Sunday, April 23, 2017
Johnny Hamlet (1968) DVD Review
The film opens with a strange dream sequence in which Johnny approaches his father. And in voice over we hear: “To die, to sleep, no more. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.” And then, oddly, we see a man at the ocean’s shore, lifting his arms and reciting some of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy: “To be or not to be, that is the question/Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep/No more. And by a sleep, and by a sleep, to say we end-” It is then revealed that this man is an actor, rehearsing the lines (thus the repeated “and by a sleep”). A troupe of actors has a camp on the beach, and Johnny is asleep among them. He has been calling for his father in his sleep. When Johnny wakes, we hear the actor continue with Hamlet’s speech. This is interesting, because the film not only is an adaptation of Hamlet, but makes references to the play. It is an adaptation of the play in which the play also exists.
Johnny takes his leave of the actors and travels home. On the way, he stops at an underground cemetery to visit the grave of his father, Chester Hamilton, his stone reading, “1811-1865, Willfully Murdered.” Johnny is a soldier, and he was at war when his father was killed, and now feels guilty for not being there to protect him. And yes, there is a gravedigger there. Two men – Ross and Gil – threaten Johnny at the cemetery. Horace arrives to help Johnny. Ross and Gil are this adaptation’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horace is Horatio. Ross and Gil, in this version, never pretend to be Johnny’s friends; nor is there any mention of a shared past between them. Johnny then returns to the ranch (the sign outside reading, “Ranch Elsenor”), and sees his mother, Gerta, and his uncle Claude in a playful embrace. Gerta breaks off from the embrace when she sees Johnny, and runs to him to embrace him. She reveals to us that he’s been gone for three years, and explains to him that everything would have been taken from her if it hadn’t been for Claude.
Johnny next runs into Ophelia, who has been waiting for him these three years. They kiss, but Ophelia is acting a little strangely, telling Johnny that Johnny’s father likes her and knows about the two of them. Before they can work things out, Ross and Gil show up again and engage Johnny in a fight. They get the best of him, at least for a moment, until Horace shows up to help. In this adaptation, Polonius is the sheriff, and he seems corrupt and a bit mean. There is no Laertes in this adaptation (and so you can guess that the ending will be different from that of the play). Horace hands Johnny a crest of the man who killed Johnny’s father – supposedly a man named Santana. The crest was found near the body. Also, we learn that there’s missing gold at the center of the murder in this adaptation.
At a tavern, Horace says to Johnny: “To die. To die is nothing. To live, that’s the important thing.” And the traveling actors from the first scene arrive. Before they enter, we hear one of them say, “The world is a stage,” an idea voiced often by Shakespeare. The players argue playfully about a mishap in another town, referring to each other by their Hamlet character names, which is interesting, since in the reality of this film there is also a real Ophelia. This Ophelia – the actor – has an earring with the same crest as that found by Johnny’s father. Johnny goes to bed with her, and she tells him where she got the earring.
Johnny returns to the cemetery and has the gravedigger (who apparently never has a day off) exhume Santana’s body. They find the same crest on Santana’s belt. Johnny is actively searching for clues as to who murdered his father and is looking for vengeance. So obviously this is different from the play in which Hamlet is told by his father’s Ghost who killed him. He gets his father’s gun from Gerta, and then rides off to find Santana. Bandits lead him to Santana, and there he also finds Claude, and so now is certain that Claude murdered his father. But there is still the matter of the gold, and the bandits take them along on their search for it, followed by Ross and Gil, who are in turn followed by Horace. And we learn that Ross and Gil were hired by Claude, sort of like in the play.
Meanwhile, in a move quite different from the play, Ophelia is murdered and her body is left floating in the river, along with Johnny’s gun. The Sheriff then believes that Johnny murdered Ophelia, and he goes to the ranch to confront him. Johnny, however, isn’t there; he has returned to the cemetery, where the gravedigger is digging Ophelia’s grave. And as in the play, that’s how he learns that Ophelia has died.
Gerta then overhears a man warning Claude that Santana is coming, and realizes her new husband is not innocent. But when she confronts Claude, Ross and Gil shoot her. There is a good moment when Claude is angry with them, showing on some level he did care for Gerta. Gerta is still alive, and manages to get on a horse, the horse somehow knowing to take her to where Johnny has been tied to a cross and left for dead. In this version, it is Horace who kills the Polonius character, not Johnny. Johnny does kill Claude, but in this version Johnny lives (after all, there is no Laertes to kill him), and Johnny and Horace ride off together. Obviously, there are quite a lot of differences from the play, but this adaptation is completely enjoyable.
The DVD includes Shakespeare In The West, which is an interview with director Enzo G. Castellari. He talks about his habit of shooting during the day and editing each night. He talks about the music and about certain shots of the film, and he mentions that the real title is Johnny Hamlet, and that the distributor changed the title in Italy to Quella Sporca Storial Nel West. The DVD includes also includes a photo gallery and three trailers for the film. In the U.S. trailer, there is voice over that says, “To kill or not to kill, that was the question.”
The DVD that I own pairs this film with Chaco.