A Man Called Sledge

Director: Vic Morrow
James Garner, Dennis Weaver, Claude Akins

In my many years of running this web site, I have not only certainly talked about many film-related topics, I have talked about many of them a number of times. I have repeatedly talked about certain film genres, from action films (yeah!) to Canadian films (yech!) I have talked about certain filmmaking techniques. And I have talked about certain people in the business, such as directors and actors. But there is one certain kind of person in the filmmaking business that I haven't talked about that much, at least with reasonable depth, and that are movie producers. I've certainly mentioned some of their names, but not much more detail than that. This fact may have made some of you readers think that I don't have that much interest in movie producers, but in fact I do. When I see many of the entertaining movies that they have helped to make, I really wonder about what kind of people they are. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are two favorite producers of mine, having made dozens of entertainingly schlocky movies; I've often wondered if they knew deep down that their movies were not critical darlings, among other questions that have made me research them during my free periods. Other producers that have made me curious have been Roger Corman and Samuel Z. Arkoff; each wrote a book of memoirs that I of course bought and devoured to learn more about the two men. Then there are Richard Pepin and Joseph Merhi of PM Entertainment, who made some wonderful action movies. However, in their cases I have been greatly frustrated because I have hardly managed to learn a thing about the two men for decades now. Dick and Joe, if you are reading this review by chance, send me an e-mail - I want to interview you guys in depth.

While information on Mr. Pepin and Merhi has been hard to come by, there is fortunately enough information out there on other movie producers to satisfy me. One such producer is the late Dino De Laurentiis. Over the years, both when he was alive and after he died, I have managed to uncover a great deal of stories about the man that time after time have made me conclude that he was a real character. If you are a movie buff like me, no doubt that you have heard some interesting stories about the man yourself, but just in case you haven't, I'll tell a few stories of Dino. One great source for Dino stories I came across was the memoir of movie director Richard Fleischer, Just Tell Me When To Cry. In the chapter of the book that told about his experiences with Dino, one of the first things he said about Dino was that he was, "An impeccably tailored bundle of raw energy, and volatile emotions, he is not only a legend, but also a character. The impact of meeting him for the first time is something akin to sticking your finger into an electric light socket....His personality is the same as his speech: curt, abrupt, brusque." But my favorite story about Dino did not come from Fleischer's book. Years ago in a movie magazine, I read an article about the making of the 1989 movie Great Balls Of Fire!, which was a biopic on rock and roll star Jerry Lee Lewis. The article revealed that the producers of the movie, while they were trying to find studio backing for the project, approached Dino and gave him the script to read. Dino read the script, and promptly told the producers afterwards something to the effect of, "I don't get it - where are the laughs?" It turned out Dino had read the entire script thinking it was a biography of comic movie star Jerry Lewis.

But even if you haven't heard as many stories about Dino De Laurentiis as I have, if you just know the many films that he has produced, you will no doubt have concluded that he was the original Golan and Globus in taste and personality. Just look at some of the movies he produced A Man Called Sledgeover his career, Mandingo... Lipstick... Orca... King Kong Lives... Hurricane... and Maximum Overdrive, among other dubious achievements. But to be fair to Dino, while he's immediately associated with schlock by many film buffs, in his career he did produce some good movies, like Manhunter, Serpico, and The Bounty. I've reviewed in the past two good Dino movies, Chino and The Deserter. Both were westerns, and Dino's apparent good luck with westerns made me decide to take a look at another of his, A Man Called Sledge. While Dino brought in enough pasta to make it a spaghetti western, the movie actually had some American involvement, from the director to its cast, the main headlining star being James Garner (Duel At Diablo). Garner plays the title character, Luther Sledge, a ruthless outlaw in the Wild West. During his travels, he comes across some tantalizing information. There is a prison in the area that on a regular basis holds overnight gold shipments that are otherwise heavily guarded by dozens of armed men during their transport. Sledge quickly assembles some fellow outlaws, two of them played by Dennis Weaver (Duel At Diablo) and Claude Akins (The Curse), and they all agree to help Sledge rob the latest gold shipment. Sledge and his fellow outlaws eventually plan a wild but clever scheme to get into the prison and steal the gold. But Sledge and his outlaws don't know that they'll not only learn that even the best robbery scheme can't plan for everything, but that what happens after a robbery can't also be safely predicted.

