irish bastard” pay. Not the wisest words to say within earshot of someone who just moments ago mused that he “would have voted for him to be President of America”.

Louisa meanwhile has once more run into the Mustanger on her way back from the Cabin. She confronts him about Isidora, to which Gerald replies that she just “very generously thanked me for a small service that I once did for her”, saving her from three drunkards. Which seems like quite the understatement when she must’ve spent several days at his cabin caring for him. It quickly becomes apparent that he is more interested in Louisa Poindexter though, but acknowledges that they could never be together. He compares the Canyon from earlier as “a miserable ditch compared to the abyss that separates the daughter of a millionaire from a poor Mustanger”.

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Well, at least we agree on the “miserable ditch” part. Nice matte painting though.

Louisa coyly asks him whether that means he wouldn’t come to her aid again if she were in trouble. When he replies that he wished it wouldn’t come to that, she coldly bids him farewell and rides off.

While this is going on, Diaz and his men have made their way to the Mustangers’ cabin. Their ambush is thwarted however when Diaz notices Isidora there, singing – unless my rusty spanish fails me – about her unrequited passion and broken heart. Diaz literally throws himself at her feet, but she still rejects him. That’s when one of his associates makes a fatal mistake.

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You’ve got to admit, he is quite the remarkable shot if he managed to get back up to his feet, leap several meters and shoot him twice in such a short time.

So Miguel Diaz… is El Coyote! What a surprise! Isidora though isn’t particularly impressed by that revelation – indeed, she laughs at the fact that the notorious bandit El Coyote is in love with her. Diaz threatens that everyone who knows his identity must die, but Isidora sees through him. He wouldn’t kill her since he’s in love with her, which makes her deride him even more, catch him with her lasso, then rides off laughing.

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Don’t mess with Tejanas.

Later that night, Louisa is meeting a “mysterious cloaked figure” in the gardens. Unfortunately, Calhoun lies awake and spies them. Instead of intervening himself however, he awakens Henry, warning him that his sister was “in the hands of a dirty crook” and urging him to “fill his belly with bullets”. The overeager youth, instead of sneaking up on the pair as he’s been told, barges in on his sister and threatens the “stranger” with his gun, not recognizing the figure. The stranger casually strolls off steals back into the night, and Louisa prevents her brother from shooting after him. Louisa confesses that she loves that man, and it slowly dawns on Henry that the stranger must’ve been… Gerald Morris!

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Fair enough, he must’ve been hard to recognize from a whole 4 feet away.

Henry is shocked and embarrassed about his own behavior, which isn’t helped by his sister further guilt-tripping him by saying things like “you disgustingly insulted him” and “now you parted as enemies”. The boy, dedicated to setting things right, immediately goes after the Mustanger to apologize.

However, when the Poindexters sit down for breakfast the next morning, Pluto, the house servant, informs the rest of the family that the young master is nowhere to be found. Shortly afterwards, a couple of townspeople arrive with Henry’s horse – but without the boy. Two search parties are formed, and while the Major of the Army takes a few men to check with the Comanche – who are never to be seen – Miguel Diaz follows a ‘hunch’ and takes the other group to Gerald Morris’ place.

Indeed, they fing a figure lying on the ground that Woodley Poindexter initially mistakes for Henry. However, when he throws back the poncho, the men find it’s the Mustanger instead: unconscious, with a bloodied face, and apparently wearing Henry’s poncho (which took me a while to realize, because none of the men states that, and we’ve only seen Henry wear a Poncho for a few seconds, during a scene in the middle of the night – so this scene confused me quite a bit at first). There’s no sight of Henry’s body, but Calhoun instantly convinces the mob that Gerald Morris must’ve had a fight and killed Henry, citing the visible injuries as proof. The crowd immediately thirsts for blood. Before they can string the unconscious man up on the nearest tree though, Zeb Stump arrives, threatening to shoot the first man who tries to lay a hand on the Mustanger. In a spin on the new testament’s creed of “Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone”, he proceeds to call out several of the townspeople. His statements sound less like individual accusations, however,  and more… preachy: He accuses one man of lynching a Negroe that one time when he lost his saddle, and another three for dressing up as Comanche and stealing cattle “for which five innocent Indians got hanged”.

