The 19th century. A hidden treasure from the civil war. A band of outlaws led by a disgraced rebel captain. A taciturn stranger with supreme gunfighting skills. Shootouts, chases on horseback, ambushes and a hanging. This movie checks many key marks of your typical standard western, save one: Instead of the Wild West, it leads us into the Wallachian Wilderness.
As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the heyday of the Eurowestern during the 1960s and early 70s also led to an increased popularity of the Western genre in the nations of the Eastern Block. Many Italian Westerns were shot in Jugoslawia, Czechoslowakian and Polish Actors played major roles in both West and East German productions, and even the USSR decided to produce full fledged Western movies of their own. All this made Western movies all the more popular in the neighboring countries of the Warsaw Pact as well.
As the 1970s were drawing to their close however, the Eurowestern, which had revitalized the Western genre in the previous two decades, entered a slump. Too many movies shot in a very short timeframe – IMDB lists over 400 Westerns produced by italian studios in the 15 years between 1960 and 1975 alone – had oversaturated the market. It didn’t help that in 1977, a certain movie about Warring Stars turned Science Fiction into the new hot Cinema trend. The (geographically) Western market had basically grown tired of the Western genre, at least in terms of theatrical releases.
In an ironic twist however, the Eastern Block was still very much interested in Western movies – at least in the genre, if not the place of origin. Even though most American movies were still censored or banned in the nations of the Warsaw pact, Eurowesterns had been distributed more freely, especially those that were shot in socialist countries or produced by a studio under the eyes of a communist regime. Since by the late 1970s the former deluge of Western movies slowed to a trickle, nations like Hungary or Romania now had to buckle up and satisfy the hankering for Wild West adventure, rougery and gunfights by themselves.
However, shooting a movie set in the imperialist United States still was difficult for filmmakers in a communist country. The solution to that dilemma: Take the basic Western formula and disguise it as a historic drama that supports the home country’s nationalist agenda. While these movies rarely found their way across the iron curtain, many of them proved to be very popular in their home countries. One prime example is “Drumul Oaselor”: Shot in 1980, it is considered to be the 15th most popular Romanian movie of all time according to the local Wikipedia. And while there seems to be no english version of the movie (although not one, but two german translations exist – one for the West-German and one for the East-German market), it was successful enough in its home country to spawn not one, but five sequels by 1987!
About the Movie
“Drumul Oaselor” is the first movie in the “Mărgelatu” film series, which draws its name from its main protagonist, the taciturn rogue Mărgelatu. Portrayed by Romanian character actor Florin Piersic, Mărgelatu is basically what you get if the Man with No Name from the “Dollars-Trilogy” waltzed into a “Sissi“-movie, but refused to break his stride. If that sounds like a major tonal clash, well, it is. To his credit though, Florin Piersic makes it work somehow, portraying a mysterious rogue that exists somewhere between citizenry and peasant country folk, yet belonging to neither social class. Mărgelatu might be completely obscure to Western audiences, but he became an immensely popular character in Romania and Hungary, at least during the 1980s.
The cool demeanor and implied superiority Florin Piersic radiates in these films makes for an intriguing character, even though he’s basically an Eastern European knockoff version of Clint Eastwood (or a “Romanian Django”, as other sources call him). There are a few notable differences though: While your typical “Man with no Name” archetype is normally a vagrant or vagabond of some type, they rarely look as much like a highway robber as this Romanian interpretation does. Instead of constantly chewing on a cigarillo, Mărgelatu has this odd quirk where he constantly picks, eats and spits out sunflower seeds, much to the chagrin of his occasional companions. And while he manages to strike fear and discomfort in his opponents just by glaring at them, it’s because Mărgelatu looks more like an unpredictable crazy person than a cold, calculating badass.
All films in the Mărgelatu series were produced during the final decade of communism in Romania, when the country was still ruled by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. Due to massive censorship issues, this made shooting a “Western”-like film dealing with typical “Western” movie issues tricky: How do you tell a story about an outlaw dealing with bandits and corrupt authorities, struggling with the constraints of civilization and fighting for individual freedom in such an environment, especially when the USA were still considered the imperialist enemy of the classes? In order to sidestep these issues, the producers of “Drumul Oaselor” didn’t advertise the movie as a Western per sé, but rather as an “historic adventure”. The story is set in 1848 – the year when revolution swept through many European nations, and also the year when the regions that now constitute Romania were ruled seperately by either the Russian, Austro-Hungarian or the Ottoman empire. “Drumul Oaselor” is set in Wallachia, and the plot revolves around a band of rebels called the “brotherhood” – loosely based on an actual secret society from Romanian history – who are fighting for the Romanian people and against the oppressive rule of foreign powers and influences in the guise of the Habsburgs. Thus, the valiant strife for individuality and freedom which is central for the genre is retained, only reframed into the fight against a “Western” power that was more palatable to 1980s Eastern Block politics. (I should also mention that the movie, at least in the version I saw, never even once mentions Russian rule or presence. Since the 1848 revolts in Romania were also implicitly directed against the rule of Czarist Russia, it would seem that the filmmakers decided to ignore this little factoid, considering that the USSR were one of communist Romania’s major allies).
