The Price of Power (1969) is a spaghetti western directed by Italian Tonino Valerii (1934-2016) at a time when the assassination of public figures and politicians had peaked in the United States.
Dead were Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King by assassin’s bullets the previous year, while the nation was still recovering from the trauma of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.
Valerii had directed the superior spaghetti western Day of Anger (1967) which like The Price of Power starred Italian western icon Giuliano Gemma (1938-2013 car crash) and he would later direct My Name is Nobody (1971) which has its admirers.
The Price of Power, although set in the 1880s, or so we guess, directly links its story and the conspiracy surrounding it to the assassination of president JFK.
The film has the advantage when it begins of knowing how a beautiful music score can help make or break a western of the Italian variety. And this time, it is not the music of Ennio Morricone (1928-2020 after a fall) but Luis Bacalov (1933-2017). Bacalov wrote the music for Django (1966) and would beat Morricone to an Oscar after winning in 1991 for his score for Il Postino (1996). Morricone, incidentally, hated the term spaghetti western as he told a journalist – “they are not food”.
Bacalov’s music which opens The Price of Power is rousing and yet at the same time almost funereal as its credits are superimposed on a map of Texas with the city of Dallas right in the middle. This marks the spot where the movie is set and it is the city where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on 22 November 1963, either by a lone assassin, or by more, as the conspiracy theorists wish us to believe.
Central to The Price of Power, which is set quite some time after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1965, is the civil rights movement. It must be the late 1870s because we are led to believe the President portrayed in this movie is James A. Garfield, who himself would die as the result of an assassin in 1881…
They are burning the American flag and pictures of Abraham Lincoln in the streets of Dallas and yet the president is still planning to make his appearance in the city, which is little more than your average western township at this stage.
“Your new reform programmes have set the powers that be there against you beginning with the governor of the state himself,” the president is warned by a White House security official, who tells him it’s an inopportune time to make a visit to Texas.
As the presidential train makes its way across country, there is already a plot to blow up the bridge the train will cross as it is about to enter Dallas.
Entwined into these fateful events is Gemma as a former Union soldier and son of a man who fought on the opposite side for the Confederate South. Both men are at peace in the new United States, except the father is murdered when he finds out about the plot to kill the president.
“…The loaded gun is the symbol of manhood…,” the White House official again warns President Garfield about the citizens of the south west.
“I have no personal enemies… only the enemies of my ideas and no bullet can stop an idea,” says the president.
If it sounds like an idealistic civil rights leader on the way to slaughter…
There is also a black character named Jack in the film who is a friend of Gemma and who will be framed – if you believe it was so – for the killing of the president later in the film, just like Lee Harvey Oswald was an apparent patsy in the killing of JFK.
The train disaster is averted as Gemma kills those who planted the dynamite and have lit the fuse… but still Garfield goes on to Dallas. He happens to know Gemma from the war when Garfield was a colonel and who helped jail Gemma over the death of a hundred men due to an errant gunshot which Gemma deliberately stopped from hitting his Confederate father across a canyon during the conflict.
Despite saving Garfield, it’s as though that bullet during the war will still find its place in Garfield’s skull as some sort of karma even though the chain of events which led to Gemma at first saving the president were the result of his father’s murder. All are entwined by the fateful events even if it is of the universe and not necessarily the conspiracy itself.
“I just saved your life… but be careful, this could be your last trip,” says Gemma with some bitterness as the train travels onwards.
It is probably no coincidence that Van Johnson (1916-2008) is playing the president as Andrew Johnson (1808-75 stroke) was the successor to Abraham Lincoln upon his assassination while Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-73 massive heart attack) was Kennedy’s successor upon his murder. Both were, of course, vice presidents and honourable to their predecessors.
The vice president in The Price of Power is under the thumb of local businessmen and the governor of Texas. He’s a local Texan just like Lyndon B. Johnson was and there was speculation LBJ knew about the upcoming killing of JFK that fateful day in 1963… The vice president in the movie though didn’t expect a murder conspiracy and admits to the conspirators that he has been moved by the president’s civil rights agenda.
“Fundamental is the premise a white man’s a man and a negro’s a negro,” the vice president is told by these segregationists at a clandestine meeting of the Establishment which includes the head of the local law enforcement in the town of Dallas.
Yes, it’s a conspiracy that goes right to the top. Failure is no option.
There are posters of President Garfield which read ‘Wanted for Treason’ around Dallas and there are those who believe it deserves the death penalty. Similar posters circulated around Dallas around the time when JFK was shot.
Garfield will give his speech to the Establishment and those gathered to listen as he tells them to “treat them with dignity and respect” about their black workers.
