Spaghetti Western Review: Mannaja (1977)

by PiddeAndersson

A review of Sergio Martino's violent 1977 Spaghetti Western, starring Maurizio Merli.

In the Dawn of Video, i.e. the early 1980s, walking into a video store was an adventure. So many movies - so few you've heard of. Every other movie seemed to be Italian, and when you got to the Western department, as good as every movie was Italian.

In Scandinavia, MANNAJA was released by legendary VTC and the sleeve had a big warning on it: "Contains realistic, frightening images". Of course I rented the movie 30 years ago. And ten years after that, I got hold of an ex-rental copy, and now it's out on DVD.

German poster
German poster

Sergio Martino's MANNAJA - which was banned for theatrical release in Sweden in 1977 - is one of the last Spaghetti Westerns made, before the Italians concentrated on horror for a couple of years. It's a movie in that cool sub-genre "Mud Western", which was initiated by Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO in 1966, but aesthetically it's more reminiscent of Enzo G. Castellari's KEOMA; lots of slow-motion scenes and a commenting ballad by the De Angelis brothers on the soundtrack: "Youuu're ... alooone ... a sooo-li-taaa-ry maaaan! Like ... a wolf..."

Bounty hunter Blade rides into a muddy town in fear. English actor John Steiner, a real Man of Terror from countless Italian movies, plays a cruel German wearing a cloak. Following the Italian Western agenda, our hero must be tortured before the Big Vengeance. Django had his hands crushed, Blade is buried up to his neck and his eyelids are nailed to his forehead (!), so the burning sun makes him blind - but only temporary...

British DVD release
British DVD release

I hadn't seen MANNAJA (also known as A MAN CALLED BLADE) in a very long time and I actually thought I would like this better than I did. But I've gotten older and notice it's lacking in several ways. The movie is sometimes draggy, the plot is often pretty silly, and wherefrom does the music come when the can-can girls perform?

...But I like it anyway, the movie is tough and moody, and it meant quite a lot to me when I once found it on the shelf in that old video store.

Maurizio Merli had a rather short, but intense, career as an action star in the 1970s and '80s. When I interviewed Swedish acress Janet Agren, who appeared in lots of Italian movies, she talked about Merli as "the guy you called when Franco Nero wasn't available." I believe she's right -- Merli starred in the same type of movies, and MANNAJA is reminiscent of the classic Franco Nero Western KEOMA from 1976, which quite possibly inspired Sergio Martino to make this movie.

Merli made his big screen debut already in 1963, when he had an uncredited part in Luchino Visconti's classic drama THE LEOPARD. He also appeared in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST director Ruggero Deodato's odd and rarely seen super hero movie FENOMENAL E IL TESORO DI TUTANKAMEN, which premiered in 1968.

Merli usually acted in Westerns and in Italian cop movies; he was in VIOLENT ROME, BRUTAL JUSTICE and VIOLENT NAPLES, just to mention three, but he also showed up in a couple of comedies, and he appeared in several TV-movies and mini-series.

Unfortunately, Maurizio Merli died of cancer in 1989. He was only 49.

British character actor John Steiner played bad guys -- or sleazebags -- in loads of Italian genre movies. He's fondly remembered for his part in Dario Argento's TENEBRAE -- not to mention the nazi flicks SALON KITTY and the nasty DEPORTED WOMEN OF THE SS SPECIAL SECTION. The Italian B-movie industry more or less died in the 1980s, and in the early '90s, Steiner quit acting. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles and became a real estate agent.

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Updated: 07/08/2015, PiddeAndersson
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