This effort of reframing results in a major clash of styles however, at least within the first quarter of the movie: In order to address the context this story is taking place in, the movie first needs to introduce the historic framework. As such, while the intro certainly gives off an appropriately gritty western feel – a lone rider, his face masked in the shadow of his wide-brimmed hat, riding through empty wastelands, accompanied by a theme that wouldn’t feel out of place despite it’s romanic influences – it is immediately followed by a ballroom scene that seems more suited for a costume drama rather. The main character isn’t introduced until the 20-minute-mark in this two-hour-movie, and it takes another 15 minutes before the adventure really starts kicking off. Until then, there is lots of talk about politics and backroom intrigue going on. Those well familiar with historic 19th century figures and events, such as Tudor Vladimerescu, the 1821 Wallachian uprising against Ottoman rule, or the aforementioned Frăția (literally “The Brotherhood”), may feel right at home. To everyone else, the constant name dropping of historic references within the first quarter of the movie might feel rather tedious instead.
After the set pieces are in place however, the adventure kicks into high gear, and we finally get something that feels pretty much like a Western: The remaining three quarters of the movie deal with outlaws on the run from authorities who try to make their way towards the border. Their escape route leads directly through the eponymous “Drumul Oaselor” – the “Path of bones”, a dry, inhospitable wasteland. And to the films credit, after that strange off-key beginnings many of these later scenes wouldn’t look out of place in your typical western flick. It helps that the area these parts of the movie take place in, in the Romanian county of Loviște, comes pretty close to conveying an appropriate look and feel of a Western, even if it seems a bit more ‘rural’ than what one might be generally accustomed to.
Other than that, the movie also starts checking many of the typical tropes: The central band of outlaws consists, amongst others, of a rebel captain and stylish gambler type, honor, betrayal and revenge are major themes throughout the film, there are shootouts, horse chases, abandoned wagons… at one point, Mărgelatu even saves a man from being hanged by shooting the rope of his noose.
Other than the fact that the Western part of the movie takes quite a while to kick in, another thing first-time viewers will certainly notice concerns the production values. Eurowesterns generally weren’t at the same level production-wise than their Hollywood counterparts. Even though Westerns were generally considered to be a relatively low-budget affair by US standards, European productions had greater struggles to meet if they wanted to be at the same level in terms of equipment, wardrobe, action or special effects. The bigger Spaghetti Westerns were usually multi-studio-efforts with Italian, Spanish and German support, while the majority were shot quickly, sometimes with two or three productions going on at the same time, to safe costs on actors, time and location. Still, even those had a certain amount of effort going into the stuntwork, video quality and location scouting.
Romanian Studios weren’t even able to measure up to that level. Being able to set the movie in the Romanian past certainly helped in terms of wardrobe and shooting on location. Nevertheless, the film looks and feels more like your average 1970’s TV production than a cinematic effort. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but the action sequences in particular lack the flash and pizzaz movies from the other side of the Iron Curtain could muster. Also, the camerawork is quite shakey even if there isn’t much action going on, particularly in the outdoors sequences. Still, the setting allowed them to get away with taking a few shortcuts in terms of accessories. Instead of Colt revolvers the characters use single-shot flintlock pistols, rifles are replaced with old carbines, and at least the travel clothes, while distinctly eastern european, wouldn’t look too amiss in a movie of the Old West period (as long as you disregard the city streets and ballroom scenes).
Bukarest, 1848: Revolution hangs in the air. The brotherhood, a secret conspiracy against Austrian rule (based on an actual historic organization), tries to secretly raise money in order to buy weapons for their planned uprising. They plan to contact an agent who goes by the name of “Yellow Rose”, who has promised to hook them up with an arms dealer from out of country. One of their leaders, ‘Captain’ Baroncea, tries to convince the aristrocrat Pană Grădișteanu, himself a notorious gambler and womanizer, to join their cause and help them out, since Pană’s father supposedly knows the secret location of a treasure hidden by famous revolutionary Tudor Vladimerescu. After Agia Villara, the commander of the Habsburg forces and the secret police of Greater Wallachia, has three members of the brotherhood executed, Baroncea tries but fails to assassinate him. Escaping thanks to the intervention of a mysterious horseman and gunslinger by the name of Mărgelatu, the conspirators are now under pressure to accelerate their timetable. With the authorities at their heel, ‘Captain’ Baroncea, Pană, his girlfriend Agatha the actress, the mysterious Mărgelatu and two other members of the brotherhood try to acquire the treasure and flee across the border to Transylvania in order to meet up with the arms dealer and the unknown man called “Yellow Rose”.
The heavily indebted Pană manages to get his hands on the treasure and tries to make a run for it, but gets intercepted by the rest of the gang who don’t take kindly to this betrayal. Mărgelatu intervenes and temporarily saves the aristocrat’s neck, but nerves are getting raw. However, the Habsburg soldiers are in hot pursuit, and the outlaws’ only route of escape leads thorugh the treacherous “Path of Bones”, a route rumored to have claimed the lives of many who tried to cross it, and Pană is supposedly the only one of them who knows the way through.