Meanwhile, Jack is recovering from a leg wound in an upper storey window waiting for the president to ride through the town in his open top carriage or buggy. He just wants to see what a fine man looks like. But when he does see the carriage coming with the president and first lady, he also sees a couple of gunmen on an overpass… Yes, it’s the grassy knoll with Kennedy about to be shot… And Garfield gets a bullet in the head despite Jack’s efforts to stop the assassins with a gunshot from his own rifle… but he misses and is instead seen by witnesses as being the assassin himself!
Poor Lee Harvey Oswald if he was innocent – which I don’t think he was… But this film goes further with the premise Oswald was innocent by making the innocent man black. Jack is the human face of the civil rights movement and yet is accused of killing his own saviour. Perfection. What more could the conspirators ask for even though it was unintended? And so, it must be followed through… as it covers up the conspiracy! It may seem a contrivance of the script having a black man accused, but certainly the way that this man is then taken into custody and bashed and who is then himself assassinated, shows that in mirroring what is mostly true, truth appears stranger than fiction in the case of Lee Harvey Oswald’s murder. Both Jack and Oswald will not face trial and so the conspiracy theories remain somehow intact, but whereas its source is revealed in The Price of Power, there is no closure in the case of Kennedy…
Those who are responsible for the killings in The Price of Power are named Jefferson and Wallace. In history, Jefferson Davis (1808-89) was President of the Confederate States during the American Civil War, while George Wallace was the anti-civil rights governor of Alabama during the Kennedy administration.
Davis was pro-slavery, as would be expected, and his cabinet was still officially active when Abraham Lincoln died on 15 April 1865 after being shot, which only happened a few days after the surrender of the Confederate South which ended the war. There was a $100,000 reward for the capture of Jefferson Davis ordered by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, who accused Davis of helping to plan Lincoln’s assassination. So, Jefferson being a bad guy in the movie is highly symbolic.
And that goes for Wallace too. Governor George Wallace was pro-segregation in the 1960s and participated in one of the watershed moments in civil rights history where the segregationists in Alabama had to make way for reform. The moment was known as The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door when Wallace, in a vain attempt to stop the enrolment of black students at the University of Alabama on 11 June 1963, put himself physically in front of the US Deputy Attorney General to stop him and the students from entering.
It gained Wallace the full attention of the country and he would later try to run for president on more than one occasion. What is interesting about Wallace is that from 15 to 20 November, just days before the Kennedy assassination, he was reportedly in Dallas announcing he would run against Kennedy in the next election. So, hate in that city was cultivated personally, it would seem… and, yes, in terms of Kennedy and the civil rights movement, Wallace was another perceived bad guy.
“They killed you to save America… Happy Jack?,” says Gemma about his friend’s assassination in custody. Jack, incidentally, was also another name used by JFK and is also perhaps symbolic. I guess if it was found a black man was seen as guilty of killing the civil rights pushing president that it would cancel out much internal civil strife and halt the possibility of a second American Civil War. Jack was seen as a madman and will never face trial but he is also the ultimate hero of the movie.
Also, to do with the Kennedy case, is the examining doctor being questioned in the Dallas inquest who really didn’t have a clue as to which direction the bullet came from which killed President Garfield when the overpass/grassy knoll theory is presented. The doctor, in the real case of Kennedy whose name was Dr Robert McClelland, had no expertise when he said one of the bullets couldn’t have possibly been fired by Oswald.
It is from here that the movie parts ways with the ‘reality’ of the Kennedy killing… but it is just a spaghetti western after all!
And just another fact used in the movie which happened in reality in Dallas was that when Jackie Kennedy arrived at the airport, she was given red roses instead of the yellow roses of Texas. To be given red roses was something which means “hate” to the locals, at least according to The Price of Power.
The Price of Power is pro-conspiracy, it also puts a positive spin on the Secret Service and some politicians, portraying them as hardworking and honest, as the White House official tries to get to the bottom of it all, even if it means getting a bit dirty in doing so.
Boo! Hiss! to those who tried to stop the civil rights movement, something which went on for over a century… and with the recent deaths of blacks at the heavy-handed actions of police, the civil rights movement still goes on.
The title The Price of Power may mean that it could spell death for a president in pursuit of his goal and it could also mean that this price could also be paid for by rich, faceless conspirators to arrange such a death or assassination. It is possibly a case of neither today compared to the end of the era when this movie was released. There are no worthy politicians of the calibre of JFK and RFK and also Martin Luther King that such a conspiracy would exist to try to stop bringing equality to the masses. They just don’t seem, like most conspiracies, to exist. The price of power today looks, sadly, that it appears to go to the highest bidder, whether the stakes are money or lives!