The Battle Hymn of the Republic

September 20, 2013


The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Il Mio West, 1998).

Whether to clear his head or to do his part for low-budget cinema, Bowie acted in three movies, almost back to back, in the spring and summer of 1998. First he went to the Isle of Man and Liverpool for Everybody Loves Sunshine with Goldie. Then he flew to Tuscany in June (reason enough to do the film) to shoot a neo-spaghetti Western with Harvey Keitel.

This was Il Mio West, directed by Giovanni Veronesi. Bowie was to play the villain, a “psychopath” (the people of this 19th Century Western town diagnose Bowie with a just-coined term from German therapeutic circles; “you need medical help!” one yells at Bowie before the climactic gunfight)* named Jack Sikora. Bowie wore shades and delivered his lines in a squirrel’s soup of an accent: sounding alternately (or at once) like an Australian, a Hollywood cowboy and a British comedian lampooning Yanks. Followed around by a photographer for most of the picture, Sikora’s mainly in it for the headlines (“I’m gonna suck the fame outta you!” he hisses at Keitel).

It’s a testament to Bowie’s screen charisma that the first 45 minutes of the film, which mainly entail a neutered Keitel reuniting with his family of dreadful actors, feel like place-setting. When Bowie finally arrives, with his crew of albino, Rastafarian and fashion plate gunfighters, the film becomes entertaining at least (first Bowie line: “Well now this place stinks worse’n a mule’s ass…and somebody’s already shittin’ their pants!“), if it soon indulges in cheap sadism and misogyny. But it’s mainly just dismal: the final fight between Keitel and Bowie is so poorly shot, scripted and blocked that it can be read as an intentional deflation of the Western myth, if said myth hadn’t been intentionally deflated dozens of times before.

One of its only good scenes is, not surprisingly, when Bowie sings. In homage to (and ripping off) The Night of the Hunter, Bowie and his crew surround Keitel’s house at night, and Bowie rasps out a serenade. Where Robert Mitchum in Hunter had sung “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Bowie sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”** and caps off his performance by breaking his guitar over the head of the village idiot.

Recorded in Garfagnana, Tuscany, during the filming of Il Mio West, June 1998. The film was released in Italy in December 1998 and, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a US DVD in 2005.

* It’s a very hip Western backwater: the telegraph operator also has a film projector in his office.

** As Nicholas Pegg noted, as Bowie’s just singing the chorus of the song, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body.” But as he seems to be wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union’s marching song (but perhaps he’s doing so ironically). And with this footnote, I have thought more on this subject than anyone involved in the film did.

Top: Bowie as Method gunslinger, Il Mio West (Veronesi, 1998) (from Teenage Wildlife, which has a host of fan and official photos from the film).