Mario Bava hadn’t been a big Western fan to begin with. He may have had two under his belt by the time he got to Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, his 1970 oddball horse opera, but it clearly wasn’t a genre in which he felt at home. Not unlike his earlier Western forays — The Road to Fort Alamo (1964) and Gunman Called Nebraska (1966) — Roy Colt and Winchester Jack started out straight enough, with a comparably conventional foundation. But it didn’t take long for Bava to steer the vehicle in a different direction, literally throwing the script away, according to several sources, and opting for a decidedly lighter tone. More than that, though, Bava sought to thoroughly lampoon the standards of the Spaghetti Western, particularly those tropes laid down and emblazoned by Sergio Leone. Subsequently bursting with self-conscious, off-beat comic absurdity, Roy Colt and Winchester Jack is Bava at his more carefree and careless. And depending on how eccentric one likes their Spaghetti Western, the film fails or succeeds on that basis.
For Roy Colt and Winchester Jack to work, though, it must be fairly steeped in the essentials of the genre, and as far as that goes, the picture is indeed firmly entrenched in canonical tropes. Even the primary character names — Roy Colt, played by Brett Halsey, and Winchester Jack, played by Charles Southwood — are deliberately assembled from the Western’s iconic weaponry (another character is simply dubbed “Shotgun”). And those characters correspondingly adhere to established models. Like Halsey, a veteran television actor who has appeared in several Spaghetti Westerns (1968’s Dario Argento-scripted Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die! among them), the far less prolific Southwood also had recent Western credentials, with I Am Sartana, Trade Your Guns for a Coffin also released in 1970. Here, they’re good-looking, good-natured, Butch and Sundance types, exulting rowdy antagonism and charismatic aptitude. As the film begins, they are engaged in some hearty roughhousing, amusing and bemusing the other members of their posse (it doesn’t seem to be the first time they’ve fought like this). After essentially brawling for control of the gang, Jack comes away victorious and Roy moseys away to seek out an “honest job.” Their separate paths, promptly linked by a shared quest for hidden treasure, introduce numerous side characters along the way, including Samuel (Giorgio Gargiullo), a crippled banker who piques Roy’s interest in the alleged wealth, and the flamboyant Reverend, played by Teodoro Corrà, who likewise has monetary motives (his actual piousness is debatable).
Meanwhile, Jack happens upon Manila (Marilù Tolo), a Native American woman wanted for the murder of her abusive husband, and they quickly commence a comically combative relationship. Southwood and Halsey are fine in their largely superficial roles, but Tolo assumes a more commanding, beguiling presence. Tolo had been a prolific actress, with a career ranging from sword and sandal epics of the early 1960s to work with the likes of Fellini and De Sica, and her Manila is an enticing, contradictory conundrum. She plays on her potent eroticism — “May I take advantage of you?” questions Jack. “Let’s see,” Manila responds, faux-deliberating, “Why not?” — as well as her canny, financial self-preservation, setting up what Tim Lucas calls a “sex tab” with Jack, who in turns refers to her as a “money-eating machine.” At the same time, she can be affectionately sympathetic, as when she partly satiates Roy’s thirst with a touching water-kiss (easily the film’s most tender moment).
With everyone in place, the stage is set for a tried and true framework of oppositional greed, wanton banditry, and rampant betrayal. Such a familiar scenario was prime fodder for the Spaghetti Western, a sub-genre that flagrantly boasted its character idiosyncrasies and stylistic quirks. Even in more serious situations, these films had an unabashed audacity, with over-the-top conceptions drifting toward surreal fantasy. Roy Colt and Winchester Jack therefore had a rather outrageous place to start from, so the fact it manages to amplify these inherent features surely says something about its unbridled lunacy. The basics are all there — the sweaty, grizzled, gritty faces; the hyper-virile masculinity and sexualized femininity; the crude humor and brash behavior; the scheming and deceit; and the overly dramatic evidence of skill (lighting a dynamite fuse with a gunshot and reducing Samuel’s crutches one shot at a time) — but Bava’s wild variation/deviation is also chockfull of slapstick humor, squeaking facial tics, and a bumbling, brothel set piece. The film is cartoonish and campy, with ludicrous sound effects, crazed escalations in violence, and random digressions from the principal storyline. Again, if average Spaghetti Westerns were already pushing the boundaries of adequate normalcy, a film like Roy Colt and Winchester Jack is easily one pratfall over the line.
The music for Roy Colt and Winchester Jack, composed by Piero Umiliani, who had just scored Bava’s 5 Dolls for an August Moon (1970), has all the customary cues to aurally designate a Spaghetti Western, but in working with Antonio Rinaldi, his go-to cinematographer, Bava manages to at least distinguish the picture on a few visual fronts. Scenically, suggesting his more prominent horror profile, Bava saturates nighttime scenes in a deep-blue tint, while an early-morning sequence is coated in a misty, enveloping haze. Though less demonstrative than it would be elsewhere, Bava’s camera work is also blatantly stylized (shooting through a lantern; low, wide angles) and carefully orchestrated (a great shot where Roy whistle for his horse, which enters frame and halts perfectly on its mark). It’s a little zoom-heavy, but in some scenes, that freedom actually works in the film’s favor, as when Roy addresses a cowardly populace — something repeatedly played for laughs — and in a single track-zoom combo, it is revealed that everyone has abandoned Roy’s plea, save for one man, who happens to be deaf.
Newly restored and released on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber (the disc’s main highlight is Lucas’ insightful commentary), Roy Colt and Winchester Jack is by no means a flawless film. However, though it is often excessive in its folly and inundated with fake matte backdrops and a landscape of artificial props, this tackiness would perhaps be more off-putting had the film’s general tone been different. As it is now, realism was obviously no one’s intent, and while Westerns may not have been Bava’s favored forte, he shows he could at least have fun with his indifference.