It’s difficult to assess The Road to Fort Alamo as anything other than the work of a talented director working within a genre that was of little to no interest for him. Mario Bava is of course, one of the godfathers of Italian Horror. He helped to usher in a cycle of Italian Gothic with his classic Black Sunday, laid the foundations for the giallo in the offbeat The Girl Who Knew Too Much, set the standard for gialli with Blood and Black Lace, and bridged the gap between Italian and American slashers with A Bay of Blood. Despite his infamy and continued work within the Horror genre, he didn’t limit himself to it for the duration of his career. He proved he could hold his own within other genres with the psychedelic comic book adventure Danger: Diabolik, whose converts range from the Beastie Boys to Edgar Wright. His second to last film, Rabid Dogs, is an intensely disturbing and engaging crime thriller with some of the most despicable criminals ever seen on the screen. Like fellow Italian Horror extraordinaire Lucio Fulci, Bava also had his own Spaghetti Western trilogy, but even the controversial Fulci’s work in this genre is held in higher regard than the acclaimed mastermind Bava. Bava’s three westerns remain obscure and little seen, barely mentioned in discussions of his work. From watching The Road to Fort Alamo, the first of his three westerns, it seems that Bava either didn’t have the passion for the western genre that he imbued in his other works, or that he struggled to implement his trademark style within the western template that he was given.
Made in 1964, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had been released only a month prior to The Road to Fort Alamo, and it’s easy to tell. Many of the pre-Fistful Spaghetti’s have an off-brand, knock off American quality to them, rather than being an unique Italian take on a classic dish. That certainly applies to this film. The scenarios, characters and music all smack of a 50’s B Western, and Bava’s trademark vibrant technicolor and use of matte paintings only enhances this vibe. The story involves Bud Massadey, a man returning from the Civil War when he finds a troop of dead soldiers who were carrying a bill for the Wagon City bank good for $15,000 in army wages. The citizens of Wagon City don’t exactly give Bud a warm welcome, and so he and his new friend Slim decide to team up with a gang of outlaws. Together they dress in the dead soldiers uniforms and try to retrieve the money that the bill promises from the town bank, but things go awry and they end up robbing the bank instead. Things start to get complicated when the leader of the gang, Carson, turns out to be a Mr.Blonde-esque psychopath, and after being beaten and left for dead by the gang, Bud and Slim are picked up by a passing military convoy as one of their own. Now having to play up their soldier disguises, a traveling prisoner called Penny and the psychotic Carson turning back up with the money and a gang of Indians on his tail means that escape is increasingly difficult for the two men. As the tensions mount, Bud is torn between his desire to escape from the convoy with Slim or staying put to do the right thing.
Though it’s very rough around the edges and not nearly up to the standard of it’s director, The Road to Fort Alamo is still rather watchable as a simple entertainment. The tension over whether or not Bud and Slim are going to get found out is handled pretty well, with some near misses and awkward situations along the way. There isn’t much to say about the acting, only that Michel Lemoine gives a nicely psychotic portrayal as Carson. In a moment that caught me completely off guard, when the outlaws are robbing the Wagon City bank in their soldier disguises, he goes crazy and blows away a screaming old lady. You actually see an old lady get shot and killed in this movie! Only in Italian Westerns folks. This is a rare moment in the film where Bava’s dark sense of humor and sadist streak shines through.
The whole ‘Cowboys Vs Indians’ thing is of course extremely stale, and itself rarely seen in Spaghetti Westerns, but the idea of the Indians sending out little rafts of dollars down the river in order to lure out and kill the soldiers is an image that stuck with me. If this had released been a bit later after Fistful, they could have cashed in using the title ‘River of Dollars’. Bava’s usual visual style also makes the film look unique among Spaghetti Westerns, almost like a Western comic book, and the films best moments are the action scenes where it begins to live up to the comic book aesthetic. One of the opening scenes in the Saloon is a good example of this, including a great moment where Slim is held up and made to hand over his gun. He slyly warms it on a candle behind his back causing his aggressor to burn his hand when goes to grab it. Another place where the film shines are in the studio filmed night time scenes. These scenes are lighted in a fantastically Gothic way that is trademark Bava, so it’s a real shame that their effect is ruined by a completely baffling sequence late in the film. When Bud is trying to escape from the convoy at night time, Bud and the convoy are depicted in aforementioned studio night shots, but when the film cuts to the river across which Bud is trying to escape, it is suddenly daytime and outdoors! This Ed Wood like blunder, along with the generally detached feeling the film has from the rest of his filmography, makes me feel like Bava either wasn’t particularly invested in the Western genre, or struggled to figure out what kind of Western he wanted to make. If he had concentrated his energies on making either a comic book western in the vein of Diabolik, which can be glimpsed in the saloon scene mentioned above, or a Gothic Western hybrid as can be glimpsed in the studio night time scenes, Bava’s contribution to the Spaghetti Western universe might have be bettered regarded and remembered. As is set in stone, The Road to Fort Alamo is a minor and unexceptionable entry in a filmography that is filled with gems. For Bava and Spaghetti Western completists only.
I saw The Road to Fort Alamo on a Region 2 German DVD from Koch Media, which features the original Italian audio track with English subtitles, as well as German audio and subtitles. It’s also available on a Region 0 DVD from Wild East in the USA, which features only the English soundtrack, and also includes the Eurowestern A Place Called Glory.