Quien Sabe? (Who Knows?) has been promoted as a ‘Spaghetti Western’ (meaning Italian made and ultra realistic as opposed to glossy US product), but as director Damiani is keen to point out in the extras, "the only thing it has in common with Westerns is horses). Indeed the film is significantly anti-American in its portrayal of the classic antagonist, baby-faced American Bill Tate (Lou Castel). Being blonde and wealthy he stands out like a sore thumb compared to the poor, bedraggled Mexicans who surround him in the opening scene as he buys a train ticket. We are swept immediately into the film’s political setting – the Mexican revolution of 1910: soldiers are all over the train, only to be shot off when they stop to ponder the fate of a trussed up general up ahead on the tracks. Gun-hungry bandits kill most of the soldiers, prepared to do anything to lay their hands on guns (or the money to be made from them). Much to our surprise, Bill joins forces with them and gallops away in an uneasy alliance which forms the setting for the political intrigue and double crossing to come.
Although Klaus Kinski plays a minor role in the film (as a very misguided priest), the true brilliance of the film lies in the interplay between the two male leads, El Chunchio (Gian Maria Volonte) and Bill, nicknamed ‘Gringo’. Chunchio is animalistic and filthy with a matted beard, but the woman love him and he has a warm heart, although he can kill in a second. His comic baseness contrasts with the Gringo’s pressed suit and smooth hair; simple peasant versus rich corrupt capitalist, yet their loyalty to each other defies hard and fast notions of good versus bad guys. Indeed, their strong bonding has homo-erotic overtones, made all the more dramatic because we are unaware of the Gringo’s real mission until the end.
On first viewing the middle section is a little confusing. The allegiances of the bandits are a little too far fetched, for example a former rape victim, Martine Beswick (in terrible gravy browning makeup), nonetheless hangs out with them and helps them trick a local town. Their way of life seems odd, they stop to party in the town San Miguel and free it from its capitalistic owner on their way to deliver guns. Comic moments are balanced with melodrama, especially as the locals can’t handle the guns they have been given, but the ambiguity of the characters’ is matched by their aimless wandering.
Both Gringo and Chunchio are tested when they meet the General of the title, revolutionary leader General Elias. Chunchio is paid for the weapons he has delivered, but then is told that the residents of San Miguel were massacred after he left with his arms, and so he must face execution. Step in Gringo, killing two birds with one step with a bullet for the general. But mission complete, Gringo can still not forget his allegiance to Chunchio. Later he offers him half his reward money and Chunchio cleans up, but in a last act of communist conscience, he recognises that corruption must be stamped out, shoots Gringo and runs off to join the fight once again.
The film was adapted by the communist writer Franco Solinas, but his revolutionary passions are matched by the ambiguity of the Chunchio/Gringo bond. Argent Films’ new release of this classic film is fully restored from the original negative and is the longest and most complete version of the film available. The hot desert scenes and smouldering eyes of Klaus Kinski really come alive in this print and the interview sections on the extras are excellent.