A TOWN CALLED HELL( alternately, A TOWN CALLED BASTARD) seemed like a good bet when I picked it out to watch. It had a stellar Hollywood cast with Telly Savalas, Robert Shaw, Martin Landau, and Stella Stevens in the main roles. Filmed in Spain and released in 1971, it didn’t seem like it could miss.
But watching, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was watching different movies cobbled together. It jumped around a lot with clumsy changes of time.
The movie opens in 1895 Mexico. A peasant revolution is going on led by Robert Shaw and Martin Landau. They raid a garrison in a small town, shooting up the army and a church there with some sort of service going on. They slaughter the congregation and the priest.
Then the movie jumps ten years and the same little town is run by a man named Don Carlos(Telly Savalas). The priest is Robert Shaw(no reason is ever told for this change). A widow(Stella Stevens) arrives there wanting to visit her husband’s grave. She has a hearse driven by a deaf mute servant and sleeps in the back in a coffin(no explanation for this is ever given). She’s also offering $10,000 when the body of her husband’s killer, a man known only as Aguila, is delivered to her in the States. No, she explains, she doesn’t carry that amount around with her.
Don Carlos has already been established as loving money from an early incident. He gets the idea that if she will pay that amount for the dead, how much will she pay for her life?
Here’s where the movie takes an incomprehensible turn. Savalas’ character has already set up in perfect villain mode. When he attempts to grab her, she and the servant take refuge in Shaw’s church, who refuses to hand them over. In the battle that follows, one of Savalas’ men turns on him, shooting him and stringing him up on a cross, offering him to the priest as he seems to dies. We’re not sure, though he’s never seen again.
Here comes another strange twist. The army rides in at that moment led by the Colonel, Martin Landau, now part of the army. He’s looking for a revolutionary named Aguila. Delighted at first to see his old comrade, he offers him a position as an officer and seems less than pleased to be refused. Shaw prefers to remain a priest.
Landau is as much a sadist as Savalas was and threatens to torture the information from his old partner, only to realize he’d never tell. Then he demands of the town that Aguila be handed over, hanging five of the townspeople and promising to do the same every morning until Aguila is found.
The rest of the film is awkwardly handled. There is a flashback sequence badly done(we’re not even sure for a while) that shows Shaw in a third identity. He’s dressed like a gunfighter down to low slung pistol, chasing a man that had been sent to the States to buy weapons and ammunition, only to blow it on liquor and whores.
Finally, out of nowhere, a battle breaks out between the villagers and the army with Shaw and Landau setting it out in the church and betting on the outcome. The ultimate identity of Aguila and his fate I won’t mention in case anyone wants to find this one and watch.
I can’t recommend it.