#535: Cut-Throats Nine
Initial release: July 10, 1972
Director: Joaquín Romero Marchent
What is the most violent movie ever made? Finding an answer to this question requires answering a lot of other questions: What defines violence? For that matter, who defines violence? For that matter, what kind of people make violent films ?Is violence a selling point? If so, to whom? And why?
Ultimately, it may be that asking what’s the most violent movie ever made is a complex question with no real answer. I suppose it boils down to the Justice Potter Stewart test: “you’ll know it when you see it.”
Cut Throats Nine is a paella western by veteran genre director Joaquín Romero Marchent. Going under the more fitting name Condemned to Live in Spanish markets, it has generally slipped under the radar even by Eurowestern standards, though people familiar with Marchent’s westerns (some of which actually predate the Italian western craze) will definitely cite this film as his most notorious. Its primary claims to fame are twofold. On the one hand, it was sold to audiences on the basis of sensationalist violence, and indeed it does seem to have a nasty streak, with multiple dismemberments, throat slitting, strangling, people being burned alive, disembowlments, and a lengthy and uncomfortable rape sequence. On the other hand, in recent years there’s been a lot of chatter flying about suggesting that this film was an influence on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. And certainly there are some parallels, with the snowy western theme and sinister characters. It’s also full of the kind of odd techniques like freeze frames, zooms, brief flashbacks to expand on characters’ backstories, and other late 60s/early 70s movie weirdness that Tarantino is notorious for lifting wholesale for his own films.
Regardless of how Tarantino feels about it, Cut Throats Nine is very much its own kind of beast. The film opens with Sgt. Brown, his daughter, and a cavalry unit escorting a chain gang to a fort in the mountains, after spending a number of years at a mine where the prisoners were forced to do hard labor. The caravan is ambushed by bandits looking for gold, but upon finding none, send the wagon carrying the prisoners, Sgt. Brown and his daughter crashing down a hillside. Far from civilization, their escorts dead, and with few supplies, Brown forces the prisoners to continue the march to Fort Green. It’s soon revealed that the chains themselves are gold, just painted black, which — that makes less sense than you’d think, but just roll with it. You kind of have to because the gold plot ultimately goes nowhere.
Eventually the prisoners get the better of Brown and burn him alive, and at that point it’s every man for himself as group cohesion starts to break down, especially once they manage to break the chains tying them together in a sequence that almost feels symbolic. At one point, one of the less scrupulous prisoners takes the provisions and runs off by himself; delirious and lost in a blizzard, he comes upon the smouldering remains of the cabin in which they murdered Brown, and hallucinates the cabin rebuilding itself and a zombie Brown coming after him in a sequence as surreal as it is terrifying.
Billed by Eurowestern enthusiasts and the occasional listicle as one of the rare horror westerns, it certainly does seem to meet that description, with Lucio Fulci-esque violence; lead actor and Eurowestern veteran Claudio Undari (appearing in the film under his Robert Hunter moniker) would later explain that American International Pictures, the film’s American distributor, specifically requested more violence, which required reshoots for added gore. (And as you can see by the poster, some places supposedly handed out “terror masks,” a frustratingly difficult-to-Google term that, best I can figure, were meant to hide viewers’ faces during the more intense scenes. Whether these were actually a thing or not is up in the air.)
So, having watched the film on the basis of that “most violent western ever made” claim, I gotta say… not even close. Django Kill (also known as If You Live… Shoot! — note that Django himself isn’t in it) might have a strong claim to the title with its almost surreal amounts of violence (particularly a messy surgery sequence,) and of course Django Unchained’s blood-soaked finale is certainly a contender. One would be remiss to not mention Sam Peckinpah’s iconic The Wild Bunch as well. But I suppose it all goes back to “you’ll know it when you see it.” Cut-Throats Nine is a nasty, uncomfortable little film, with mostly unlikable characters (save for Cathy, played by Spanish scream queen Emma Cohen), sometimes surreal editing and photography, a pervasive sense of isolation and claustrophobia in spite of the film being mostly shot outdoors, and an abrupt ending that feels like an exclamation point on the hour and a half or so of atmospheric brutality that preceded it. I suppose the moments of gore can be shocking to an audience used to the relatively tame violence of, say, John Ford, but they’re few and fleeting — and, of course, raise the question of whether the presence of gore matters or not when deciding what counts as “the most violent.”
Ultimately I don’t know how to feel about this film. The harsh mountain wilderness is a nice change of pace from the usual high deserts, and the storytelling (lifting a lot of techniques from Sergio Leone) has its moments. When the film works, it works, but it’s too abrupt, too barebones, to really be anything more than a showcase for human brutality. But hey, some people like that kinda thing, and that’s fine too.