The Argentine army is trying to conquer the Pampas away from indigenous people. But their soldiers keep deserting because the other side, including not only indigenous peoples but deserters, misfits and criminals of all kinds, will provide a woman for every soldier that joins them; and that in a nutshell is why I imagine this film will be of great interest to feminists.
Initially, women in Savage Pampas are merely a mode of exchange amongst men; they have no say; and their bodies are offered up by men for men to rape in exchange for men providing military service. As the film unfolds, this becomes more subtle as the army proper also brings in women to service these soldiers. But these are professional prostitutes who expect to make a fortune before returning back to Buenos Aires in a few years. These ‘bad’ girls, given some – not too much – depth by being depicted as having smarts, warmth, and humour, stereotypical traits in movie prostitutes, are also in turn contrasted with two ‘good’ girls; one who has also been sent to the Pampas for not revealing the whereabouts of her brother, a political dissident; and the other an indigenous woman, distinguished by her loyalty, freedom and honour. There’s even, in a brief role, a nun. To paraphrase Laura Mulvey, women in the Western matter not in themselves but in what they structurally represent and symbolise. In American Westerns, ‘civilisation’; the coming of church and schools to the West; here, merely money and sexual release. Even when the old madam is found a husband it’s purely as a form of exchange.
What really distinguishes this film, particularly in this beautiful restoration from Busch Media group, is how it looks and moves; and this is due to Hugo Fregonese’s superb direction. There is terrific use of landscape, in elegant compositions, that permit, people, horses, groups to move fluidly.
There’s something both contained and explosive in the way that Fregonese films a chase. The run is charged, but the composition keeps everything contained, elegant, with the geography of the action always knowable.
The camera set-ups are varied, there are gorgeous shots with the camera on the ground and with Robert Taylor laid out across the 70mm frame; and in a lovely restoration that brings out the deep blues and reds of the uniforms. This is a film directed by someone with a great feel and knowledge of how visuals can mean, how rhythm is created both by what is shown within the frame and by the cutting between shots.
It would be hard to find a better example of what is valuable in a B film: thematically crude, with a cast led by a waning star and a cast of proficient relative unknowns, that nonetheless is gorgeous to look at, exciting to experience, with a fluid purposeful camera that is knowingly placed to create depth and to offer up space itself as a source of drama. Robert Taylor, is very interesting to see, still handsome, giving a professional performance in terms of body and voice but with something dead behind the eyes that seems more to do with the actor than with the character. A great watch in spite of its many faults.