Directed by the legendary Monte Hellman, China 9, Liberty 37 is a revisionist take on the western genre. Fabio Testi plays Clayton Drumm, a legendary gunslinger who is about to be hung for murder. At the last minute, men from the railroad company show up and arrange for Clayton be released. They want him to kill a rancher who is refusing to sell his land. Clayton agrees but, before he leaves for his mission, he gives a brief interview to a writer from “out East.” Cleverly, the writer is played by director Sam Peckinpah, to whose films China 9, Liberty 37 clearly owes a huge debt.
After telling the writer that his eastern readers have no idea what the west is truly like, Clayton rides out to the ranch. Along the way, he gets directions from a nude lady (Jenny Agutter) who is swimming in a nearby stream. When Clayton reaches the ranch, he meets his target. Matthew Sebanek (Warren Oates) is himself a former gunslinger who used to kill people for the railroads. From the minute they meet, Matthew knows who Clayton is and why he is there. Both Clayton and Matthew have grown weary of killing and, instead of having the expected gunfight, they instead become fast friends. Matthew allows Clayton to stay at the ranch and introduces him to his wife, Catherine, who it turns out was the same woman who Clayton talked to earlier.
Catherine loves Matthew but resents his rough ways and feels that he treats her like property. One night, she and Clayton go for a nude swim and then make love. When Matthew finds out, he strikes his wife and, in self-defense, she stabs him in the back. Believing Matthew to be dead, she and Clayton go on the run.
Matthew is not dead and, once he’s recovered from being stabbed, he and his brothers set off to track down the two lovers. While Matthew chases after Clayton, he is being pursued by Zeb (Romano Puppo), another gunslinger who has been hired by the railroad to kill both Matthew and Clayton.
As a western, China 9, Liberty 37 is more interested in its characters than in the usual gunfights. There are no traditional heroes or villains and Monte Hellman emphasizes characterization over action. Even while he is relentlessly pursuing Clayton and Catherine, Matthew admits that he does not blame Catherine for leaving him. As for Clayton and Catherine, they are both consumed by guilt over their affair. This is one of the few westerns where the main character often refuses to fire his gun.
As Clayton, Fabio Testi is stiff and inexpressive, but Jenny Agutter and Warren Oates are terrific. Though their films were never as critically or financial successful, Warren Oates and Monte Hellman had as strong of a director/actor partnership as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. China 9, Liberty 37 was the fourth and final movie that Monte Hellman and Warren Oates made together. It was also Oates’s last western before his untimely death in 1982.
Director Monte Hellman is as well-known for the films he did not get to make as for the ones he actually did make. (Originally, Quentin Tarantino wanted Hellman to director Reservoir Dogs. When Tarantino changed his mind and decided to direct it himself, Hellman was relegated to serving as executive producer. A lot of recent film history would be very different if Tarantino and Hellman had stuck to the original plan.) Like a lot of the films that Hellman actually did get to make, China 9, Liberty 37 was only given a sparse theatrical release and was often shown in a heavily edited version. It has only been recently that the full version of China 9, Liberty 37 has started to show up on TCM. It is an interesting revisionist take on the western genre and must see for fans of Monte Hellman, Jenny Agutter, and Warren Oates.