The Hellbenders is a difficult film. The 1967 Sergio Corbucci western features a screenplay by producer Albert Band and writer Ugo Liberatore, with Enzo Barboni’s cinematography making the most of the desert vistas. The project appears to be based on William Cook’s novel Guns of North Texas, which also influenced Band’s 1965 western The Tramplers.
The Hellbenders finds Corbucci established as considerable voice in the Italian western genre, with Django and Navajo Joe already under his belt. With this picture, he’s working with too many moving parts and the plot careens in too many directions at once. The final half hour is particularly galling.
Joseph Cotton stars as Colonel Jonas, a Confederate full of resentment after the end of the Civil War. He wants the South to rise again and rolls around the desert with his sons, butchering a bunch of Union soldiers as part of a robbery. After the prostitute (Maria Martin) the group has been using to help their schemes is killed, Ben (Julián Mateos) has to get another lady to work with the gang.
Ben snags Claire (Norma Bengell), a gamester from in town, and she joins Jonas’ rascals. Every so often, sheriffs and Mexicans and Indians get a touch too close. And an attraction between Ben and Claire develops, which cramps the psychotic Jonas’ style. Eventually, all hell breaks loose.
The dynamic between Jonas’ sons suggests interesting conflicts, but The Hellbenders is so fragmented that it doesn’t spend much time exploring the group. There are curious characters, like the demented rapist Jeff (Gino Pernice). He goes after Claire when she’s bathing and this draws the Fists of Ben.
And there’s something to the historically wronged Colonel Jonas, especially when he evokes strong notions of “family” in order to keep his group together. He won’t send Jeff away, despite his danger to the unit. This is offset by Ben’s loyalty, which causes him to hang around no matter what.
The trouble with The Hellbenders is that these elements don’t go anywhere. The film, apart from a dazzlingly violent opening sequence, is by and large comprised of a series of taut and narrow escapes. There are moments when Colonel Jonas and Co. are nearly discovered, when the contents of the coffin are nearly turned over, but something happens and all is well.
Ennio Morricone provides the score under the pseudonym Leo Nichols. The main theme is a swelling and stirring piece of work, giving The Hellbenders a gravitas that the rest of the picture can’t live up to. The rest of the music certainly isn’t Morricone’s finest work, but it does blend nicely with Barboni’s shots of limitless desert.
Despite some rather good pieces, Corbucci’s western doesn’t come together. It lacks punch and flounders when it should be gaining footing. This puts Cotten adrift in what could’ve a compelling later-career role and it buries any romantic tension between Ben and Claire in the mud of plot-oriented confusion.
As such, The Hellbenders is kind of forgettable. Corbucci pulls together a nice introduction and the final notes aren’t bad, but the bulk of the film just never hits stride. Some have blamed producer Band for his grasp on the material, but the end result is a forgettable movie and a rare western misstep for Corbucci.