The Bravados Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM

    The Bravados Review
    “I've ridden a hundred miles to see this hanging.”

    Riding into town with a ramrod-straight back, a dark heart and a countenance like the devil's, comes Gregory Peck as revenge-obsessed rancher Jim Douglass. For six months he's been tracking the outlaw gang, The Bravados, that he believes raped and murdered his wife and ransacked his ranch and now it seems that all four of them are about to hang in the town of Rio Riba. The gang have been the scourge of the territory and the lynching is set to be a mighty big event. But, of course, these tough hombres - unpredictable thug Zachary (Stephen Boyd), Taylor (genre favourite Al Salmi), half-breed Alfonso (the soon-to-be western icon Lee Van Cleef) and Mexican Lujan (Henry Silva) - don't exactly intend on hanging (sorry!) around for their date with justice. So, sprung from jail by an impostor/executioner while the townsfolk's collective back is turned and taking a young woman as hostage, they high tail it out of Rio Riba and head for the border with a glowering, blood-hungry Peck and an enthusiastic but unskilled posse in hot pursuit. Thus, the seeds are sown for a grim and foreboding tale of obsession and retribution. “The emergency arose ... and the man appeared.”

    Peck and director Henry King had worked together eight years earlier on the classic western The Gunfighter but, for me, The Bravados (1958) is the superior film, and often sadly overlooked. It is certainly a more downbeat movie, being morally much more complex, full of darkly motivated characters and containing a rugged cruel streak that places events behind a veil of ambiguity, intentionally twisting audience perceptions around a cinematic little finger. Nothing is what it seems. Based on the novel by Frank O'Rourke and then adapted by Philip Yordan, King's movie manages to become a precursor to the morally-bereft Spaghettis that would soon follow by placing the all the main characters - and, most notably, the hero - in the shadowy hinterland of dark and murderous deeds, madness and deep psychological torment. The action, when it comes, is played fast and brutal and retribution is dished out in a cold, ominous one-to-one fashion that places the viewer firmly in the grey murk separating right from wrong. Before this, the American western was fairly standard in its depiction of justice being dealt out, the bad guys were so overly characterised that they bordered on caricature and the stout and hearty lawmen were justifiable pillars of truth and integrity. Well here, Douglass is certainly a man that's gotta do what a man's gotta do - but the difference this time around is the ditching of his soul, the overt turning of his back on God and the desperate savage thirst for vengeance that drives him. I found it impossible to watch this and not think of Mel Gibson's physically and emotionally ravaged Mad Max from the first film of that series - especially the visual image of Max after he has had his knee-cap shot away. Just watch the equally dark-attired Peck as he paces around each new victim, his back so straight and his poise so painfully rigid, six-gun held at an extremely odd low angle. The hero's always meant to have a stone-like resolve and here you can totally believe that his spine is encased in granite.

    “You ever see that man before?”

    “No ... but he has the face of a hunter.”

    I've never been a big fan of Gregory Peck, always finding him ridiculously stoic and square-jawed and far too grumpy to warm to, yet here it is those exact qualities that set this film apart and give him the opportunity to dominate an already strong ensemble cast. He's not the most typically convincing of actors to star in a western but in this heightened drama, he truly shines, creating a wonderful sense of mystery in playing the man of few words, in fact rarely betraying any other emotion than brutal anger. The one or two moments when he is hit with some crucial and revelatory information and his facial armour cracks can, at first, seem slightly wooden and ill-judged - a violent twitch in the cheek, a buff setting of the jaw - but his character is so locked-in and physically resolute that these tiny instances of his guard coming down work quite powerfully. His transcendence, if one can perceive it as such, is also a marvellously subdued performance on the exterior, yet you can really feel the inner turmoil raging away within him.

    “Poor devil never harmed anyone in his life. Now they've killed him.”

    The photography in The Bravados in simply breathtaking. The locations utilised aren't the norm for a western of its era but cinematographer Leon Shamroy literally paints them across the luscious widescreen. Just look at the beautiful deep gorge, the high grassland, the shadow-dappled woods and the rocky canyons that punctuate the chase. Even the town of Rio Riba is unusually lensed. For the first time ever, I think a Hollywood western actually managed to convey a settlement as more than just one dusty street. The feeling of spaciousness evoked here is wonderfully atmospheric, especially since this town appears to be able to afford a cathedral in the centre of it. And not just a cathedral, folks, but a massive boys choir, too. Actually, this may seem like overkill at first, but the cathedral and choir are used during what is arguably the movie's best set-piece - when the gang make their desperate escape from the jail. The singing of the choir echoes all around the town, scoring the violence taking place just across the way with a superbly eloquent surrealism that makes the entire scene as spellbinding as it is suspenseful.

    King frames his shots with a canny eye for detail and his interior group shots - the gang behind bars, the taking over of a prospector's cabin, the church congregation - are all exemplary examples of his masterful technique. His action shots are deftly handled, too. Check out the scene of Douglass riding through the trees to dodge bullets and then bearing down on an enemy with his lasso. Bravura stuff.

    “I tell you I've never seen that woman before!”

    The only drawback, in my opinion, is the inclusion of a young Joan Collins as Jim's old flame, Josefa Velarde. I've never believed that she can act and her performance here does nothing to alter that. Thankfully, her screen time is actually quite low, all things considered, even though she tends to hamper the pace whenever she does turn up. One other slight niggle, is the score by Lionel Newman. Whilst most of his music is suitably atmospheric and tense, splendidly evoking the dark nobility of revenge and obsession, it certainly works best when not featuring the film's main theme. Too horribly po-faced and indomitably strident to be enjoyable or memorable, it tends to blare out like a pompous fanfare that has strayed in from a much lesser western.

    The Rundown

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