Five self-appointed protectors watch over the railroad town of Marseilles. They ride through rolling parries, the rock faces of mountains filling the background. The iconography of the American western is alive and well through the South African lens of Five Fingers for Marseilles. These young men don’t ride horses, however. Dressed in suits with knitted balaclavas over their faces, they bike along the train tracks to fight the foreign military that has taken control of their home. They battle with slingshots and stones against uniformed officers with guns and jeeps.
Marseilles itself is a wild west town with battered and peeled white walls, a tiny church with only a cross beside its door, and a seedy tavern. Yet, dirt bikes scream down unpaved trails, and the mayor drives a waxed van past chicken wire fences. It’s this blend of the fresh and the antique that creates a unique and captivating style that helps Five Fingers for Marseilles stand apart from the rest, feeling at once timeless and more present than the bulk of its genre.
Five Fingers for Marseilles
Director: Michael Matthews
Release Date: July 29, 2018 (Fantasia)
Twenty years after fleeing when he killed two military officers, Tau (Vuyo Dabula), the lion of the Five Fingers, returns to Marseilles to find that the military no longer controls the shanty town. He sees, however, that Marseilles remains in turmoil and that the remaining four protectors have either died, aided in the town’s corruption, or stepped aside completely. A gang controls the police and owns the mayor. These outlaws with their mystic leader, The Ghost, plan to take over Marseilles by any means necessary, and without any help from the law Tau will have to form a new band of fighters to overthrow the gang and reclaim his home for its people.
The setup may sound like the western standard, and it is, but Matthews’ detail work elevates the film beyond a John Wayne good-and-evil tale. There is no pure good in anyone. Tau is seen as a coward for running from Marseilles and abandoning his duty. He has trouble controlling his anger and violence. The mayor and sheriff were both protectors damaged and corrupted by their struggles to achieve freedom for Marseilles. The military evaporates between acts, making Five Fingers for Marseilles as much a tale of a town needing rescue from invaders as it does rescue from its own people. Using South Africa with its numerous occupations and uprisings adds moral dimensions to this fight not seen in American westerns.
Though there may not be pure good in Marseilles, there is pure evil. The Ghost is one hell of a villain, stealing every scene he enters. All low growls that sound like incantations, wrapped in elaborate robes, he breathes this intimidating air and seems capable of anything. He stands on a cliff at one point, a thunderstorm rolling in the background, telling how his mother was struck by lightning on the night he was born, and he had to crawl his way free. He and his gang assault Marseilles in busted jeeps and dirt bikes at night through stylish shots that invoke more Fury Road than The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He’s a sight to behold, and it’s a shame that the climax doesn’t quite do him justice.
Though there are some intense bouts of violence throughout the film, the final shootout is too married to western convention for its own good. Characters fire off-screen with little composition for how the battlefield is laid out or where anyone is in relation to one another. Bad guys corner good guys only to fall down just as another good guy shoots them from behind. It lacks the dramatic style that earlier sequences commanded with ease.
Five Fingers for Marseilles balances homage and originality to create stylistically strong and morally ambiguous tale of a town that can never find salvation. Tau is no John Wayne, and The Ghost is a grueling villain beyond any standard outlaw. Though the setting and costumes, the blend of old and new, can be beautiful to watch, the action doesn’t always match the weight of its setting, and the final minutes unspool to a conclusion that’s more flat than meaningful.