Wednesday, January 23, 2013

You Can Get It If You Really Want: Why ‘The Harder They Come’ Is the Grittiest Spaghetti Western Of All Time

The Western is often thought of as an exclusively American genre, and for good reason.  It is inherently American, and one of this nation’s greatest contributions to world cinema.  That being said, its appeal is universal.  Its popularity has spread to corners far and wide and to parts unknown.  Much of its appeal relates to the mystique of the outlaw.  That mystique is often tied, in one way or another, to class warfare.  This is especially true of countries which have no middle class.

During the 1960’s, Italians developed their own unique take on the Western genre.  Their take proved very popular in the West Indies, where the Western is nearly as hallowed a mythology as it is in North America.  41 years ago, when the country had just experienced its first decade of independence, a modern day Spaghetti Western would capture the zeitgeist of the its underclass.  That film was appropriately titled The Harder They Come. 

The film’s story is a simple one.  After his grandmother’s death, Ivanhoe Martin (Jimmy Cliff) leaves the Jamaican countryside to seek his fortunes in Kingston.  He has designs on becoming recording artist.  Alas, his ultimate dream proves elusive.  He tries to keep himself afloat by seeking out odd jobs, but work is scarce.  He eventually cuts a record, but the Jamaican music industry proves irredeemably corrupt.  While his record languishes on the shelf, Ivanhoe enters the ganja trade.  Eventually, things take a violent turn.  Ivanhoe becomes a wanted man, causing his song to race to the top of the charts. 

The Harder They Come was initially conceived by Perry Henzell, a Jamaican native and college dropout who worked for the BBC in London during the 1950’s.  In 1959, he returned to his homeland and filmed hundreds of commercials.  He decided to move into feature films, and wanted his first foray into the medium to be one of cultural and sociological significance.  In 1962, the country had finally been granted its independence.  No longer a British Colony, Jamaica was now looking to develop its own identity.  Such ambitions could be heard in the strains of early Reggae music, which was fast becoming the voice of the people.  It could also be seen in the swagger of Jamaican youth, which Henzell himself observed while at an airport in Miami.

Perry Henzell

Powerful though such sentiments and cultural elements may have been, Henzell needed a particular mythology to filter them through.  He found it in the legend of real life outlaw Vincent 'Ivanhoe' Martin, aka “Rhygin The Two-Gun Killer.”  Much like the character that Henzell would envision for his opus, Rhygin (as he was/is widely known) was a country boy.  He was diminutive in size, and very self-conscious about it.  He sported heels to make himself look taller.  He was also afflicted with an effeminate manner and bad teeth.  He compensated for such drawbacks with a pronounced violent streak.  

A very old and very grainy picture of Vincent 'Ivanhoe' Martin, aka “Rhygin The Two-Gun Killer.”

In 1938, at the tender age of 14, Rhygin was sentenced to 12 strokes from the tamarind switch for committing a “vicious attack.”  Two years later, he was charged 30 chillings for wounding, a punishment which he opted for over prison time.  In December of 1943, he was convicted of shop breaking and served 6 months in the St. Catherine District Prison.  After that, he went into self-imposed exile.  He reemerged three years later as the head of his own gang.  He’d also taken on the colorful street names “Alan Ladd” and “Captain Midnight,” which both revealed a flare for the flamboyant. 

On February 6, 1946, he was sentenced to two years in prison for burglary and larceny.  He was ordered to serve another six months on top of that for illegal firearms possession, and another five years still for burglary.  Two years into his ever lengthening stay at the General Security Maximum Penitentiary, he made a daring escape.

More daring still was his bold standoff with police at the Carib Hotel, located on Regent Street in Hannah Town, Kingston.  Acting on a tip, local authorities cornered him in a hotel room.  Dressed in only his underwear, Rhygin burst forth from the room with guns blazing.  Detective Corporal Edgar Lewis was killed.  Detective H.E. Earle and ex-sergeant Gallimore were both seriously wounded.  Though wounded himself, Martin managed to escape. 

Thinking his partner Eric 'Mosspan' Goldson had informed on him, Rhygin tracked the man to a residence at 257 Spanish Town Road in Kingston.  Angered at not finding his prey, Rhygin took out his wrath on the three young women living in the house at the time of his arrival.   Tibby Young, a friend of Goldson’s, was murdered.  Estella Brown and Iris Bailey were wounded.  The very next day, a £200 reward was posted for information leading to Rhygin’s capture.

