The Stranger and the Gunfighter

It was 1974, two years before our Bicentennial and the great pot famine of 1976. Yes, security was so tight back then that you couldn’t beg, borrow or find a joint in the NYC area. Gee, what happened? But I digress. The spaghetti westerns had run their course and were either drifting into self parody, or were just terribly made. 

But the Kung Fu genre was in full swing. One theater in the middle of 42nd Street ran three different kung fu films every week. The prints looked like they were run over by a semi, but fans flocked to them anyway. In 1971, Red Sun was released. It had a gunfighter, Charles Bronson, teamed up with a Samurai warrior, Toshiro Mifune, to find a stolen sword. Great action film.

Then, in 1973, you had the brutal Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe. Here you had a Japanese man playing a Chinese martial artist looking to settle in the old Euro west. A lot of action and a who’s who of guest villains like Robert Hundar, Gordon Mitchell and Klaus Kinski. Good violent, bloody fun. So Columbia Pictures took a film called Blood Money and changed the title to The Stranger and the Gunfighter.

“The Fastest Gun in the West Meets the Most Brutal Hands in the East” was the tagline. Well, I’m not a huge Kung Fu film fan, but I have seen the classics, including Five Fingers of Death. In fact, everyone was talking about Five Fingers of Death, it was a must see film. So four of us decided to see The Stranger and the Gunfighter, but didn’t want to blow $3 each to get in. $3 was two beers at the titty bar.

So one of us paid to get in, then was going to let the rest of us in by the fire exit. So we went into the alley that ran behind the theaters and waited for him to open the door. The door he opened was right near the screen. We were like deer caught in someone’s headlights. We dropped in the nearest seats, hoping no one saw us. They didn’t, or maybe didn’t want the hassle of rousting us. So we watched this rather violent epic which ended with a fist though the bad guy’s chest.

The film’s star, Lieh Lo, was the first Kung Fu superstar, appearing in over 100 films. So he was a known name. Lee Van Cleef was a huge box office draw after films like For a Few Dollars More, The Big Gundown, Sabata and others. So why not blend the two genres? Well, like I said, it had been done before, so what could we expect here? 

Antonio Margheriti, anglicized name Anthony Dawson (not to be confused with the actor Anthony Dawson), was a jack of all genres. His forte was action and he could deliver the goods. This film was a Carlo Ponti production with perhaps the Shaw Brothers on board as well. An Italian/Hong Kong co production shot in both Spain and Hong Kong. So how did it play out on 42nd Street?

Well, the night I saw it, the place was packed. It opens with an older Asian man looking at a woman’s ass. He is Uncle Wang and the woman is one of his four mistresses. Dakota (Van Cleef) is looking to crack a huge safe in a bank. That safe holds the secret to Wang’s fortune. Wang looks out the window and sees someone in the bank. Dakota had just lit a charge to blow open the door when Wang walks into it.

Wang is killed and all that was in the safe were four photos of women and a fortune cookie. Dakota is arrested and will hang for Wang’s murder. Dakota sits in his cell and watches them build the gallows. But halfway across the world, a Chinese warlord is really pissed off as he feels Wang stole from him and sent over a wooden Indian instead of the fortune.

The warlord rounds up Wang’s family including nephew Ho Chieng, a martial artist. When his sister is threatened, Ho takes on a few dozen people. The brothers in the crowd pop for the fight big time. The warlord is impressed with Ho’s courage and gives him a month to go to America and retrieve the fortune.

Ho visits a lawyer, but all he has is the four pictures of these women and a fortune cookie. Ho gets into another fight and is thrown in jail. Ho picked the fight because he wanted to talk to Dakota. Dakota is legit remorseful about Wang’s death. He doesn’t know any of the women in the pictures, but the fortune cookie’s fortune says look at a woman’s bottom or something. Horny Uncle Wang tattooed clues to his fortune on his mistresses’ asses.

Ho saves Dakota from being hung as he needs a guide in the Euro West. Dakota agrees to help for a percentage of the money. Throw in a little comedy, which kind of derails the film a bit. One of the women they are looking for is the woman of an insane former killer turned preacher, Yancy Hobbit. He has a church built into a big wagon. He walks into a saloon/whorehouse and guns down the owners.

Ho fakes wanting to be converted so they can look at Yancy’s woman’s ass. Lots of chuckles from the crowd over these ass examinations. Dakota holds Yancy at gunpoint. Yancy now wants whatever this treasure is and hooks up with a crazy Indian to help him. Yancy looks a lot like Robert Downey. The women who are tattooed are Patty Sheppard, Erica Blanc, Femi Benussi, and Karen Yeh. Lots of ass with class. 

Dakota asks Ho if he has any liquor. Ho produces a small bottle that Dakota thinks is for women. One gulp and Dakota spits it into the fire in a funny spot. The two men become friends as the film progresses. Dakota gets drunk in a bar while Ho is checking out the last ass. Dakota starts singing a tune on stage until Yancy’s gang attacks. 

Yancy grabs a girl that Ho took a liking to. Dakota blows a lot of gunmen away during the fight. Dakota and Ho argue about freeing the girl. Dakota says he doesn’t care about the money, that they are friends and he would never leave a friend. Dakota rides off, but is surrounded by Calico’s men. Calico, is played by Ricardo Palacios, a familiar face in these films.

Dakota is tied to a post and whipped until he’s a bloody mess. Ho sneaks in and frees him. Dakota takes a Gatling Gun and straps it to a team of horses. He mows down the bandits as Ho takes some out with his hands. It comes down to Yancy and his big Indian killer. Ho battles the big guy and in Five Fingers of Death style, plunges his hand though his chest. Yancy goes for his gun and is cut down by Dakota. 

Ho returns to China where he confronts the warlord. The warlord orders him executed but a gunshot halts that. Dakota made the trip as “I always wanted to see China,” he says.  Ho breaks open the wooden Indian and there is a locked box inside. It is full of stocks of wealthy American companies. Ho tells the warlord that this is the fortune. The warlord releases Ho’s family and they leave to check out China with Dakota. 

There was a mixed reaction to this film. In some spots it drags, then picks up again. Lo and Van Cleef work well together. Van Cleef would work with Margheriti again with Take a Hard Ride (1975), another blending of three film genres. Lee made two more westerns, God’s Gun and Kid Vengeance. Sorry to say that they weren’t very good. He would do more films with Margheriti, Code Name Wild Geese (1984) and Jungle Raiders (1985). Sadly, Lee left us in 1989 at age 64.

Lieh Lo continued working in Martial Arts films. He was usually cast as a villain. He turned to directing in the 80’s. He was involved in a lot of television in Hong Kong until failing heath forced him to retire. He died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 61. Both men live on though the films that they made and that we still enjoy today. 

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