If you get past the fact that Lithuanian Charles Bronson is playing the titular half-Apache protagonist, Chato, you’ll find that Chato’s Land is a pretty grimy Vietnam-allegory Western, with a breathtakingly cynical outlook on the American man. Of course, getting past the casting is certainly more difficult in this day and age than it was in 1972.
Supposing you do: Chato is a half-Apache who saunters into town for a drink when a racist sheriff starts shouting racist epithets at him. So Chato shoots him without hesitation. Good on you, Chato. A group of ex-Confederate townsfolk subsequently pursue him into the wild. This group of Greycoats is led by Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), a man whose greatest exploits were in service of a failed cause that only brigands and drunks are willing to respect. Westerns have had a history of redeeming ex-Confederate soldiers in some fashion, using their allegiances as a shorthand for personality traits (rebelliousness, mostly) and backstory (they’re out West because the world rejected them). Chato’s Land, despite its clear casting issue, at least depicts Whitmore and his men as real pieces of shit who ultimately get what’s coming to them.
Although released at the tail-end of the Vietnam War, Chato’s Land doesn’t feel any less relevant in its commentary: Here is a group of American soldiers wandering into a land they don’t care about, abusing the local population and then dying in terrible ways. It’s not subtle about its Vietnam allegory, either: Quincy’s men graphically gang-rape Chato’s unnamed wife (played by Sonia Rangan) and destroy his home. It’s a bleak and angry story that has no empathy for what we did in Vietnam — and in conflicts since — and revels in Chato’s impassive revenge. Whether Chato’s lack of emotion is written into the script or simply the result of casting Charles Bronson, well, who’s to say? The film delivers the ruthless violence Bronson fans show up for, with a heaping dose of allegory.
Kino Lorber’s new Blu-ray restoration is an utterly gorgeous effort and includes a special commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Steve Mitchell.