The Rangers (Nisus [pronounced “Nexus,” played by Al Cliver], Halakron [Peter Hooten], Jab [Harrison Muller, Jr], Catch Dog [Daniel Stephen], and Red Wolfe Al Yamanouchi]) wander post-atomic-war Texas with only one mission in mind: kill all the bad people who (we assume) have only just sprung up after the bombs dropped. In the wake of wasting some savages (and failing to save the priest and nuns they were attacking), they find the lovely, half-naked Maida (Sabrina Siani), whom Catch Dog tries to rape, but winds up getting himself ousted from the group for it instead. Once Nisus and Maida settle down in a peaceful community, it’s only a question of time until guys like The Black One (Donald O’Brien) show up (Catch Dog in tow) to cause trouble and wreak havoc.
Being set in Texas, it comes as little surprise that Joe D’Amato’s 2020 Texas Gladiators (aka Anno 2020 I Gladiatori Del Futuro, aka 2020 Freedom Fighters) borrows heavily from the Western genre. It begins with a posse of hardasses cleaning up the territory. Nisus joins a peaceful community who produce petrol (I’m pretty sure), and come off like agrarian homesteaders (substitute gas for vegetables). This community is set upon by a ruthless gang, which can be seen as simply desperadoes or (I thought) as Native Americans on the warpath, which was the first thing that sprang to my mind while watching the initial assault. There are also actual Native Americans (though I’m almost positive that none of them were played by Native Americans) who ride horses, shoot arrows, and live in teepees. There is a saloon/brothel where men play Russian Roulette for money (the champion of which seems to fail to realize that his winning streak is luck, not skill), and video games and sloppy joes occupy folks’ time and whatever passes for money. Our heroes are even sentenced to time in a salt mine at one point.
The Post-Apocalyptic subgenre fits very well with the Western, because they share themes. They both deal with the struggle against barbarism, but here the external forces of this are not Native Americans, as they typically are in Westerns, but fascists (something with which Italians are very much familiar). In fact, the Native Americans are good guys, and this is one of those things that Italian films do regularly (with varying degrees of effectiveness): completely subvert generic expectations (I mean, the Native Americans still have a trial by combat of sorts with the Rangers, but still…).
Likewise, these two genres are about the meaning of civilization itself, often rooted in its creation in the face of lawlessness and savagery. In Westerns, small towns are built and strive to survive in areas where civilization (as we now think of it) didn’t exist, bringing civilization to the wilderness (for better or worse). The same applies to Post-Apocalyptic films, where there are frequently collectives endeavoring to rebuild civilization under extremely inhospitable conditions. In both, the underlying idea remains the same. The difference lies in the direction from which civilization is coming to the wild. In Westerns, the land is pre-civilized, and in Post-Apocalyptic stories, it’s post-civilized. Consequently, both also bear notions that perhaps civilization is more destructive than it is beneficial (although this was certainly not a predominant theme with Westerns up until about the Sixties, it has been a constant theme in them from then on). The Rangers, after all, are extremely adept at killing people, and they are merciless in what they view as a cleaning up of post-society’s dregs.
2020 also deals with concepts of violence, but the way it does so can be seen as contradictory. As stated, the Rangers believe in killing all the people they deem bad (Halakron states, “Let’s make sure nobody’s left alive”). Even after Nisus goes all peacenik, turning away from his violent past, he and his neighbors still have plenty of guns to defend themselves, and there is barbed wire fencing around the perimeter of their town. For all the preaching about killing that Maida does (“A man who kills a killer is a killer”), she doesn’t shy away from swinging around a shotgun, either. Nisus intentionally shoots someone in order to piss off one of the marauders. An old lady begs for her young son (grandson?) to be left alone, but he’s raped in front of her, and later on she takes bloody vengeance. After Jab wrestles with a Native American and wins, the Native Americans claim that the Rangers’ “cause must be just.” The film’s surface philosophy is that violence is no good, and yet, it disproves this idea over and over again by having its characters prevail through violence. Moreover, the film states that a non-violent lifestyle is doomed to failure, and only invites trouble from people for whom violence comes easy. If Nisus hadn’t given up his life with the Rangers, none of the bad stuff that happens to him would have occurred. This film posits peace through violence (make no mistake, this as common as air for motifs in this type of film), but the incongruities in its ideologies gives it a rather bleak tone, because violence in this world is ineluctable. This is (to my mind) reinforced by the cryptic line, “From now on, it’ll be like it was before.” If “before” is what got them to this point, perhaps alternate paths should be investigated.
The odd grimness of the film is bolstered by D’Amato’s (and possibly uncredited co-director George Eastman’s) connate penchant for nastiness (he did, after all, give us the necrophilic sleazefest Beyond the Darkness amongst others, while Eastman, primarily recognized for his acting, did direct some skanky fare like Dog Lay Afternoon). In the opening moments, a priest is nailed to a cross, one nun is raped, and another cuts her own throat in despair with a sliver of glass. Maida is introduced to us with one breast hanging out of her dress, and she makes no effort to cover herself up, though she has terror in her eyes (she knows what Catch Dog is thinking, and the way it’s shot, we’re meant to think the same). There are at least three rapes (all surprisingly offscreen) and one attempted rape. There are numerous closeups of gore effects to highlight just how vicious the violence in the film is, they approach Horror film levels of graphic detail. As with its disparate philosophies, however, these seedier elements work quite well with its more traditional action beats, making 2020 a stand out in the subgenre and certainly a unique viewing experience.
MVT: There is a great amount of energy in the film, and the pacing never lags, so that even if you notice things that don’t seem to fit, there are already three other things happening that will carry you along and away from the distractions.
Make or Break: The opening set piece is simultaneously skeevy and satisfying, and it sets the film’s peculiar tone handily.