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China 9 stars Fabio Testi as a legendary gunfighter, Clayton Drumm, saved from the gallows by a railroad that hires Drumm to kill a rancher whose property the barons want. Drumm is so legendary that even Sam Peckinpah (playing a writer) shows up to offer to make him the next Wild Bill Hickok to the people back east if Drumm will just play along with the mythologizing (Drumm rejects the offer and notes that Wild Bill ended up shot in the back).
Drumm heads out to take care of his assignment - a rancher played by Warren Oates. Oates is a hard man - himself a former assassin for the railroads - who is maintaining the ranch solely for the purpose of becoming a rich man when the railroad comes through that way (and will need the oil on his property). His wife is played by Jenny Agutter. She's lonely and unhappy, not taking well to Oates' frontier hardness or his (and his brothers') treating of her as property.
Drumm ultimately ends up befriending the rancher - and the rancher's wife ends up falling in love with Drumm. Drumm decides to reject the railroad's assignment. The rancher knew Drumm was there for that reason and asks why Drumm changed his mind. The answer is that the gunfighter just came to like the guy. In that moment the spirit of the film is encapsulated - the struggle between the hard frontier wildness, the machismo that many westerns celebrate, and the spirit of romanticism that infects even the most legendary of western figures.
That struggle informs the rest of the movie. Ultimately Drumm and the rancher's wife give in to their lust for each other. When the rancher finds out, the wife runs away with Drumm. Drumm, who is accustomed to having no strings attached in his life, is suddenly trying to reconcile his desire to stay with and love this woman with the basic spirit of rejecting attachment that has helped him survive even as the people all around him have died. In the meantime, both the railroad and a posse formed by the rancher come after Drumm, and all hell breaks loose. While numerous plot elements develop, Drumm and the rancher at one time have a confrontation in which Drumm disarms the rancher but refuses to kill him. The rancher scoffs at Drumm, noting that a soft-hearted gunfighter isn't going to live for long - a reminder to Drumm that perhaps serves as the pragmatic antidote to this romantic fantasy.
Hellman and his writers (there are several) basically encapsulate the spirit of the western. While the movie comes at a time when westerns were being deconstructed, it almost feels like a loving reconstruction of the genre and a rejection of posturing existentialism that might have been more in tune with the times. It is not difficult to see why this film might be dismissed as a lesser work by fans of a director that made the excellent Two-Lane Blacktop and the failed Cockfighter (though the fans seem to disagree with me on the latter).
That's not to say romantic notions were completely out of style at that time, or even that this film is purely romantic. Leone's westerns have a magical spirit that run through them. Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West is about men who fall in love with a woman and decide to stand up to a railroad for her. His Duck, You Sucker is a film that, while politically subversive, revolves around two men that come to love each other as brothers as one of them goes from amoral bandit to morally enraged hero of the revolution.
And in China 9, the film does not leave us with the sense that romanticism ultimately wins, at least perfectly so. In this harsh environment of the Wild West, where reality and romanticism clash, the only way to survive is by choosing hard reality over romantic fantasy, and ultimately burning down whatever fantasy scheme one had about conquering the west and having everything. Even the rancher, when confronted with the railroad's relentless death order, must ultimately cast aside his dreams - even if he does so in part for romantic love (noting that he's now thought of as a fool by the community). The rancher's wife sets aside romantic love for security. When Drumm rejects the writer's invitation to be a folk hero back east, the film acknowledges that most of western fiction has been a romanticized lie about the hard truths of America's conquest of the west.
Nonetheless, there's a streak of romanticism that runs through China 9 that is a mile wide. It celebrates the passion that Drumm and the rancher's wife feel. It causes you to root for them to somehow make it work - even if making it work would require them to embrace what could only be a tragic ending. I suspect that many people feel this is a lesser work precisely because it is so romantic and because it seems to favor romanticism in spirit if not in conclusion. Perhaps many don't want Hellman to be so soft or to be so respectful of western conventions (even if, in the end, this is not a truly conventional film). Oh well, sometimes a little romantic hope is worthwhile.
The film is not perfect. Oates is terrific, as seemingly always. Testi, however, is flat and brings little depth to the role of Clayton Drumm. He basically is there to look handsome. Testi is unable to bring to his face, or even his physical actions, the depth of inner emotion Drumm is feeling. It keeps the film's ceiling somewhat limited. With a great performance in that role, the film might be more appreciated. Jenny Agutter is solid and is able to sell her character's inner unhappiness at her situation and frustration with Drumm's reticence.
Hellman goes for a traditional, mostly realistic style, seeking not to distract from the characters or story with flashy techniques or too many overt camera movements. He also, as many western directors do, falls in love with the panorama of desolate spaces and mountains in the distance. His opening shot is highly reminiscent of Peckinpah's Wild Bunch and the whole thing is something of a respectful homage to Peckinpah. Pino Donaggio's Spaghetti Western-inspired score is terrific - inspired by Morricone's work but not enslaved to it.
Overall, a very solid, highly recommended little western.
Screened on Warner Archive Instant. The picture was solid but the sound mix was not. I have a crappy sound setup, so you might have better luck with a more advanced setup. Otherwise, keep your finger on the remote control to adjust the volume as needed. I still have no idea what Drumm's last line is in the movie and couldn't make it out, but I doubt it matters much.