Directed by Giulio Petroni, Tepepa is a 1969 epic spaghetti western (or ‘tortilla western’) concerning the Mexican revolution. The film tells the story of the eponymous revolutionary Tepepa (Tomas Milian) who, at the commencement of the film, is incarcerated and facing a firing squad led by corrupt police chief Cascorro (Orson Welles) when he is suddenly saved by John Steiner’s Price, an English doctor. But this respite proves brief as Price reveals his real agenda for saving Tepepa’s skin…he means to kill him himself because he believes the revolutionary is responsible for the death of his fiancée. However, his revenge is put on hold as the Tepepa reunites with his compañeros to right the wrongs of a revolution that has seen their previous idols sell out and revert back to allowing the land owners and businessmen to continue their tyrannical rule.
Predicting the central dynamic in Leone’s excellent A Fistful of Dynamite (or Duck, You Sucker) from two years later (and interestingly where James Coburn’s Irishman arrives in that later film on a sputtering motorbike, Steiner arrives in an equally sputtering motorcar) an uneasy alliance develops between the Mexican and the English doctor as they defy Cascorro and attempt to do right by the Mexican peasant folk.
If you haven’t guessed, Tepepa is a very political film. Interestingly, the cut I saw is a hybrid on Amazon Prime of an English language release and the original Italian print. It runs to two hours eleven minutes and whenever we come to the real meat of the film’s politics, you have to revert to subtitles. Clearly, the English language version didn’t want to concern itself with the film’s overall message. It ought to come as no surprise that this, along with a great number of spaghetti westerns, comes with an agenda. Many of the Italian writers and directors working on these (ostensibly) genre movies took the opportunity to reflect upon the political climate in Italy at the time as well as refer back to the false dawn they felt occurred following the Second World War which many of them fought as partisans in. Tepepa may be about the Mexican revolution, but the disillusionment and betrayal its characters feel towards their Pyrrhic victory and how things have panned out could just as easily relate to how, post-war, De Gasperi formed a right-wing Italian government that was emphatically pro-American, thereby selling the communist partisans who fought to free Italy of fascism down the river.
By this stage, Milian had his screen persona down pat. Often cast as the revolutionary, he helped create a niche cinematic identity in which, on the surface, he is a character with political beliefs that mean audiences want to root for him, but he is forever compromised by his own personal lusts or avarice. The ability to depict heroes as deeply flawed individuals is one of the most refreshing aspects of the spaghetti western genre,and Tepepa is arguably one of his finest achievements in cementing this persona, as we come to learn through Leone-style flashbacks that he raped Price’s fiancée – a shocking act of violence that she never recovered from, committing suicide sometime after. When Tepepa realises that this is why Price wants vengeance (and how rare it is to see a film in which a character is out for revenge upon the hero!), he is unconcerned, remarking that he only did “what any man would do to a girl”. For Tepepa, the revolution is all that matters (indeed it could be construed that, by his logic, his sexual assault of a well-to-do lady was of itself an act of revolution) and, as such, he possesses feet of clay.
Likewise, Price is also a character who exists in the morally grey area; as a doctor, he has made the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, yet when Tepepa is wounded, he finds himself on the brink of a moral dilemma between the professional and the personal. John Steiner, the Gaunt and tall Chester born, RADA-trained actor would enjoy a prolific career in Italian cinema from the 1960s onwards, but he was almost inevitably cast as the villain. This is arguably the closest he comes to playing the hero.
And then there’s Orson Welles. Like a fat tabby cat, Welles gently undulates in the Spanish heat, spreading poison as he goes. He delivers a performance that is not too dissimilar to that of the equally well fed and villainous chief of police in Touch of Evil, but it’s likely that he only ever considered Tepepa as a means to continue the upkeep of his lifestyle. He’s not necessarily phoning it in, but Petroni considered him difficult to work with and particularly vile to Milian, who he referred to as a ‘dirty Cuban’ on set.
Written by Franco Solinas, Tepepa is a deliberately measured and deeply pessimistic film that draws little difference between its heroes and its villains; violence in the name of justice is still violence, and everyone has blood on their hands. Humour is few and far between, but when it does occur it is deeply, darkly ironic. “How do you like Mexico?” indeed.