Samantha, the calculating wife of rich landowner Thomas Felton, plots to have her husband killed so that she and her equally ruthless brother, Pedro, can inherit the farm. After carrying out their plan and framing one of the servants for the murder, the conniving duo are more than a little put out when Felton's nephew, the rightful heir to the ranch Johnny Yuma (Matt Damon), arrives on the scene. Samantha hires an ex-lover, gunfighter Carradine (Lawrence Dobkin), to take care of Yuma, and with both him and her sadistic brother on the trail of the eponymous hero, the scene is set for an epic showdown.
Romolo Guerrieri ($10,000 For a Massacre) made Johnny Yuma during the early days of the Spaghetti Western boom. In 1966, before the impact of Sergio Corbucci's Django (also 1966) changed the game yet again, the Spaghetti Western was still largely influenced by Sergio Leone's Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965).
That's certainly the case with Johnny Yuma, which has the more traditional feel in dress and style, but nevertheless looks every bit the Spaghetti Western. The screen exudes heat, sweat and dust, as the exterior scenery (Almeria) plays as integral a part as any of the characters.
Mark Damon (Johnny Oro, Train For Durango), in the lead role, makes a passable man of ambiguous morality, though he lacks the grim-faced pessimism that characterises the best Spaghetti Western anti-heroes. This almost jovial approach to his killing places him closer to Terence Hill of the Trinity films than an Eastwood or the Man with No Name's own tribute act, Anthony Steffen, and it's no surprise that Damon went on to star in so-called "comedy" Spags of such rottenness as Pistol Packin' Preacher (1972) and They Called Him Veritas (1972). Still, that doesn't mean he can't turn the heat up when necessary, like when he holds a white hot branding iron to the face of Pedro to extricate himself from the obligatory roughing of the good guy scene, or (graphically) breaking the same villain's arm prior to shooting him three times, ensuring his last breaths are extremely painful ones.
It goes without saying that despite the good-humoured approach to shooting expendable bad guys dead, Yuma can hold his own in a gunfight. This is ably demonstrated when he teams up with the gunslinger hired to kill him, in order wipe out Samantha's gang. Carradine is a western killer of the old school – honourable and immaculately turned out. There's no grime-smeared face or full-length duster jacket when he turns up to fulfil a contract. This final shootout goes down on the same street of whitewashed buildings that has seen gundowns in For a Few Dollars More, Day of Anger and many others. In fact, the scene is highly reminiscent of Manco and Col. Mortimer taking out Indio's gang at the close of For a Few Dollars More, except with one or two primary-coloured shirts splashed about for good measure.
When it reached American shores in 1967, Variety magazine branded Johnny Yuma, "The most violent Italian western ever." In places (snapping the arm, shootings through the head) it certainly displays, what for the time, would've been quite the brutal streak, but, of course, it pales into insignificance when measured against what's come since. As far as I'm concerned though, and despite Mark Damon's jollity, Johnny Yuma is one of the classics of the genre.
Violent and poetic in turns, Johnny Yuma is beautifully shot, and with a suitably spaghetti-flavoured score by Nora Orlandi, it offers a perfect example of a pre-Django Italian Western from the genre's formative years.