In his memoir The Garner Files, James Garner blasted A Man Called Sledge, calling it "sludge" and declared that it only deserved half a star out of a possible five star rating system. He also said that he couldn't figure out how Dino De Laurentiis convinced him to do the movie. (Garner apparently forgot that earlier in the book, he wrote that Sledge was one of several movies in his career that he did strictly for the money.) Is the movie really as bad as Garner made it out to be? Of course not. It's a spaghetti western, which automatically makes it better than many other kinds of movies. Seriously, the movie does have enough genuine merit to earn it a marginal recommendation, one of them being the title character. Sledge gave Garner the rare opportunity to play a bad guy, and he does pretty well in the role. He is convincing playing an amoral man who will do anything to get what he wants, from shooting down innocent people to threatening to leave someone behind to a terrible fate if that person does not give him what he wants. One may question from those examples why we would be interested in following such a vile man, but Garner, along with the script, makes this character interesting to observe. The script makes Sledge an intelligent man, for one thing. While Sledge doesn't always get instant ideas (his plan to get the gold, for one thing, takes some time to form), we always get the feeling from his various words and actions that this is a man who's been an outlaw for such a long enough time that he can handle any situation. Garner takes this scripted character and finds the right tone to perform it, often using his trademark easygoing style to show Sledge has seen it all and knows it all. Though he is careful not to be too laid back - too much casualness would break the feeling that this character is all the same a very bad man. You won't like Sledge, but all the same you watch him with interest.

As for the rest of the cast and their characters, they are kind of a disappointment for the most part. The actor who comes off the best is John Marley (Framed), who plays the old man that tells Sledge about the gold and joins Sledge's outlaws on the robbery scheme. Marley's character is given extensive footage, and Marley makes the best of it, being lively and charismatic enough that he almost steals the show from Garner before his character turns as amoral as Sledge. The rest of the supporting cast isn't given that much to do. Sledge's beloved girlfriend (Laura Antonelli of Dr. Goldfoot And The Girl Bombs) only has a few minutes of screen time, and Dennis Weaver and Claude Akins as Sledge's partners in crime have little more presence, so little that they find it hard to make their characters stand out from the rest of the members of the gang. Clearly the script could have used a few more rewrites when it came to the supporting characters. But the script as it is is not without some good things. While the first part and last part of the movie are mostly kind of familiar with their various characters and plot turns, they are at least competently written tellings of familiar stuff. I've seen dumber takes on western formulas. And just about every scene seems to fill a purpose; there is very little unnecessary fat, so the audience will not get bored at any moment despite the fact that it takes almost half of the movie for Sledge and his cronies to execute the robbery. The robbery itself has been written to not come across as standard stuff. The screenplay throws in a decent number of unexpected twists for Sledge's gang (both problems and good fortune) as they execute the robbery, and these twists kept me interested enough that I seriously wondered at times if Sledge and his partners would ever get their hands on that gold.

The screenplay, if you are interested, was co-written by the movie's director, American actor Vic Morrow (The Last Shark). While I would normally immediately at this point start critiquing his movie's direction, I feel I should reveal that my research on the movie revealed that Morrow was fired midway through the production (for reasons I could not uncover) and that Italian director Giorgio Gentili (The Bang Bang Kid) finished the movie. This may explain why there's occasionally an inconsistent feeling to the end results. There are some moments with careful camerawork that make scenes almost artful, like in the opening ten minutes taking place high in the snow-covered mountains. But there are also some moments that seem hastily and sloppily shot with hand-held cameras, enough that some mild confusion is built at times. I can't say for sure what scenes were shot by Morrow and what was shot by Gentili, though I will admit that the majority of the movie does turn out to be competently directed. The direction well interprets the aforementioned snappy script so there are no dead spots. While there are only a few scenes that could be safely branded "action sequences", the few that there are do have some excitement and some brutality, enough that the movie managed to earn an R rating at the time (though it comes off more like PG-13 by today's standards.) The production values are also acceptable, such as the prison fortress' interiors and exteriors. I'm not making out A Man Called Sledge to be some kind of classic spaghetti western - as I said, it's often kind of familiar as well as being saddled with some crude and unfinished touches - but fans of spaghetti westerns will find it a watchable, if a little sloppy, retelling of old ideas. It deserves at least two more stars added to the rating James Garner gave it.

(Posted May 14, 2016)

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See also: Chino, The Deserter, Duel At Diablo