❉ This movie shows that risks can still be taken with the Western, such as giving the genre’s template a South African cultural overhaul.
“This is the Western played out as near myth. The backdrops of Railway could easily be mistaken for the deserted swathes of 18th and 19th century America, in a a visually striking tale of solitary wanderers, secluded towns on the end of civilisation and doing the right thing.”
It could be argued that the Western is not only a genre but an actual artform existing within an artform. Since the beginning of cinema, it has always been there, evolving from simple tales of cowboys, Indians and bank robbers, then morphing itself into a form that could smuggle in political commentary on the state of the nation in the 1950s. It then began to spread out to other countries, most notably Italy which offered its own often anarchic, revitalising spin on the genre with its prodigious output of spaghetti westerns.
Whilst not as popular as it was in its heyday, it is still a reliable fallback for film and television studios who manage to trot out a reminder of what could be done with it every few years. Once in a blue moon we get an Unforgiven or Deadwood, striking works that show the genre at its peak and what it is capable of. Pleasingly, as is the case here, Five Fingers for Marseilles shows that experiments and risks can still be taken with the genre such as applying the genre’s template to a South African backdrop and cultural overhaul, as is the case here.
Writer Sean Drummond and director Michael Matthews have delivered a visually striking tale of solitary wanderers, secluded towns on the end of civilisation and doing the right thing. Beginning in the already decaying township of Railway, which is attached to the now abandoned and ironically-titled Marseilles we meet the Five Fingers, a gang of children led by the angry Tau. When an incident with visiting policemen escalates into violence he flees his home and friends, returning twenty years later to find things very much changed, not only with his friends but with a new threat against Railway in the shape of Ghost, a turbaned and dead eyed gangster looking to claim Tau’s childhood home and everything in it for himself.
This is the Western played out as near myth. The backdrops of Railway, all vast fields and ranges of mountains as far as the eye can see could easily be mistaken for the deserted swathes of 18th and 19th century America. The iconography is used knowingly but never in an artificial or self-aware manner by Matthews. In fact, he often manages to put a remix like spin on the genres setting and visual tropes; cowboy hats and police uniforms reminiscent of the Union from the Civil War are mixed in with balaclavas and woolly hats, kids race around on horseback and BMXes and stock characters such as the town drunk and beleaguered mayor are all successfully put on display and beautifully photographed by cinematographer Shaun Lee; notably in a stunning set-piece of a final showdown which impresses with its choreography, pacing and use of location.
As gorgeous as it is to look at, there are faults with its script, mainly in its pacing. More often than not it is more of an intriguing film than a flat out entertaining one. However, with all that being said, it is a film that you should seek out, particularly if you have the time and luck to see it on a big screen where its epic vistas can be truly appreciated. This is a confident debut from Michael Matthews which is sometimes reminiscent of his fellow countryman Richard Stanley and whatever genre he turns to next, or if he even sticks to the Western, it should be very interesting.
❉ Starring Vuyo Dabula, Hamilton Dhlamini, Zethu Dlomo, Kenneth Nkosi, Mduduzi Mabaso, Aubrey Poolo, Lizwi Vilakazi, Warren Masemola, Dean Fourie, Anthony Oseyemi, Brendon Daniels, and Jerry Mofokeng, ‘Five Fingers for Marseilles’ was released October 23 on VOD.
❉ Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.