Sometimes, I like to imagine I had some sort of ability to sit down with a long-deceased celebrity over a cup of coffee and discuss their work, their life, and their thoughts on their work after their life had ended. After having watched the 1972 western/comedy The Wrath of God, I have once more relished in that fantasy — though not with the film’s lead actor, the great Robert Mitchum. No, since I’m that feller who has always rooted for the underdog, my whimsical coffee date has instead been reserved for the one and only Victor Buono.
But it wasn’t until the climax of the motion picture — as directed by Ralph Nelson (Requiem for a Heavyweight, Embryo) and written by Nelson himself along with The Eagle Has Landed author Jack Higgins (using a pseudonym) — that the desire to learn more about Buono’s take on making this film set in. And I’m fairly certain anyone else familiar with the larger-than-life character actor would feel compelled to do the same once they witness his unforgettable action scene towards the end of The Wrath of God.
Please, be so kind as to take a moment to think about that for a minute or two before you continue.
Let me just say this: it’s so epic, it should be hailed as the greatest scene ever by a closeted fat man. And the fact that this particular hefty fellow was also one of the few villains who ever deduced the location of the Batcave on his own makes it all the more appealing. Because Victor Buono was boss like that.
Anyway, The Wrath of God begins with an antsy Irishman named Emmet (Ken Hutchison, the Scottish answer to Robert De Niro) in Mexico, desperate to escape what Michael Palin would surely call the violence inherent in the system in the 1920s. There, he is hornswoggled into delivering some illicit goods by a nefarious English bootlegger, Jennings (Buono). It is also there that he meets a rather aberrant priest named Van Horne (Mitchum, just as imperturbably bad-ass as ever), whose path he seems to keep crossing (no pun intended) as they both make their way up the road.
Alas, neither of the three previously-mentioned gentlemen are destined to reach their scheduled destinations — as an army colonel (John Colicos, in a small part) has had his eye on all three, and uses his position to turn the three into his own Unholy Trinity: a trio of men whose sole mission is to kill local revolutionary Tomas de la Plata (Frank Langella, in one of his first films) who is surrounded by his own personal militia of murderers and madmen. Rita Hayworth (in her final film) co-stars as Langella’s mum (they slept together during the shoot, according to Langella’s new book), Gregory Sierra is Langella’s goon with a dead eye, and Paula Pritchett is a mute Indian woman who sets her eye (neither of hers are dead) on Hutchison.
Like many movies that have come and gone before and after this one, The Wrath of God is one of those titles that somehow lost its way over time. Though the story is about as cliché as can be by today’s standards (it was when first released, too), the movie’s appeal lies in its ensemble cast of performers (most of whom have all but been forgotten, sadly) and their deliveries. Watching Mitchum pull a total Franco Nero moment and whipping out a Tommy gun, laying everyone to “rest” is a treat, as are his holy blessings such as “Rub-a-dub-dub, thanks for the grub” — delivered with that usual Mitchum flair, of course.
The neglected talent of Hutchison also shows us the acting talent he had back then, having terrified audiences a year before in Straw Dogs as one of the bad guys. Mr. Buono gets a chance to soak up his part, as well — beginning as a shady gunrunner, later turning into a shifty assassin, and finally going out with a bang as an instrument of unlikely salvation who also gets to do the whole Tommy gun thing — while driving a car equipped with a makeshift battering ram, to boot! Toss in Sierra, an almost senile Hayworth, and that cameo by Colicos, and you have a recipe for greatness. After all, with a cast like this, it’s hardly The Wrath of God — but rather a blessing from God.