The American Civil War is finally over. Yet mad confederate Major Droster (Eduardo Fajardo) is not ready to pull his men out of a small Mexican village. To that end he frames Shango (Anthony Steffen), a visiting US Ranger, for the murder of the local telegraph operator – the one person capable of receiving news that the war has ended. With Droster's men unaware the war is over, the Major continues controlling the village with Shango left hanging from a tree inside a wooden cage. With the aid of kindly Fernandez (Attilio Dottesio), his daughter Consuelo (Barbara Nelli) and perky little son Pedrito (Giusva Fioravanti), Shango escapes. As a result Droster's Mexican ally Martinez (Maurice Poli) and his brutal banditos terrorize the locals in search of the gringo. So like any good spaghetti western hero, Shango goes looking for revenge.
For many giallo fans Anthony Steffen is a near-textbook example of a wooden leading man. Yet remarkable as this may seem to skeptics the actor has his devotees. They point to Steffen's prolific spaghetti western roles as better representations of his unique steely-eyed intensity. Which brings us to Shango which has nothing to do with the Shango Dance Band but, in line with Steffen's other vehicles Django the Bastard (1969), Garringo (1969) and Viva Django! (1971), draws heavily from the Sergio Corbucci-Franco Nero classic that inspired a hundred rip-offs: Django (1966). As with Django the Bastard, Steffen co-wrote the screenplay for Shango with his director - in this instance Eduardo Mulargia - and constructs a deliberately challenging, fragmented story-structure. However he also imbues Shango with psychological and sociopolitical elements that are seemingly personal. For despite his bland screen persona Steffen had an interesting background.
Born Antonio Luiz de Teffé von Hoonholtz (wow!) at the Brazilian embassy in Rome, the actor was of noble birth with a lineage traced back to Prussian royalty. Yet far from leading a life of privilege, Steffen spent his teenage years fighting the Nazi occupying forces as part of the partisans. Such harrowing wartime experiences may well have influenced his acting style with that near-perpetually shellshocked visage along with his choice of roles and the subject matter here. Many spaghetti westerns feature a key scene where the hero is beaten and reduced to a shambling wreck. Shango actually opens that way as a bruised and battered Steffen gazes glumly from his wooden cage (an image presumably intended to evoke stories about American P.O.W.s in the Vietnam War), and seemingly suffers war flashbacks while the soundtrack features a chorus humming their way through 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home.' Steffen twitches and grimaces for all he has got though the film is undone by Mulargia's tendency to use the same techniques that convey the hero's disoriented state of mind (crash zooms, blurry flashbacks, fragmented editing) to tell the bulk of the story.
Shango slots loosely into a wave of so-called Zapata westerns or Mexican revolutionary westerns steeped in then-trendy Marxist politics (closer in spirit to the student uprisings of 1968) and post-Vietnam War disillusionment with America. After all the film deals with an American military force occupying a foreign territory, raiding homes, brutalizing families, molesting women and executing 'dissidents' on the spot. On top of that the apocalyptic climax seemingly alludes to the infamous Mai Lai massacre much as the revisionist Hollywood western Soldier Blue did that same year. Which would make for fascinating, provocative viewing were the story not so disjointed and hard to follow. The film exhibits a frustratingly tenuous grasp of time and space. Characters pop in and out of the narrative or appear to exist in multiple places at once. Shango himself is so under-characterized his rage and confusion prove less compelling than the filmmakers believe them to be, and he lacks the mythic aura Sergio Leone wove around Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name to compensate. With no build-up Shango's abrupt transformation from neurotic wreck to lightning fast avenger proves as nonsensical as everything else that happens. Bereft of its sociopolitical pretensions the film rehashes familiar ingredients, telling a typical tale of treachery and vengeance against the backdrop of war, only Mulargia and Steffen make a simple plot unnecessarily vague and complicated. The film's chief aim is action and sadism and one that level it delivers via scenes where Martinez's banditos bury the local women up to their necks in the sand then surround them with a ring of fire. Prone to disguises and surprise attacks, Shango racks up a solid body-count but also gets a lot of innocent people killed. And I mean a lot. Nonetheless while Shango ranks among the most nihilistic spaghetti westerns the climactic scene of mass self-sacrifice is genuinely moving. On a weird side-note: cute child actor Giusva Fioravanti grew up to be a decidedly non-cute neo-fascist terrorist in Italy who was shot by police trying to smuggle guns for his next act of terrorism.