Branded a coward for surrendering his New Mexico fort to the Confederates without firing a shot, a Union colonel attempts to redeem himself by leading a band of condemned prisoners on a suicide mission to recapture it.
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Whilst we're on the subject, it is rather difficult to fathom too many reasons as to why one would want to watch.
A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die is a daft; knowing; old fashioned yarn a film with clichéd action figures filling in for characters and crazy shoot outs involving masses of extras acting as its high points of drama. It is a film that begins with the aftermath of a huge gun fight at an American Civil War fort; a gun fight in which an awful lot happens AT the fort, but a gun fight to which the trudging prelude across the deserts of the great American West TO the fort consists of very little. One would compare it to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch of just a few years previously, but the getting to the fort shoot out finale in that film was around about just as much fun as the maddening final shoot out was, maybe even more: but not here. Tonino Valerii's film is all about the pomp and the circumstance, a trek across the barren sands of nineteenth century U.S.A. that is only ever mildly invigorating at the best of times; the bulk of it acting as a prelude to the all of the chaos which, by the time of its arrival, has just about seen us stop caring altogether.
In beginning with the fallout of the all out warfare, the film reveals to us its hand in regards to precisely where it's headed; a tactic we do not necessarily mind, and have indeed come to quite enjoy under varying guises from throughout cinema's long history. Some of the better instances, and the range of examples can be rather vast, arrive in the form of De Palma's Carlito's Way or Billy Wilder's classical era noir Double Indemnity; as two films with the eerie ability to snare us into proceedings and still have us as involved as much as we are by the time the conclusion arrives in exactly the manner we saw or heard during the opening beats. Valerii's film follows that of James Coburn's disgraced colonel Pembroke, and his propulsion from such a state into the messy world of suicide missions and open warfare in which he is the leader of an array of troops one would be a fool to not label the underdogs as to where they're eventually to head.
When we first come across Pembroke, it is when the man is scraggly and worn in spite of his rank. He is a thief; a man on his way to jail, that is until he is identified by another official of a more gracious ilk and called into his quarters for a talk. An appreciator of fine wine and enjoying the high life that comes with having gone through the system, a life including armed guards; respect, it seems, and the ability to be so eloquent in one's multi-tasking when speaking of the wine and the mission in equal balance, Pembroke's saviour and his sitting opposite the bedraggled Pembroke displays, in sharp contrast, the deep difference between what a colonel should be and what Pembroke is. Pembroke has proposed to him a mission, a mission to try and recapture a fort for this, the side of the Union Army, from that of the Confederates whom took it under the command of Telly Savalas' Major Ward a recapturing, it is deemed, that is best preordained by that of an underground tunnel which needs to be taken first. As the gallows outside are readied, and Pembroke contemplates his situation, he begrudgingly accepts and proceeds to round up a disparate array of Apaches; Mexicans; fanatics and rapists from the death roll for this dangerous mission.
Pembroke, indeed the majority of the clan, are effectively on a quest for redemption; a quest surmised by the fact the nickname for the large fort they're due to take is that of the "Pulpit", in regards to its situation on that of a mountain, but a highly religious nickname neatly encapsulating the redemptive element of their mission as they attempt to do good for a change, and get the commanding officer back at the base whom sent them away the promotion he feels he deserves. People will be quick to point out the ties to The Dirty Dozen, but Valerii's piece owes so much more to Leone's game-changing Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad and the Ugly; an apparently knowing point of inspiration inherent with the fact Pembroke initially brushes off enquiries to the rest of his crew with the promise of enemy gold buried out there in the region of where they're headed.
Alas, the rest of the film is not up to the standard of Coburn's grizzled, underplayed performance of which he instills within his character and unloads into the film; the man playing the material in a fashion that is better than what the film deserves and is a performance which belongs in a better film. There are skirmishes with those they come up against; disagreements within the band of proverbial brothers as one or two of them express their desires to flee, the bedding down for a night's sleep ought to being a good source of tension as Pembroke's no-nonsense attitude clashes with cut-throats wanting to flee, but it mostly falls flat. One occasion witnesses the stumbling across of a secluded farm, a set piece that, again, ought to rack up a fair degree of tension what with the group of bandits and rapists Pembroke has in tow being forced into sharing the same space as decent civilian folk, but it fails to induce much in the way of effective drama and instead leaves rather-a nasty taste which feels misplaced in an otherwise guilty, old fashioned romp which is a deeply underwhelming experience on the whole.
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