Reduced to catching frogs for food, Confederate soldiers returning from the war are treated as second-class citizens and hunted down by a gang of bounty hunters (in a similar premise to The Great Silence), operating under the protection of local law enforcement agencies.
Guiliano Gemma (The Day of Anger, A Pistol For Ringo) plays Michael 'California' Random, one such soldier who takes the naive Willy Preston (Miguel Bose) under his wing. When his companion is shot in the back and strung up for stealing a horse, California travels to his parents' Georgia ranch to break the bad news. In typical style he falls for Helen, his dead comrade's sister, and following the senseless killing of three Confederates by bounty killer Rope Whitaker (Raimund Harmstorf) and his men, he gets caught up in the ensuing crossfire as federal agents arrive to take Whitaker down. The sister is taken hostage as the gang make their escape, and California vows to track down the bounty hunters and return Helen home.
Filmed in 1977, at the tail-end of the Spaghetti Western boom - a time when the "comedy" spaghetti had all but wiped the genre out – Michele Lupo's California, like Castellari's Keoma has an altogether more sobering feel to it. It's a film that, for the first act at least, knows that its time has passed. This is the death knell of the serious Western all'Italiana, and a sense of hopeless desperation pervades throughout. Perpetual rain and mud colour the canvas, as it does in Keoma, before the familiar dusty vistas of the Almerian badlands return for the final act, delivering us into the more traditional territory of the revenge-driven Spaghetti West.
Guiliano Gemma, in a welcome departure from his wide-eyed innocent act, pulls off the seasoned veteran role usually reserved for the likes of Lee Van Cleef and Gianni Garko, with the confidence of a man who has grown up in the genre (debuting 12 years earlier in 1965's Adios Gringo). His heroism, as with the best Spaghetti Western protagonists, is far from clear-cut, aiding and abetting a Wells-Fargo stagecoach robbery (For A Few Dollars More-style) to ingratiate himself with the fugitive Whitaker, and in perhaps the most shocking scene, smashing a whisky bottle into the mouth of the very same bounty hunter, neck first.
California works well as a reminder of how great this genre once was. It even ropes in another stalwart of Spaghetti Westdom in the guise of William Berger (Sabata, No Room to Die and many, many more), who is sadly underused as Preston senior, but still fulfils his position as an elder statesman of these wonderful films, as he did in Keoma.
The comparisons with the aforementioned Keoma are unavoidable. Both are twilight Spaghettis – classics filmed in the dying days of the late '70s - and both are tinged with a sense of gloomy pessimism. In the case of Keoma this lasts for the entirety of the film, whereas California manages to rekindle the original Spaghetti Western spark with its last half hour. For that reason, and despite what any other critic might say, California edges ahead of its twilight Spaghetti brethren, just because it avoids the navel-gazing and eventually takes us back to the genus's roots. It also has a far more traditional score by Gianni Ferrio, in contrast to the De Angelis one that tries its best to ruin Castellari's film.
I can recommend California to both newcomers and old-hands to the world of Spaghetti Westerns. In fact, the only problem I foresee you having with this rarity is getting hold of a copy.