Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Il Ritorno di Zanna Bianca (1974) * * ½

In the Northwest Territories of Canada in 1899, Mitsa (Missaele) the young boy from the first ZANNA BIANCA movie is working with his hybrid wolf and two fur traders. Beauty Smith (John Steiner) and two henchmen appear, raid the traders camp, shoot all of them, then escape in a canoe with all their equipment. Several hours later, the wolf-dog is found by John Tarwater (Harry Carey Jr.) a grizzled old trader who buries Mitsa, and takes the hybid wolf back to a nearby town which is his home. The wolf-dog befriends another young boy, John's orphaned 10 year-old grandson Bill Tarwater (Renato Cestiè). Bill names him White Fang because of its ivory-white teeth. At a local saloon, White Fang helps John Tarwater win some money at a card game from a crooked card-shark, and a hilarious fistfight breaks out between the swindler and his victims as John casually counts his money, while White Fang and Bill take cover behind the bar. John then embarks on one of his periodic expeditions to discover gold.

Meanwhile, Beauty Smith is again exploiting the people in the town where John and Bill live. Smith uses the alias Charles Forth, pretends to be a businessman, and fakes a crippling injury by confining himself to a wheelchair with his two henchman always at his side. Sister Evangelina (Virna Lisi) is running a new mission hut in the town to convert into a hospital, and decides to ask Mr. Forth for funding to operate the hospital, despite warnings that Mr. Forth won't give her any money unless she will repay the loan with interest within 60 days or less. Sister Evangelina goes to meet him, and instantly recognizes the villain. She contacts novelist Jason Scott (Franco Nero) who's on a book tour down south and he agrees to come to her assistance. Scott also contacts his old friend Kurt Jansen (Raimund Harmstorf), now working as a local mines inspector to help out. Together, the three of them take their accusations to the town's corrupt police chief, Inspector Lt. Charles Leclerq (Renato de Carmine), who is actually on the payroll of Beauty Smith and claims to have known Mr. Forth for six years. Leclerq's wife Jane (Hannelore Elsner) is pressuring her husband to accommodate Smith's nefarious plans in return for more bribe money in exchange for protection, since Smith is now a wanted fugitive.

Jason Scott attempts to expose the illegal complicity between Mr. Forth and the police chief with the help of a local worker named Liverpool (Donald O'Brien), who agrees to write a statement in exchange for money. But Liverpool goes back on his word to help Scott by skipping town with the money that was given to him. Shortly afterwards, Scott encounters Bill and John Tarwater when White Fang drags them back to town after their sled dogs had run away leaving them stranded on a snowy plain. The animal shows affection for both Bill and Scott, remembing Scott from their previous adventure in Dawson City. Elsewhere, Kurt meets Liverpool's younger and attractive sister (Yanti Somer) and a romantic attraction develops between both of them.

The following day Liverpool returns to the town with two men, one dead and the other suffering from frostbite. They were selling insufficient and overpriced supplies from Beauty Smith. The survivor, Carter (Rolf Hartmann), has gangrene in both legs and Scott has to help Sister Evangelina perform the amputation at the mission hut. When Beauty Smith and his two henchmen see and recognize White Fang, they frame the wolf-dog for savaging Liverpool to death. An enraged posse attempts to kill White Fang, forcing Bill to drive the hybrid wolf out of town. When Bill looks for White Fang later in the woods, he gets attacked by a vicious eagle, but White Fang jumps in and saves him by fighting off the bird. Bill smuggles White Fang back into town and to Sister Evangelina's mission where the hybrid wolf's injuries are tended to.

While visiting his grandson and White Fang at the mission, John learns from Carter about the location of a gold-stream in the mountains that he found. But Harvey (Werner Pochath), a mission employee and a secret associate of Beauty Smith, sees them discussing the location and reports it to his boss. Jane then fakes a sickness to lure Sister Evangelina away from the mission, leaving Carter alone in his sickbed. Beauty Smith visits and tortures Carter for the location of the gold stream, then kidnaps John Tarwater and has his two henchmen set fire to the mission hut. Carter is burned to death, while Bill, who walked in while Smith was torturing Carter, is trapped by the flames. When Sister Evangelina realizes that Jane is not sick, she races back to the burning mission and rushes in to save Bill, but she catches on fire and dies from the severity of her burns.

Hearing of her death, the townspeople start a riot after learning from Bill about the wanted Beauty Smith and of Inspector Leclerq's association with him. As the mob breaks through the Mounties into the police station, Leclerq shoots himself. Scott, Kurt, and Bill find Jane who tells them where Beauty Smith is heading. Scott and Kurt with White Fang organize a posse to give chase. Locating Smith and his henchmen, Scott leads the posse forward and a gun battle ensues. Smith manages to shoot a few posse members, but his two henchmen are killed. White Fang catches up to Smith and attacks him. Smith's gunshots miss the wolf-dog and instead triggers an avalanche. The villain finally dies, crushed to death under the falling snow and ice. Shortly afterwards, Scott, Kurt, and White Fang locate John Tarwater who was shot and left for dead. But before he dies, he asks Scott that his grandson be the beneficiary of the gold stream that he found right near him with Carter's advice. The two-faced Harvey suddenly shows his true colors and says that the owner will legally be the first one to register the claim in the town. He suggests a dog-sled race to settle the disputed claim.