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I get the sneaking suspicion that this Russian movie is trying to tell us something about its stance on Old West Justice…

The improptu lynching is stopped when the Major arrives, who won’t allow any hanging without a proper trial first, so he proceeds to arrest Gerald. Some of the men still insist on stringing the Mustanger up right now, but are halted when they spot… THE HEADLESS HORSEMAN!

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We’re about an hour into this 90-minute-movie, but he finally made an appearance… even if he just looks like a dude with a cloak pulled over his head.

“Its size favoured the idea of the supernatural. It appeared double that of an ordinary man upon an ordinary horse. It was more like a giant on a gigantic steed; though this might have been owing to the illusory light under which it was seen—the refraction of the sun’s rays passing horizontally through the tremulous atmosphere of the parched plain.” That’s how the first appearance of the headless horsemen is described in the novel. I guess superimposing a rider over the edge of a cliffside might recreate the effect in some manner, but the overall impression seems a bit… lacking.

While the town is preparing for the trial of Gerald Morris, Zed Stump is inquiring about the strange headless horseman, who makes an occasional appearance in between scenes casually strolling about. His appearances are accompanied by a screeching soundtrack, but they do little to purvey any sort of horror, especially since we never see anyone reacting to them – as per usual, we only get second-hand talk. Pluto, the house servant, and ‘the other negroes’ claim that he’s “the devil”. Zeb Stump however already has a theory on what’s really going on, though he doesn’t share it with anyone yet.

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On the one hand, the movie tries to frame the abuse of slaves as a bad thing, but on the other, its portrayal of dark-skinned people really is less than flattering.

In the meantime the trial is taking place, and this is where the movie takes a hard dive into a farce. There is no courtroom, so the trial is taking place in the town square. The old judge presiding is either really good on acting drunk or completely drunk off his ass – it’s hard to be sure, but he definitely seems to have a lot of trouble with his lines. Maybe that’s part of the joke, because the entire trial is geared against the Mustanger from the get-go, with everyone just waiting for the conclusion to finally see Morris hang. The Judge, the prosecution, even the defense, they all seem incredible disdainful towards the whole process – it’s a veritable Kangaroo court. The fact that a Soviet-Russian movie is making such overt jabs against the American Justice system does bear a certain irony and makes the whole affair feel unreal.

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Tell me you wouldn’t expect a fair trail from this man?!?

It is now that we also learn a few other important facts: Woodley Poindexter is bankrupt; he bought the Hacienda and its cotton plantation with money he loaned from his nephew, Cassius Calhoun. The latter is treating the servants badly (something we only now get truly aware of) because he already considers them his property. Calhoun also confronts Louisa directly: Either she marries him, or he takes the stand as a witness and tell everyone that he saw her with Morris the night of Harry’s disappearance, thus ruining her reputation and damning the Mustanger in one fell swoop.

However, when he finally does take the stand, he can’t bring himself to shame Louisa in front of everybody. Instead, he claims that he overheard Gerald talking with “another voice”, insinuating the other was Henry. He also counts on the statement of Miguel Diaz  that should lead to a conviction of the mustanger.

The timeline now really gets confusing here, because scenes of the trial are interrupted with a flurry of sequences where I can’t be sure whether they take place during the trial itself, are a flashback to a moment before, or take place at night after a day in court. It seems like individual scenes within a space of five minutes take place on three different days, but nothing really marks the passage of time. First, Diaz was getting ready for his statement, but Isidora talked him out of it at first by threteaning to reveal his identity as El Coyote if he took the stand! Then, Calhoun forces him to reconsider, by goading him into a game of chance to let “fate decide” and immediately cheating him into taking the stand. We see the judge calling for Miguel Diaz twice; the first time he simply doesn’t show up. The second time, a visibly drunk Diaz eventually takes the stand, spouting his often-used catchprase one final time.

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“And I drunk I’m not swear! Honestly”

However, before he gets to doom the Mustanger with his statement, Isidora storms the place and is about to reveal his identity. Diaz shoots her more or less on reflex, then is immediately heartbroken about it before being gunned down himself.

