... aka: Condemned to Live
... aka: Cut-Throats Nine
... aka: Cutthroats 9
... aka: Todesmarsch der Bestien (Death March of the Beasts)
Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent
Fleeing both the mines and some personal trauma that occurred in the small town of Golden Sand for the hopefully greener pastures of Fort Green requires a treacherous 400 mile trip across a snowy and dangerous mountain pass. But cavalry sergeant Brown ("Robert Hundar" / Claudio Undari) is up for it. That's how badly he wants out of there. He's taken a position to help transport seven violent chain gang criminals, all of whom have been sentenced to life for various crimes, across the mountains to get there himself. Also coming along on the trip is his innocent teenage daughter Cathy (Emma Cohen). They don't make it too far out of Golden Sand before they're attacked by a gang of bandits looking for gold. The two drivers are murdered and the bandits send the covered wagon careening in the direction from which it came.
Unable to stop the horses, Sgt. Brown and Cathy jump from the wagon before it goes over the hill. The wagon is destroyed, they're only left with two horses and now the sergeant and his daughter are stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no transportation, no help on its way and seven unpredictable criminals in their charge. The only power Brown has over any of them is that the criminals remain shackled by the ankles and he's the only one in possession of weapons (a gun and a machete). Still, he's so determined to make it to Fort Green he orders everyone to start heading there by foot.
Among the criminals are gambler, blackmailer, forger and killer Thomas Lawrence aka "Dandy Tom" (Eduardo Fajardo) and Ray Brewster (Antonio Iranzo), who earned the nickname "The Torch" due to his proclivity for arson (not to leave out his thievery and murder). There's career criminal Dick Patterson (Rafael Hernández), who has only about six months left to live... if he's lucky. Ruthless and bloodthirsty Joe Farrow aka "El Comanchero" (Ricardo Díaz) was an Indian scalper who turned on his own people. Slim (Carlos Romero Marchent) was a blackmailer, traitor and murderer. And John McFarland aka "Weasel" (José Manuel Martín) was convicted or rape in addition to robbery and murder. Sgt. Brown notes "He has one good quality... he's probably insane." That leaves the mysterious Dean Marlowe (Manuel Tejada), who doesn't seem to fit in with the others due to having what appears to be a conscience. No one is quite sure what exactly he did to end up there.
As they travel across the snowy mountains, the chain gang constantly prod Sgt. Brown with threats of killing him if he so much as turns his back on them. But, first, they have someone else to take care of. Slim, who broke his leg during the wagon crash, is murdered while everyone's sleeping because they're sick of carrying that dead weight around with them everywhere. They then end up losing both of their horses; one to a broken leg and another that can't make it up a steep mountain and is put out of its misery. Sgt. Brown is revealed to have ulterior motives for the trip, one involving gold smuggling and the other involving getting revenge for the murder of his wife (Mabel Karr).
Trying to survive the harsh elements while locating food (all of their provisions have run out) and shelter proves difficult but even more problems arise when the criminals finally manage to get the upper hand. Sgt. Brown is chained up and beaten bloody and, since they really want to make him suffer, they make him watch as they pin down Cathy and gang rape her. However, as we all know, there's no honor among thieves and thus starts a chain reaction of betrayal and murder that forecasts a grim conclusion for all concerned.
Often billed as the most violent western of all time and, while that is a bit of an overreach, this still has an uncommon amount of gore for this type of film. Faces are blown off, feet are hacked off, corpses burn in fires, throats are slashed, wounds gush blood, a guy is strung up with a hook in his back and there's not one, but two, gory disembowelments complete with bloody guts oozing from the wounds. Of course this isn't going to phase most horror fans as we're already accustomed to seeing such things on the regular, but it may take fans of traditional westerns by surprise.
While I appreciated many aspects of this one, I'm still not on the same page as those proclaiming it some kind of oater horror masterpiece. Once you're done soaking in the setting and the novelty of having an occasional burst of gore begins to wear off, the thin story eventually catches up with it. After about an hour, the film starts spinning its wheels and starts growing tiresome and repetitive. The director fails to generate much tension, the characters aren't very engaging, the few minor twists lack punch and, just like the titular nine, the movie itself kind of just slowly trudges along until reaching a finale that predictably stays true to the downbeat tone of the rest of the film. As for profundity, one character pointing out that life sucks is pretty much the extent of it. This is straight up exploitation. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
Where this really excels is creating a bleak atmosphere with the hopelessness of the premise, roster of nasty, sadistic, backstabbing characters, harsh setting, gory violence and dark, grimy cinematography all combining to create a thoroughly nihilistic viewing experience. In an effort to try to spice things up, the director even throws in some minor surrealistic flourishes, including a memorable scene featuring a reverse house burning and one of the (drunken) criminals envisioning a victim returning from the dead and coming at him through the smoke and snow. Multiple characters have flashbacks and there's lots of clunky use of freeze frame to introduce some of those. Pretty much everything about this film probably makes Quentin Tarantino wet his pants.
AIP released the English-dubbed version to U.S. theaters in 1973 and United International handled the same release in the UK. Some patrons were given a "Terror Mask" to block out the gorier parts. There have been a number of home video releases, including a VHS (on the Liberty Entertainment Group label) and then a DVD and Blu-ray courtesy of Code Red.
A remake has been "in development" for an entire decade now. Rue Morgue Magazine founder Rodrigo Gudiño is (was?) supposed to direct and Harvey Keitel, Mads Mikkelsen (from the Hannibal TV series) and Slash (yes, the guitarist) were among those announced as stars. Nothing's come of any of this yet, which is probably just as well.