A Time for Killing (1967)

Dir: Phil Karlson, Roger Corman - Cast: Inger Stevens, Glenn Ford, George Hamilton, Paul Petersen, Timothy Carey, Kenneth Tobey, Harry Dean Stanton, Harrison Ford

Made in 1967, this movie never had a fair chance; in Europe it was washed away by the flood of spaghetti westerns, at home it was dismissed by critics for both its shortcomings (which are obvious) and its brutalities. The project was started under a different title, A Long Ride Home (still used in some markets), and was to be directed by Roger Corman. Some sources mention that Corman was replaced before shooting started, others sustain that he left the production halfway through, after he had clashed with actor George Hamilton over the movie’s infamous rape scene (1). Colombia hired Phil Karlson, who had done the Matt Helm movie The Silencers for them, to finish the movie.

A Time for Killing is part of a series of westerns concentrating on the conflicts of Union troops and their Confederate prisoners in the final days of the Civil War. It’s quite unique in the sense that no real possibility of reconciliation is suggested. In the opening scene a Confederate prisoner, still a teenager, is sentenced to death for having killed a guard during an unsuccessful attempt to escape. The firing squad is replaced by a group of orderlies, no trained marksman who only manage to wound the young man. It’s therefore up to major Wolcott (Ford) to finish the job. It’s a cruel and grotesque scene, reflecting the bleak and pessimistic vision on war (and mankind) that will be unfolded in the remainder of the film.

Knowing that the war is about to end, major Wollcott, an honorable man, promises the prisoners that similar things won’t happen again when they give up any possible  escape attempts. The prisoners seem to respond positively to this offer, but a vindictive Confederate officer Bentley (Hamilton) organizes a mass escape. Wolcott is blamed for what happened and ordered to lead the pursuit party, and things get even more personal for him when Bentley kidnaps his bride to be, the missionary woman Emily (Stevens). After several attempts to shake off Wolcott, Bentley rapes Emily in the desert and flies to Mexico. At this point things have gone too far, for all persons concerned: it’s actually Emily who asks Wollcott to cross the Mexican border and hunt down the maniac who scandalized her …

With a Confederate officer who refuses to give up the fight and a bleak, downbeat ending, we’re not far removed from the insane world of Corbucci’s The Hellbenders, made one year earlier. We’re also close to Peckinpah’s depiction of the post-civil war society in Major Dundee: a world torn apart, inhabited by frustrated people who may descend into violence and madness at any minute. The flaws of A Time for Killing are many: the editing is choppy and the film often feels jumpy, as if scenes are missing (the running time of a mere 88 minutes suggest there might have been some pre-release tampering). There’s some ‘Fordian’ comic relief which seems even more out of place here than in Ford’s own movies, and there’s also too much Hollywood sentimentality of men deploring their situation and expressing their wish to return home (referring to the film’s original title, A Long Ride Home).

Brutally violent (although not as sadistic as The Hunting Party, which it most probably inspired), A Time for Killing is not great, but I found it more rewarding than many American westerns of the same period. Western fans should give it a try. Look quickly for Harry Dean Stanton and a very young Harrison Ford: he’s the heavily side-burned Union soldier who give some assistance during the execution scene.


* (1) Robert Towne was originally hired to script the movie (from the novel The Southern Blade by Nelson and Shirley Wolford) and Monte Hellman was signed on as editor. Hellman told his biographer Brad Stevens that het he worked several weeks on the movie, and then resigned to show his sympathy with Corman, so it seems unlikely that Corman was replaced before shooting started. See: Brad Stevens, Monte Hellman: His Life and Films, p. 71