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Dammit, why do these movies have the tendency to kill off strong, independent women???

The proceedings draw to a close, but Gerald Morris himself has until now steadfastly refused to give his statement. The jury is about to pronounce him guilty, when Louisa finally takes heart. She confesses to the crowd that she loves Gerald, who apparently had remained silent to preserve her reputation, and thus she frees him to finally share his version of the story. And any pretense of this film not being a criticism of Western imperialism as a whole goes right out of the window…

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Or that, yeah. Thanks, judge.

First, we finally learn more about the Mustangers background: He actually hails from a respected house in Ireland, but rejected his fathers wishes of becoming a priest. Instead, he rebelled against the English Crown, was declared a public enemy and had to flee to Texas. Here, he became a friend of the natives, who took to calling him “Generous hands”, and no, I have no idea what any of this would have to do with the trial at hand.

He admits that he and Henry first parted as enemies, but then Henry caught up with him and “warmly and sincerely asked for forgiveness for his rudeness”. He then adds this little bonmot:

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Yes, Gerald, that seems like an incredibly smart thing to say to a Texan jury while you’re standing as the accused in a murder trial.

Anyways, he exchanged clothes with Henry – “it is a custom of my friends, the Indians” – to symbolize their kinship and acknowledge one another as brothers. However, only a few minutes after they parted, Gerald heard two shots, and soon stumbled upon the beheaded body of Henry, still wearing his cloak. He now reveals the identity of the Headless Horseman: “Standing over Henry, I remembered something I once read about South America: When a man dies in the pampas, friends do carry him, and have him sitting on a horse like if he were alive. So I did that”. I must admit I’ve never heard about that particular custom. But before you accuse the movie of contrivance, that line about South American customs is actually lifted from Thomas Main Reids novel. Speaking of contrivance, Gerald had just about tied the headless Henry onto his own steed, when suddenly, there occured the most impressive Jaguar attack in movie history:

Never since the time Bela Lugosi fought a rubber squid have I seen such a masterful combination of Stock footage and a man pretending to wrestle a stuffed animal!

I didn’t cut the attack footage itself by the ways; the way the stock footage and film scenes are spliced together is genuine. I did however leave out a scene where the judge interrupted Gerald’s narration by cracking a weird joke.

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I…. I don’t get it.

Injured and exhausted from the Jaguar attack, Gerald managed to make his way back home, where he finally collapsed into unconsciousness; where he remained until the search party found him. To get one final jab against America in with his tale, he concludes his statement with the words “I know that is not difficult for a man to get himself hanged in your country, but I have nothing more to say.”

With the Mustanger’s tale concluded, the jury is about to proclaim their verdict for a second time, when there is yet another surprise witness: The Headless Horseman himself!

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“He had an attitude of ease and grace—with spurs sparkling upon his heels—the bridle-rein held in one hand—the other where it should be, resting lightly upon his thigh!” – Thomas Maine Reed, The Headless Horseman.

Woodley Poindexter instantly recognizes the black-robed headless rider as his son (don’t ask me how) and breaks down in tears. The real truth is about to be unveiled, and Zeb Stump guesses the answer to the killer’s identity lies “in this body”. Have you’ve guessed what’s coming next?

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The bullets I understand, but why was there still a saber with the headless horseman?

Yes, the murderer was none other than Kassius Cassius Calhoun, the notorious monogrammer of weapons and bullets. What, did you think I was just kidding spelling his name with a “K” earlier? (That’s because in the written russian-cyryllic language, the written “C” is actually spoken like a Latin “S” or “si”).

In the novel, Cassius confesses to shooting Henry by mistake, then “to make more sure, I drew out my knife [! sic]; and the cursed serapé still deceiving me, I hacked off his head.” Movie-Calhoun, however, goes into full-on villain mode: he takes Louise hostage and while trying to escape on horseback, he runs over his uncle Woodley, who awkwardly drops to the floor, dead. So its time for Gerald Morris to have his big damn hero moment.

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It’s “Hi-Ho, Silver!”-Time!

