Five Fingers For Marseilles
I’m not aware of any other Westerns set in post-apartheid South Africa. Maybe that’s an ignorance on my part. If Michael Matthew’s Five Fingers for Marseilles gets the attention it deserves, however, I have little doubt that we’ll be seeing more.
From the outset, Five Fingers for Marseilles wears its Western credentials on its sleeve, as five young boys re-enact the climax of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, catapults replacing revolvers. When they cycle home, the scene is shot as if they are riding horses (incidentally, the adult Tau is later revealed not to be able to ride a horse). This is not the only nod to other films made by Matthews, as he happily references Stand by Me and A Fistful of Dollars (or Yojimbo).
The dichotomous nature of Matthews’s South Africa is summed up perfectly here. From the beautifully shot, vast, open, spaces of the desert, the children return to the grim reality of the shanty town of Railway. Matthews knows how to emphasise the personality of his locations.
Railway is the town built up around the station that was to service Marseilles, a town that seems to exist solely as a billboard for a fruit farm that was never built, an image that is often repeated. As a result, Railway is something of a ghost town, waiting for a reason to exist.
Night seems to arrive the moment they return. The following day, so too do the police – oppressive bureaucrats, whose arrogance and failure to see that their actions will have consequences, leads Tau (played as a youth by Toka Mtabane, and it must be said, the child actors, all of whom are local, are fantastic), the Lion, to murder. He flees the scene, leaving his bicycle lying on the rails. The title card separates childhood from adulthood, it signifies the dramatic change in the political landscape of South Africa and it destroys the dynamic that the friends once had.
After a bungled robbery followed by a late night conversation, about settling down, with his new partners in crime (Anthony Oseyemi and Brendon Daniels as Congo and Slim Sixteen respectively), the adult Tau (Vuyo Dabula) resolves to hang up his pistol. After a period incarcerated (and it is suggested that this was his choice), he returns to a much changed Railway. In order to keep Marseilles, now a functioning town, safe, Mayor Bongani (Kenneth Nkos) has sacrificed Railway, giving Sepoko (Hamilton Dhlamini) free reign there.
Marseilles is a reflection of Railway prior to the end of apartheid. In a scene that mirrors the protection racket run by the white South African government, the Marseilles police force demand protection money from the Chinese store owner – some of those that were once oppressed are now oppressors.
Tau’s attempts to reintegrate himself quietly into Railway are unsuccessful – he is not able to stand by whilst Honest John (Dean Fourie), the sole white inhabitant of Railway, is bullied by Sepoko’s thugs. His pride is too strong for him to bow his head to Sepoko. From here, he is dragged into a fight he wants no part of, but one that it could be argue that only exists because he fled Railway.
Other than the all too human Tau, there are many strong performances in Five Fingers for Marseilles, from the rasping, otherworldly Sepoko, whose every word drips menace and Thuto, his spiteful lieutenant, to the beaten dog Honest John, Dean Fourie drawing favourable comparisons with John Hurt. Lerato (Zethu Dlomo), rather than being the bright, happy girl it is suggested she will grow into, is worn down, a victim of Bongani’s abandonment of Railway, Tau’s abandonment of his friends, and hers and her father’s stubborn refusal to move to Marseilles.
When all is said and done, however, Five Fingers for Marseille is very much a spaghetti western. It is more than happy to use the tropes of the genre. The citizens of Railway are beaten, whipped. Tau is tortured, fallible, but strong. Sepoko’s gang are vicious and remorseless. There is no attempt to redefine the genre, there are no attempts to be overly clever. The genre is a broad enough playing field for the film, and Five Fingers for Marseilles deserves to sit amongst the best of them.
Five Fingers for Marseilles is released on September 7th.