Contrary to confused belief, Five Fingers for Marseilles is not South Africa’s first Western. Our film industry is well-aged and with it comes eons of storytelling ingrained in our very souls. And this Western is neither the first nor is it original. It’s a pastiche of passion composed of Fordian frames and Leonean tension.
Place, or more specifically home, forms a core theme of the film; for that is was the six leads of the title hope to defend. Like the nine pieces of eight in Pirates of the Caribbean, the five of the title is not literal nor static. The sole female joined to the band of five brothers plays a pivotal role, as do the carefully-hewn characters we meet along the way. This is a tale as familiar as the many Westerns that come before it, not just in tone, look, and feel, but in the archetypes that move the story.
Tau, Lerato, Bongani, Luyanda, Unathi, and Zulu may be archetypes, but each is so finely crafted and richly portrayed it feels like you’re seeing them for the first time. It takes true talent to recreate a mould your audience will recognise, while making it your own at the same time. This is a film which takes its hat off to genre convention and does it with style; so we should be taking our hats off to the writer, director, and cast that create such depth and distinction in these characters.
All this is achieved alongside subtle allegory and rich references. You’ll get a hint of the wasteland menace of Mad Max, the introspection of Jim Jarmusch, the small-town meditation of Stephen King, and a weedy guy who feels like Steve Buscemi dropping in from Reservoir Dogs. Hell, there’s even a tinge of Harry Potter in its commitment to the theme of friendship.
These play alongside the multifarious Western influences which are notably lifted, cleverly altered, and a fitting homage to the genre. Eastwood’s Man with no Name becomes Vuyo Dabula’s Nobody. The score doesn’t sound Morricone but is its own beautiful beast that compliments Five Fingers the way the Italian master’s did with countless Westerns before it.
The cinematographer and production designer also deserve more than a tip of the hat. The bonds, blood, fire, and tears poured over endless stretches of sun- and mist-drenched land make Marseilles and Railway (played by the Eastern Cape village Lady Grey) as much a character as anyone else; while the details in every corner intimately connect us to the characters’ home.
Storytelling is not always in the story, its strength often lies in execution. This is what Five Fingers does with precision and depth through its characters, setting, and music. It may sound Aristotelian in its simplistic drama, but simplicity often packs the most punch. From A Fistful of Dollars to Unforgiven, I’ve had many a Western encounter. None has moved me like Five Fingers. Maybe because it’s much more Mzansi, maybe it’s the Western tributes that nudge and wink at my inner film geek…or maybe this is just the Western masterpiece we’ve been waiting for.
Watch the trailer here.
Photo by Jon Toney.