With its expansive, sun-kissed plains and awe-inspiring mountain ranges, South Africa provides the perfect backdrop for Western films. But while international productions like “The Salvation” have taken advantage of the setting, the genre has been effectively unexplored by homegrown South African filmmakers. That vacuum is now being temporarily filled, however, by Michael Matthews’ debut feature “Five Fingers for Marseilles“. Paying homage to the time-honored traditions of the genre, this is a quintessential Western albeit with an appealing South African makeover.
As the story often goes with classic Westerns, this ambitious tale begins with the introduction of the train and all the prosperity and problems that comes with it. In this particular scenario, the railway allows colonialists to establish settlements, with some named after famous European cities. Such is the case of the new Marseilles, where a white police force enforces an apartheid regime against the black population. For Tau and his young friends – affectionately nicknamed the Five Fingers – this situation is about to reach its tipping point and they want to help it get there. One day, however, a violent act of resistance puts all their lives in danger, forcing Tau to go on the run in the knowledge that a dangerous storm of consequences is brewing.
Following this intriguing prologue which evokes the mythmaking oral tradition of South Africa, the narrative questionably fast forwards past the anti-apartheid revolution to a more contemporary era. Indeed, the tumultuous final days of apartheid would have added further political resonance to this fictional story. Instead, the film focuses on post-apartheid crime and corruption within those previously oppressed communities.
While you can venture down a rabbit hole of political debate regarding the merits of these screenwriting choices, the rest of the filmmaking is impressive. Matthews’ enthusiasm for Western films is evident, deploying the genre’s most compelling elements with style and skill. The cinematography is suitably picturesque, with a few shot compositions worthy of being framed on a wall. Additionally, the film is superbly cast, especially Vuyo Dabula as the adult Tau and Hamilton Dhlamini as the main villain The Ghost. Dabula’s sturdy yet tortured demeanor follows in the tradition of such iconic reluctant heroes as Gary Cooper’s Will Kane and Alan Ladd’s Shane. Meanwhile, there’s a low growl to Dhlamini’s voice that is naturally intimidating.
Admittedly, the premise of a lone hero saving a town from lawless bandits is hardly groundbreaking. But the devil is in the details, as the virtually all-black cast and their language and culture brings a fresh take to such familiar concepts of rowdy saloons, Christian symbolism and moral dilemmas. Ultimately, though its opening act may hint at some missed thematic potential, fans of the Western genre will surely find much to appreciate in “Five Fingers for Marseilles”.
“Five Fingers for Marseilles” opens in select theaters September 7.