I’d heard a little about this movie before we watched it. Some people say it’s a spoof of Spaghetti Westerns, others claim it’s a modern attempt to make a new Western in the style of the Italian films. I’m here to tell you it’s not really either of those things. I have a hunch that my opinion will be solidly in the minority, but I think SHOOT FIRST AND PRAY YOU LIVE is about nine-tenths of a great film.
More importantly for Western pulp fans, most of the time it’s a very faithful adaptation of Frederick Faust’s novel LUCK, which started out as an ARGOSY serial in 1919 under the pseudonym John Frederick, then was published in book form under that name as Faust’s third published novel in 1920. Later, it was reprinted under its original title, as well as under the title RIDERS OF THE SILENCES, as by Max Brand. The film version follows the plot of the book accurately, as far as I recall from reading it a number of years ago, and uses big chunks of dialogue that really sound just like Faust’s work, so I assume they’re straight from the book, or almost so.
The plot finds a young man called Red Pierre falling in with an outlaw gang and enlisting their help in his vengeance quest against a notorious gunfighter named Bob McGurk, who killed Pierre’s father and raped his mother. The movie doesn’t tell the story in a traditional linear fashion, however, instead looping around and around with flashbacks and even flashbacks within flashbacks. Everything makes sense in the end, but this is a movie where you have to pay attention to follow it.
Most of the movie is played absolutely straight and works very well indeed. But every so often writer/director Lance Doty opts to drag in some oddball stylistic flourish, like including a flashback to Red Pierre’s childhood that’s animated (according to an interview, that was cheaper than hiring a child actor) or running a long sequence in reverse. Bits like this probably appeal to more modern viewers (one review I read compared it to PULP FICTION), but to a traditionalist like me, they seemed too jarring.
I’m willing to overlook those moments I didn’t like, however, because there were so many things I liked a lot about this movie. The cast, which includes almost nobody you’ve ever heard of except maybe Jim Gaffigan, James Russo, and Richard Tyson (who was also in THREE O'CLOCK HIGH, which we watched recently) does a fine job. Despite being shot quickly on an extremely low budget, the movie looks great. The music, which deliberately echoes the work of Ennio Morricone, is pretty good most of the time.
Mostly, though, I really liked SHOOT FIRST AND PRAY YOU LIVE because overall it’s probably the most faithful adaptation of a Frederick Faust Western ever. From the moment very early on when the narrator starts talking about the mountain desert, you know you’re in Faust country. And it made me realize for the first time that what Faust was doing, decades before the genre was even invented, was writing the literary equivalent of Spaghetti Westerns. Think about it . . . larger-than-life stories set in a mythological West featuring nearly superhuman heroes and villains . . . that’s a good description of both Spaghetti Westerns and Faust’s novels. Watching this movie really made me want to pick up a Max Brand novel and read it from a whole new perspective.
A lot of viewers may watch this movie, scratch their heads, and go “Huh?” But I loved it, and I hope they make the sequel that’s promised at the end. I’m pretty sure there’s a sequel to the novel LUCK, too, but I can’t recall the title at the moment. I’ll have to search it out and read it.
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