The final battle however is rather disappointing; as per western rule #57, Gerald manages to head Cassius Calhoun off at the pass, which coincidentally is (maybe, possibly) near the earlier “Canyon of Death” – the disjointed and chaotic cutting of scenes makes it hard to identify. He chases the villainous Captain around with a bullwhip for a bit, until finally the villain drops off into the Canyon – or rather, he stumbles outside the screen and we hear an off-camera yell signifying that he found his end, apparently.

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Not exactly the most climactic of showdowns, I must say.

And thus, our story draws to its conclusion, and in closing the movie is quoting the novel: “If you happen to come to Texas, visit Casa del Corvo. There, you may get hints of a strange story connected with the place—now almost reduced to a legend. The domestics will tell it you, but only in whispers: since they know that it is a theme tabooed by the master and mistress of the mansion, in whom it excites sad memories. It is the story of the Headless Horseman.”

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Pictured: Sadness.

The Verdict

You know, despite all my ribbing above, the first half of the movie is actually not half bad. As long as the story moves along at a steady pace, everything remains quite interesting: The rivalry between the protagonist, a lowly horsewrangler, and his opponent, a Captain of the US Army, both fighting for the affections of a plantation owner’s daughter, is a classic but enduring motif. The filmmakers made a decent effort of recreating a Texan-style township – using Cuban actors as stand-ins for Mexicans worked quite well in their favor in that regard, and apart from a few gripes here and there, the story is quite competently told. I was also surprised when I checked Reid’s original novel and found out that, for the most part, it was quite faithfully adapted. The filmmakers probably bit off more than they could chew, though, considering that they attempted to cram all 101 chapters of the novel into a runtime of 95 minutes.

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The Western town they’ve set up for the film doesn’t look half bad, either.

Then, halfway through the film, the actual mystery of the Headless Horseman begins – and the movie completely falls apart. The relatively dynamic first half is replaced by lots of static court”room” scenes; and watching Soviet-Russian actors sort-of satirizingly act out a Wild-West Kangaroo court is quite bizarre to watch, let me tell you. It’s also during the second half when the movie really starts to ramp up its Anti-Americanism, to a point where you start to wonder whether the filmmakers had to hit a certain quota and only noticed how far they were still away from fulfilling that mark halfway through.

Speaking of halfway through, I also got the feeling that most of the actors seemed to lose interest the more the movie dragged on. Some of the performances were lifeless to begin with – Louisa, the female lead of the story, has all of the emotional range of a Porcellain doll – but by the end, I really got the feeling that the actors were just trying to finally get it over with; dialogue got more stilted, the acting sloppy, and the action has lost any momentum. My favorite actors were the Cubans playing Isidora and Miguel, because they actually EMOTED. Diaz in particular wasn’t afraid of hamming it up every once in a while, and I vastly preferred his bug-eyed eyebrow-waggling over the cold, smug sense of superiority the main protagonist practically radiated throughout the entire film.

The movie has low production values, though again: It seems the filmmakers spent more effort on the scenes and the sets early on than in the latter half of the movie. The camera is wonky, and the scenes are cut in a confusing way, mostly to hide the fact that they weren’t able to shoot most of the stunts they’d need for some of their more action-laden scenes. Early on, they managed to have that work in their favor – the gunfight in the Saloon is a very good example. By the end however the cheapness turns almost farcial, like when they’re simulating a Jaguar attack using stock footage, a sock puppet and simply throwing a stuffed animal at the hero. Too bad, then, that the mysterious and almost mystical nature of the Horseman-sightings that would need the most effort only take place in the final 30-40 minutes of the film.

Rating

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The movie really straddles the line between bad and good. Yes, the film is very low-budget, but the first 45 minutes are really not half-bad, and even the weaker moments have almost an endearing charm to them during that timeframe. The second half though feels like everyone involved stopped caring round about the one-hour-mark: the acting gets worse, the effects laughable, the preachiness is ramped up significantly, and the final climax is really diappointing.

Still, this movie has its moments. And its certainly interesting to see such an unusual take on the Western genre from a culture heavily critical of the Wild West’s home country.

And those who love bad movies with cheap special effects shall never forget the magnificent Jaguar attack!

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