When discussing the hybrid genre of “Eastern Westerns,” one might immediately think of Shanghai Noon (2000) or Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997), which featured Chinese protagonists as proverbial “fish out of water” in the Old West. Other films that might fall under this umbrella category could be Asian re-articulations of the genre that eschew American characters and locales entirely -- movies like Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger (2000), Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Western Django (2007), or Kim Ji-Woon’s The Good, the Bad, the Weird.
Aside from the Once Upon a Time in China sequel, all these films were made in the last ten years. But “Eastern Westerns” aren’t strictly a post-millennial phenomena. Filmmakers were experimenting with these cross-cultural, cross-genre productions decades earlier with films like the Charles Bronson/Toshiro Mifune team-up Red Sun (1971); Spaghetti Westerns The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe (1972) and The Return of Shanghai Joe (1975); and, of course, the movie that is the very subject of this review, Antonio Margheriti’s The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974).
Co-produced by Run Run Shaw, this Kung Fu Western features Lo Lieh a few years after his starring turn in Five Fingers of Death (aka King Boxer) kicked off a martial arts craze in the United States. His co-lead is none other than Lee Van Cleef, who enjoyed a revitalized career in Italian Westerns thanks to his roles in Sergio Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Van Cleef’s appearance in the film comes years after cultivating his screen persona in such classic Spaghetti Westerns as The Big Gundown (1966), Death Rides a Horse (1967), the Sabata films (1969/1971), and The Grand Duel (1972). Considering the audience each actor could draw, it was a canny bit of casting getting these two together.
The Stranger and the Gunfighter introduces us to an outlaw named Dakota (Lee Van Cleef), who tries to rob a bank in Monterey through a creative use of dynamite. Meanwhile, a member of China’s imperial court named Wang, who happens to have his “treasures” locked up in the same vault, wanders on the scene. Unfortunately, Wang doesn’t heed Dakota’s warning and ends up perishing in the explosion, presumably from a heart attack. Dakota doesn’t find what he expects inside the vault; instead of money, he discovers a series of pictures featuring different prostitutes bedded by Wang during his stay in America. Arrested on the spot by local authorities and thrown into the clink, a confused Dakota has nothing better to do but bide his time as he awaits execution.
Back in China, Wang’s nephew Wang Ho-Keung (Lo Lieh) is under attack by an armada of imperial soldiers, who he decimates in hand-to-hand combat. Realizing that he can use Ho-Keung, the Emperor orders the young fighter to travel to America and recover the stolen money. If Ho-Keung fails, both he and his family will be killed. In the New World, Wang recovers the mysterious pictures, but he’s about to encounter racial prejudice for the first time. In a scene reminiscent of the “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed” sequence in Fist of Fury, Wang walks into a bar and is confronted by a sign that reads: “No Negroes. No Chinese. Or Unaccompanied Dogs.”
Since Wong has come in with a dog, he assumes everything is okay, but the racist bartender tells him: “The dog is all right. It’s you that’s gotta go fast.” The henchman come out of the woodwork, and – yep, you guessed it – violence ensues. But it’s all a part of Ho-Keung’s plan. Not half the greenhorn he pretends to be, Ho-Keung intentionally put himself in that situation for the sole purpose of getting thrown in jail. Why? He wants to get close to Dakota and find out what he knows. Of course, the two end up forming a partnership of sorts, but not without some difficulty.
Ho-Keung soon discovers the most unique treasure map in cinema history. After coming across a ribald clue that says, “Bottom of every woman is fortune,” Ho-Keung discovers that his Uncle’s photos are pointing to all these different prostitutes because – wait for it – they each have part of the treasure map tattooed on their derriers. When Ho-Keung innocently remarks to Dakota that he needs to “find ass,” the requisite doubletake on Lee Van Cleef’s part is a joy to behold.
No Western would be complete without a dastardly villain, and they don’t come much more dastardly or villainous than the Deacon (Julian Ugarte). Dressed in a black duster with the biggest hat this side of the Rio Grande, the Deacon is the deadliest hypocrite alive. He’s a crazy, Bible-quoting “man of the cloth” who murders a group of folks because they’ve allowed prostitutes to conduct business in the town – never mind that the Deacon solicits the service of said prostitutes to gratify his own twisted vices. Since there are two protagonists, it stands to reason that there should be two antagonists; Deacon enlists the help of a henchman, a huge Native American wrestler who’s seemingly immune to pain. It’s a game of cat-and-mouse between these two pairs of outlaws, one that leads to the inevitable Spaghetti Western-style gundown, albeit with a martial arts twist.
The Stranger and the Gunfighter is by no means the best Spaghetti Western I’ve seen, but it’s also not the worst. It’s got all the hallmarks of the cycle: extreme close-ups, the recognizable style of music and the big gunfights, but this ain’t exactly Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s a fun farce, particularly for those interested in the incredibly small subgenre of cross-cultural “Eastern Westerns.” Lee Van Cleef delivers a lively performance, as his character isn’t the disrespectful gweilo you might expect, but a man who takes Ho-Keung at face value and comes to respect. For some odd reason, Van Cleef spends the last reel of the movie running around with his shirt off like some sort of proto-Rambo. Whether this is a plus or a minus is totally up to you.
Lo Lieh imbues Ho-Keung with a surprisingly affable, aw-shucks charm. His lip movements indicate that he speaks English (lots of Italo-Westerns employed post-sync sound), but it’s unclear whether his voice was dubbed. In the aforementioned bar scene, there’s an amusing send-up of the over-politeness of Charlie Chan-type characters in Western films as Ho-Keung remarks, “Thousand pardons. I no see you.” What’s amusing about it is he says this immediately after smashing two cowboys in the face with a backhanded double forearm smash. Another memorable moment occurs when Ho-Keung asks good naturedly, “I desire to see ass of your wife.” Margheriti has some fun by punctuating the line with a stinger music cue that would be more appropriate for the revelation of a killer’s identity in a mystery movie than a sexually suggestive faux pas.
The film explores the idea of cross-cultural understanding through Dakota, who initially can’t handle Ho-Keung’s fondness for barbequed snake, Chinese tea, and incredibly potent Chinese liquor. But even in his disgust, Dakota seems to respect their differences and eventually decides to help his new friend, despite the fact that he has little investment in the situation - that is, nothing except some serious he-man friendship. It’s a surprisingly sweet bond that the men cement by – what else – killing the hell out of a lot of bad guys. Although the film isn’t great art, it’s a real shame that the filmmakers never made a follow-up, as the film actually sets up the possibility of a sequel set in China. Instead only our imaginations are left to contemplate what a full-on Shaw Brothers-style sequel to The Stranger and the Gunfighter might have been. (Calvin McMillin 2010)