In the climatic sled race, Harvey attempts dirty tricks to win the race, but the tables turn on him when he falls from his sled and dies when he gets accidentally run over by the sled-team headed by White Fang. Scott and White Fang arrive in the town first, and the writer enters Bill Tarwater's name in the ledger in place of his own.

In the final scene, Jason Scott says his goodbyes to Kurt who now has the job as the new police inspector, and he announces that he and Liverpool's sister will be getting married in the spring. Bill also stays to live with Kurt and his wife who have agreed to raise the boy and White Fang. Scott then returns to Vancouver with new stories to write, while White Fang is torn between running after him or staying with Bill. However, White Fang chooses to stay with his young master as he runs back to Bill and trots off with the boy.

IL RITORNO DI ZANNA BIANCA is the sequel to prolific director Lucio Fulci's ZANNA BIANCA (1973). The titles translate into English as "White Fang" and "The Return of White Fang" or "The Challenge of White Fang". The German title is "Die Teufelsschlucht der Wilden Wölfe" and the French titles are "Le Retour de Buck le Loup" and "Le Retour de Croc Blanc". This sequel is set a few years after ZANNA BIANCA, and White Fang once again faces the harsh reality of the increasingly cruel nature of men, but remains faithful to those who are kind. Horror film specialist Fulci does a fine job adapting a variation on Jack London's 1906 novel "White Fang" to the big screen

This light-hearted adventure is set in the harsh wilderness of northern Canada in 1899. It's a typical wintry adventure that should appeal to children, and adults might want to watch it for the cast and director. But if you have seen ZANNA BIANCA, this sequel will seem like more of the same to you, and ZANNA BIANCA isn't all that great a B movie. The sequel is somewhat sloppily written or translated, yet another story about a boy and his hybrid wolf, with some gold rush-Western elements thrown in. There are surprisingly few movies about wolves. Most are adaptations or variations on Jack London's 1903 book "Call of the wild" or its 1906 sequel "White Fang". A German Shepherd dog plays White Fang in ZANNA BIANCA.

Lucio Fulci's ZANNA BIANCA movies are among the strangest films ever made. He has cooked up a populist entertainment that's too violent for children and too cute for adults, except when people aren't being tortured and burned alive. While missing the nudity and sex of exploitation films, these are not really all-age adventures, at least in their unedited forms. You might think this would be fun for the whole family until the town drunk is beaten senseless, the hapless Indian family is murdered in cold blood, and the child terrorized by bad guys who get a kick out of torturing cripples. The bullets fly, the bodies pile up, and White Fang gets to do clever things like figure out that someone is cheating at poker.

Both of Fulci's ZANNA BIANCA films were part of a fad by Italian film producers trying to squeeze some life out of their spaghetti western industry. There were maybe a dozen of these things made between 1973 and 1977 or so--Alpine adventures set in the gold rush era Klondike with plucky kids and an intelligent, resourceful wolf-dog as the star of the film. They usually bring in an action hero and a bad guy and come up with all sorts of fascinating adventures for the hybrid wolf to have while the humans stand around cheering him on.

If there are any saving graces to this sequel it is that White Fang is not forced to fight any other animals for the benefit of the camera, though he does get chased around, kicked, beaten with axe handles and thrown out of burning buildings. He's also depicted as fighting off a golden eagle that attacks the young boy, leading to one of the most bizarre gore effects sequences ever staged where the canine performer is festooned with a truly twisted zombie makeup effect to have it appear as though the bird scratched his eyes out. Probably this was one of the scenes cut from prints exported to North America in the 1970s.

The film ends in a dog sled race finale that took a few cues from BEN HUR (1959), with the two sled riders battling it out as they hurtle across the wilderness. The credits include Canada as one of the filming locations, although IL RITORNO DI ZANNA BIANCA was filmed mostly in Austria. The whole thing is marvelously fake and tacky, which is half of the fun of this little sub-genre of spaghetti westerns. They are fascinating and this is probably one of the better examples with no apparent harm coming to the animal performers. But the people get battered around quite a bit. It looks like it was a tough, physical shoot under adverse conditions, and a minor miracle the film was even made at all.

The cast also includes: John Bartha (Mountie Sergeant), Paolo Magalotti (Smith's Henchman 1), Sergio Smacchi (Smith's Henchman 2), Ezio Marano (Gambler), Stanislaus Gunawan, Vittorio Fanfoni, Carla Mancini, Riccardo Petrazzi (Man in Saloon), Pietro Torrisi (Man in Saloon), and Goffredo Unger (Fighter in Saloon). Carlo Rustichelli composed the incidental music. Lucio Fulci, Roberto Gianviti, and Alberto Silvestri wrote the screenplay. Lucio Fulci directed.

Donald O'Brien who plays Liverpool said about John Steiner (Beauty Smith), "He was a good actor, but we didn't get along well. I am Irish, he is British, maybe that's why..." O'Brien said of Raimund Harmstorf who plays Kurt Jansen, "An incredibly good-looking guy. He used to be a Decathlon athlete, I think. These people have the best physiques because they have to do everything, run, jump, throw weights." When informed that director Lucio Fulci had died, O'Brien was shocked and said, "He was a great director. Many terrible things happened to him in his life. He was rather unlucky. I have always enjoyed working with him greatly, as he was a truly original human being with a great love for cinema."

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