The rest of the film deals with said escape. Soon, thirst, greed, and the constant hounding of the law take their toll on the motley gang. The small group is torn between different motives, they get attacked by Habsburg soldiers, and there’s a potential traitor among them as well – and although Mărgelatu time and again saves their bacon, nobody really knows what a shifty fellow like him is trying to gain out of all this. One by one they fall on their way to the Transilvanian border, until only Pană, Agatha and Mărgelatu are left…
As I mentioned before, there is a major tonal clash going on between the first quarter or third of the movie, which feels more like a cloak-and-dagger costume drama, and the rest of the film, which rapidly starts checking several different boxes of Western tropes. It is apparent where the filmmakers drew their inspiration from, especially when it comes to the character of Mărgelatu. While everything else seems kind of stuffy and clunky in its setup – we even need to get through a few scenes of a Hamlet stageplay before the movie really gets going – the main character himself is introduced with an air of coolness and mystery that stands in stark contrast to the rest of his surroundings. He radiates superiority without smugness (though there definitely is some arrogance in his behavior), he’s more a man of action than of words, and the filmmakers even took time to establish that the characters owns a unique signature weapon that he uses, albeit occasionally: An 8-barrel pepperbox pistol. Given that every other character only uses single-shot flintlocks in this setting, this choice of weapon definitely stand out.
Still, the staging of Mărgelatu’s first appearance on horseback in the nightly streets of Bukarest looks odd, like a Western character rode into the wrong film by mistake. The movie also is clunky in a few other aspects as well. Sometimes the sense of passage of time and space gets pretty warped. For example, at one point our heroes split up, then rejoin at a completely new location one half of the group knew nothing about. The heroes decide to only travel by night and rest at daytime due to the dryness and heat, yet whenever they travel, it seems to be brightest daylight, despite there also being nighttime scenes. Later the party gets overtaken and ambushed by their pursuers, even though it was always stated that there was only “one way out” of the path of bones. Speaking of which, the presumably dry and inhospitable wastes along the Path of Bones also seem to have a hard time living up to their reputation.
Is it fair to compare a Eastern European movie that not only had to deal with lower production values, but also with a completely different political and cultural climate to its ‘proper’ Western cousins? Probably not. Even by the 1980s, Romanian cinema certainly was quite far from the same level when it came to action scenes and special effects. It’s also apparent that the film equipment wasn’t quite up to snuff. You can tell that the filmmakers tried to make the most out of what little they had at hand, but, if you’re used to the fast pace of Spaghetti Westerns or the epic scale American, certain Italian and even some German Westerns managed to convey, ‘Drumul Oaselor’ can’t help but feel a little clunky by comparison. The exposition dump within the first half hour is a bit overwhelming if you’re not familiar with Romanian history, and even though the pace picks up afterward, it is still a bit unsteady, the action clumsy, the framing shaky. It is appropriately dirty when it needs to be, albeit more in terms of literal dirt rather than mood or mentality.
One has to consider, however, that Romanian moviegoers weren’t quite as accustomed to Western tropes as the US or Western Europe were; the market definitely wasn’t as oversaturated as ours were by the time the 1970s ended. If you’re not that familiar with your Django’s, Ringo‘s or other “Men with no Name” stereotypes, it’s not hard to see how Mărgelatu became quite the iconic character in his home country. Florin Piersic manages to carry a certain air of mystery and calm superiority, mixed with the occasional disgusting quirk, that is fascinating to watch, even if his eyes give off the impression of a crazed hobo occasionally.
This movie certainly isn’t a ‘purebred’ Western, as it veers off into cloak-and-dagger costume drama more than occasionally. Its pedigree, however, can’t be denied, and it tires to make the best out of the tropes at hand. If you’re familiar with the background you might be able to see the uniqueness of the setting breaking through. Plainly viewed through the eyes of the Western fan however, it may just seem like an Eastern European knockoff that is quite stilted in places. Two hours may also be a bit long in the runtime – the pacing would certainly have benefitted of some trimming here and there. Still, there are a few nice tense scenes – one particular ambush sequence works pretty well. And while the acting in general may be uneven, Mărgelatu makes for an interesting character that for some might be able to carry the film alone. Too bad it takes so long until he gets there, though.
Your mileage may vary with this one. If you believe that a movie can be carried on the strength of a single character, this movie can be recommended; it’s certainly more unique than the tenth or twelth “Sartana”- or “Sabata”-Knockoff. Personally I found it more entertaining and better paced than the other previously discussed “Red Western” or “Eastern” movie, “Headless Horseman“. If you’re interested in a Romanian cinematic icon, it’s definitely worth checking out what Mărgelatu is like, even if he’s a bit of a Django-ripoff. Be prepared though that the movie takes a while to get going. And if you expect typical western setting while being completely unfamiliar with the Romanian historic background, the exposition within the first half hour of this movie might be lost on you. It’s a decent adventure movie with hardly a trace of ugliness to it though – there’s some violence and blood, but that’s about it.