What in the old days we would have called a B-Western
Counting Bullets is a recent cavalry Western with a pretty traditional ‘siege’ plot, which is rather amateurishly acted but is nicely photographed in attractive and suitable locations.
It was directed and co-written by Travis Mills, who also appears as an actor. Mr Mills is co-founder of the production company Running Wild, and managed to make twelve Westerns in twelve months – in the teeth of a pandemic. So he deserves our respect and thanks! We’ve already reviewed one of these, Blood Country (click the link for that) and another, Bastard’s Crossing, is coming soon.
There are some nice Remington paintings under the intro titles. We are in Arizona Territory, 1886, and a young Lieutenant Lowe (Michael Estridge, effectively the star), fresh from West Point, is eager to capture Geronimo but is assigned a lowly mission of protecting a couple of nuns.
Army resources are stretched (probably the film’s budget too) so he is only given five men: drunken Sergeant Whitlock (co-writer John Marrs), about to be court-martialed, an African-American civilian scout, Thomas Jefferson (Wayne Lundy) of dubious loyalty, and three troopers, Smith (Thomas Ramsey), Mumford (William Shannon Williams, probably the best actor on the set) and McAlister (John Charles Dixon).
They soon find the sisters horribly mutilated and slain but Jefferson informs the party that Apaches don’t scalp and there are the prints of shod horses around, so Apaches are not responsible: the enemy is a band of Comancheros. The movie now develops into a siege Western, with the small patrol surrounded in the desert by these vicious Comancheros and short of ammunition (therefore counting titular bullets) with which to defend themselves.
Siege Westerns can be tense and taut, but they can also be static and get bogged down. An essential ingredient of them is to identify and delineate the character of the besiegers. If not, they are just nameless and faceless hostiles, and an atmosphere of menace is hard to sustain. Unfortunately director and writers of this one didn’t manage that.
The costumes looked good (they don’t always in recent Westerns), as did the desert locations, I think Dragoon Mountains, AZ. I liked the lack of music in the dangerous moments and the gunshots sounded authentic, flat cracks rather than booms added by so-called ‘foley artists’ (foley artists, I ask you, they mean sound technicians) and certainly way better than those utterly stupid spaghetti gunshots that give a ricochet whine even when they don’t hit anything.
As for the writing, some of the dialogue is anachronistic and jars. I don’t know when give us the room in the sense of leave us was first used but I daresay not in the 1880s. The first known use of up shit creek without a paddle is 1939 and the poker term hole card is 1908. But I’m probably just being picky (for probably, read definitely).
As a Western, it certainly isn’t original, containing as it does tropes which are more than familiar to oater-watchers, including the West Pointer coming good and earning the respect of hard-bitten frontier hands, the cowardly trooper who dies gallantly, the brave soldier who rides to the fort for help, and so on. The ending, in which one survivor is praised for his heroism but replies that no, the real heroes are lying dead out there, is particularly hackneyed. But that’s OK. There’s fine line between respect for conventions and downright cliché and it’s not always easy to stay on the right side of it.
Certainly watchable, Counting Bullets is no great Western, far from it, but it has its moments.