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  Jonathan of the Bears Bear with us
Year: 1993
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Stars: Franco Nero, John Saxon, Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman, David Hess, Rodrigo Obregón, Clive Riche, Ennio Girolami, Bobby Rhodes, Marie Louise Sinclair, Boris Khmelnitsky, Knifewing Segura, Melody Robertson, Igor Alimov
Genre: Western, Drama, Action, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: As a little boy in the American west, Jonathan (Igor Alimov) saw his gold prospecting parents gunned down and robbed by an outlaw gang. Seeking refuge inside a bear cave, he befriended a bear cub and was adopted by a kindly tribe of Indians led by wise old Chief Tawanka (Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman). Now Jonathan (Franco Nero) has become the protector of the forest and the Indian way of life, between seeking revenge on the men who killed his parents. Only the youngest member of the gang still eludes him. Smooth-talking oil baron Goodwin (John Saxon) rides into town with four sharp-suited professional gunmen and whips the locals into a frenzy of greed with talk of seizing the oil-rich Indian land, spurring Jonathan, his beautiful Indian love interest Shaya (Melody Robertson), and kung fu kicking friend Chatow (Knifewing Segura) to defend their home.

While there were a small handful of Italian westerns made during the Eighties, the genre had been more or less dead for almost two decades. Having made arguably the last great spaghetti western in Keoma (1976), iconic actor Franco Nero and action auteur Enzo G. Castellari tried to revive the genre with Jonathan of the Bears, an Italian-Russian co-production that recycles several of the earlier film’s key motifs (e.g. the surreal, mystical ambience, Nero’s hippie styled hero being crucified in town, the folk rock soundtrack) and opens with a dedication to Sergio Corbucci, whose Django (1966) first made Nero a star.

Nero served as producer and devised the story, cannily tapping the eco-conscious, pro-Native American stance prevalent after Dances with Wolves (1990). The peculiar, flashback riddled story structure is ambitious but awkward. It takes a long while for the plot to get going and the script, co-written by Nero, Castellari and Lorenzo de Luca, is clouded by mystical blather and earnest eco-sermonising (“These men have no respect for Mother Earth. They want to despoil her and kill all the children of paradise”). Although its reverential depiction of Native American culture is creditable coming after so many movies showing crass caricatures, the film nearly chokes on its own solemnity.

Nevertheless, arriving in an age of revisionist irony, its adventurous spirit and unabashed romance prove bracing. There are solid themes at work, including the clash between two cultures and their respective visions of forging a pastoral or mechanized paradise, while the admittedly cheesy soundtrack (composed by Clive Riche, Aleksandr Belyayev and Fabio Costatino, with contributions from co-star Knifewing Segura) serves as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on Jonathan’s torment or the townsfolk’s greed. Goodwin is an interestingly unorthodox villain. He is happy to wipe out the Indians but balks at the idea of adding blacks and Chinese to the genocide list. In fact he actively promotes cooperation between the races, albeit at the Indians’ expense. Franco Nero still cuts an athletic dash in his autumn years and Castellari can still stage an arresting action sequence, but cramped compositions and odd editing undo his attempts at mythic grandeur. Some of his poetic touches prove affecting, including the unusual device of the adult Jonathan wandering through his own childhood memories. Sadly, the revisionist script makes no attempt to cast women as anything more than rape victims or saloon whores, while the supporting characters like the vengeful sheriff (David Hess, Nero’s old sparring partner from Hitch-Hike (1977)), the conscience-stricken black gunfighter (Bobby Rhodes, whom Italian horror fans will know from Demons (1985)), and the saloon madam (Marie Louise Sinclair) are far too vague. Still, spaghetti western fans may smile nostalgically upon such revived clichés as the phantom hero able to disappear and reappear at will.

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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