Rhygin reveled in his new found infamy, going so far as to threaten Detective Sergeant Scott of the Half-Way-Tree Police Station via a letter that he mailed to the Jamaica Times:

"I have an arsenal of 29 shots and I am satisfied that I have made history for the criminal element in Jamaica. Don't think that I am going to kill myself because this will only serve to spoil my great record. But I hope that Detective Scott will train his men some more. I am going to show the police force what is lacking and what I can do."

Meanwhile, Rhygin’s violent crime spree continued unabated.  He murdered Higgler Jonathan Thomas in front of his wife.  He also attempted to murder an acquaintance named Selvyn Maxwell, who fortunately managed to fight him off.  Rhygin managed to steal Maxwell’s car and go into hiding.

When pictures of him brandishing twin revolvers were published by a newspaper, Rhygin issued another statement via the Daily Gleaner.  This time, he revealed details of his Carib Hotel standoff:
"I decided to make a dash. I ran to the door with my pistol in my hand. I did not even have time to reach for my close (clothes). I looked outside. I heard the sound of another shot. I see the men mean to make the end of me tonight, but I intend to carry someone with me. At that time I only had five shots with me....I put myself outside. I was hit in my right shoulder. That did not make much.”

"One shot fired from this crowd hit the butt of my gun. I fired back. I think I saw every man except one man who was staggering,"

Martin had organized an escape to Lime Bay, but was never managed to ride off into the sunset.  On the morning of October 9th, 1948, he was killed during a firefight with police at that very location.  He suffered five gunshot wounds in all, four of which were to the head.  Police and public alike gathered at the morgue to view his corpse.

A newspaper article featuring photos of Rhygin's dead body.

The legend of “Rhygin: The Two-Gun Killer” wasn’t unlike that of an outlaw from the Old West.  Henzell undoubtedly took note of such obvious parallels, and incorporated them into the film’s screenplay.  Such elements would certainly appeal to a populace that had been weaned on American cinema, specifically Westerns and Gangster films.  He also wanted to appeal to the popular culture of the day, particularly the music scene.  His film would speak to the issues and trends of the day while telling a story that would fit in any era.

Around the time that the idea for The Harder They Come began to crystallize, Italian cinema would provide Henzell and company with the perfect template for their story.  The Western was largely a dead genre by the 1960’s.  Italian Westerns, disparagingly dubbed “spaghetti” westerns by the American press, kept the genre afloat.  They offered a grittier (and often more cartoonish) look at the Old West, which brimmed with cynicism and dark humor. 

A Lobby Card From Sergio Corbucci's The Mercenary, which is considered a quintessential Spaghetti/Zapata Western.

Italian Westerns eventually birthed another subgenre, the Zapata Western.  Zapata Westerns were so named in tribute to Emiliano Zapata, a famous revolutionary who fought during the Mexican Revolution of 1913.  The films depicted violent class warfare, and often sided with the poor and oppressed.  Banditos where characterized as revolutionaries.  Many poor Black Jamaicans saw Rhygin in just such a light.  Whether he knew it or not, Henzell was indeed crafting a Spaghetti Western, albeit one where the characters all had Black skin and spoke Jamaican patois.

Funding was hard to come by.  Henzell turned to his friends and associates, which included Chris Blackwell.  Blackwell was involved in the music industry, and would go on to produce the film’s groundbreaking soundtrack.  Singer Jimmy Cliff was cast on Blackwell’s suggestion, who thought the singer to be in touch with the people of Jamaica.  Indeed, Cliff did feel a connection to the character of Ivanhoe Martin, as the character’s story mirrored his own (Sans the criminality of course). 

The rest of the cast would be filled out by a combination of inexperienced locals and professional actors.  This was by design, as Henzell prized the Cinéma vérité school of documentary filmmaking, which stressed authenticity and realism above all else.  In accordance with this aesthetic, Henzell and his crew utilized actual locales and very few sets.  These included actual ganja fields.   As a result, both cast and crew were required to carry a letter from the commissioner of police.  The letter stated that they were to be released immediately in the event of a raid.

