Fueled by the success of his bloody, bullet-ridden classic Django, director Sergio Corbucci made his fourth Spaghetti Western, The Hellbenders, starring the great American actor Joseph Cotten as Jonas, a vengeful Confederate officer unwilling to concede the defeat and surrender of his beloved Confederacy. Hellbent on reassembling the Confederate army and resuming the war against his foes to the north, he and his ragtag regiment attack a convoy of Union soldiers transporting a million dollars. After annihilating the unsuspecting convoy, Jonas and his three sons hide both the fortune and their futures in a coffin, and under the pretense of transporting the body of a fallen Confederate officer, embark on the dangerous trek back home.
Made in 1966 - the same year in which Corbucci directed both Django and Navajo Joe - The Hellbenders again reveals Sergio Corbucci to be a filmmaker of exceptional talent, armed with a keen understanding and admiration for the mystique of the Western. Often cited, alongside his friend and colleague Sergio Leone, with being the progenitor of the wildly entertaining variant popularly referred to as the Spaghetti Western, Corbucci had much to do with the genre's distinction, working with varying degrees of success from the dawn of the Italian Western right up until its demise a little more than a decade later.
While his Westerns are not quite as visually dynamic as Leone's, many of Corbucci's films tend to exist somewhere between the unrestrained Italian approach to the genre and the classic American-made Western - The Hellbenders serving as a good example of this combination. To this extent, viewers hoping for the Grand Guignol violence that sets many Spaghetti Westerns apart from their American counterparts might find The Hellbenders lacking somewhat in this regard. However, despite the lack of over-the-top violence, the action in The Hellbenders, while perhaps not plentiful or gruesome, is well shot and nicely choreographed, and suits the film's narrative rather than distracting from it. In terms of the story, The Hellbenders is tightly scripted and pretty straightforward, and though it may lack the epic depth of Leone's Westerns, the film still has more than enough conflict and tension, as well as some nice twists and turns, to keep the viewer engaged throughout.
Joseph Cotten leads a decent cast, one standout being Brazilian actress Norma Benguel (Bava's Planet of the Vampires) as a gambler who gets duped into joining and helping Jonas and his Hellbenders reach their final destination. The characters are basically Western archetypes, pitting those motivated by greed and revenge against characters in search of freedom and a better way of life. As with the story, the characters are by no means complex or multifaceted, and yet there is enough depth to draw the viewer in and perhaps inspire multiple viewings. Also of note, the score by Ennio Morricone, working under the name Leo Nichols, is quite good and should please fans of the composer's work.
Anchor Bay's release of The Hellbenders has been a long time coming, and those who have patiently awaited its arrival should be pleased with how the film looks. Overall, the image quality is great with only a few shots looking a bit grainy, and in some cases underlit. The audio features the English language track and is without any major faults. However, the disc is far from perfect with only two extras - a trailer and a short director biography - both of which are fine, but will definitely leave most viewers unsatisfied. This quibble aside, The Hellbenders is a very good Western from a great director, and though the DVD is a bit wanting, fans of the film and the genre as a whole will certainly want to pick this one up.