The film was largely made on the fly, and took three arduous years to complete.  Local censors swiftly instituted a ban.  However, Henzell was able to skillfully maneuver around this little obstacle by virtue of the film’s casting.  Then Prime Minister Michael Manley, who was set to marry cast member Barbara Anderson, intervened on the film’s behalf.  The censors backed off.

The film took six long years to turn a profit.  It did so largely on the strength of Henzell’s perseverance.  He treated his film like a traveling exhibition, toting it from country to country.  This helped it secure a substantial worldwide following.  It played to raves at the Venice Film Festival, and was eventually picked up for distribution in the United States by exploitation film purveyor Roger Corman.  

Corman released the film through his company New World Pictures, which marketed it as Jamaican Blaxploitation film.  It debuted in the U.S. on February 23rd, 1973, the same year that Bob Marley and The Wailers released their album Catch A Fire.  Both albums did much to establish Reggae as a commercially viable form of music outside of Jamaica.   The soundtrack to The Harder They Come consisted of 12 songs.  Only the title track was recorded especially for the film.  The rest were compiled from various singles that had been released from 1967-1972. 

Despite its spaghetti western pedigree, the bore many similarities with the grittier Blaxploitation films of the day, particularly Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.  This is largely due to the Henzell’s Cinéma vérité approach, which sometimes worked to the film’s detriment.  Gritty realism often came at the expense of visual coherence.  The deficiencies are too numerous and substantial for all of them to be chalked up to the budgetary constraints.  For instance, many shots are crudely framed and edited.  It isn’t until the third act that the film begins to coalesce into something coherent and resonant.    

Despite its shortcomings, the film largely succeeds on the strength of its soundtrack and a star-making performance by Jimmy Cliff.  As Ivanhoe, Cliff is brash, arrogant, and unapologetic.  Yet his swagger and charisma are undeniable.  He has little use for humility, as such virtues are rarely rewarded by those in power.  

The Spaghetti Western parallels become the most apparent during two memorable sequences.  The first is at the Rialto Theater in Kingston.  Ivan and friends attend a screening of Django.  Just before the infamous “Gatling gun massacre,” commences, an audience member wonders aloud if the hero will survive.  The retort is easily the most memorable line in the film: "Shut your mouth! Hero can't die till last reel!"

The second moment comes during a montage that takes place when Ivanhoe visits a photographer.  With twin revolvers in hand, the film’s anti-hero strikes a number of macho poses that are clearly inspired by the Westerns he’d been devouring his whole life.  The entire sequence is set to Desmond Dekker’s “007 (Shanty Town),” the chorus of which makes the parallels to the Western genre undeniable:

Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail
A Shanty Town
Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail
A Shanty Town
Dem rude boys out on probation
A Shanty Town
Them a rude when them come up to town
A Shanty Town

The influence of The Harder They Come stretches well beyond the boundaries of Jamaica.  It became a mainstay on the grindhouse circuit, where it played for years as a “midnight movie.”  The video for “Fu-gee-la,” the lead single from The Fugees 1996 sophomore album The Score (which remains the biggest selling rap album of all time worldwide), was largely inspired by the film.  Wyclef Jean is even shown wearing the same star emblazoned shirt that Jimmy Cliff wore in the film.  In 1989, Brooklyn rapper Special Ed (who is of Jamaican descent) sampled the opening guitar riff from “007 (Shanty Town)” for his classic song “I’m The Magnificent.”  Cher, UB40, and others have all done cover versions of “Many Rivers to Cross.”  In 2005, Theatre Royal Stratford East and UK Arts International adapted the film into a stage musical.  A remake has been in the works for years, as the rights have changed hands numerous times.

The Harder They Come is an affirmation not only of Jamaican Culture in the wake of its independence from the British Empire, but of the worldwide influence of Spaghetti Westerns.  Flawed and polished thought the film may be, it has carved out a unique and lasting niche for itself on the pop culture landscape.  Violent and dangerous though they may be, men like Rhygin will always inspire awe and reverence among the oppressed.  Stories such as his will always have a place in popular lore, and will always inspire movies like The Harder They Come.


  1. Thanks for this post brother. I remember watching this film as a youth and became aware of the culture it spawned, though negatively, it's impact I would say transended anything to come out of Jamaica after the birthing of the Rasta movement. In fact, this movie IS inseperable from the Rasta, moevment, Reggae music and rude bwoy culture.


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