The Comancheros Review
“Better think of a new plan, Jake. This one didn't work out so well.”
“The hell it didn't!”
It's great to see that the Duke's Western cavalcade is getting lots of hi-def recognition at the moment. We've already had The Searchers, Rio Bravo and The Cowboys, and the original True Grit (all of which I have reviewed separately), and fans can look forward to Big Jake, Rio Lobo and The Horse Soldiers (which, of course, I'll be reviewing soon too). But here we can turn our attention to Michael Curtiz's exuberant The Comancheros from 1961, as the film celebrates its 50th Anniversary with this quite lavish region A Blu-ray release from 20th Century Fox.
The Comancheros was a big success for Fox when it was released. Wayne was very definitely riding-high at the time, and virtually owned the genre. Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood were still a couple of years from wresting the conventions of the form from Hollywood, and the film, adapted from Paul Wellman's novel by James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker (both of whom would write for Wayne on numerous occasions and knew precisely how to tailor the material for the star) played with the typical combination of character, comedy, and copious male bonding amid the derring-do. It told the story of Texas Ranger, Jake Cutter (Wayne), and rascally and marvellously monikered gambler Paul Regret (a winning Stuart Whitman), who are forced to work together when tasked with hunting down a vicious horde of gun-running bandits, known as Comancheros. Although Cutter is determined to haul Regret, a wanted man, up before the judge, the two form a reluctant bond almost from the get-go. And then, when circumstances thwart Cutter from his original purpose, the true character and mettle of both men comes to fore, and the pair find mutual respect and honour as they make the long trek into the dangerous country of the war-hungry Comanche and their nefarious whiskey and gun-supplying allies. There will be brawls and battles, threats and subterfuge. There will be a beautiful woman (played by Ina Balin) to sweetly poison the deal and complicate matters. There will be the blisteringly orange alien peaks of Utah and Arizona, basking in all their widescreen Deluxe glory, and there will be more riders shot off their galloping steeds than you could ever hope to count.
It's the Old West as it so rarely was, filled with the characters that should have been there and doing the stuff that, as kids, we all wished we could do too.
The Comancheros really should be a classic of its type. But despite being unashamedly entertaining from start to finish, it slips some way down from from the top drawer as far as I am concerned.
Sadly, the first half of the film is lumbered with cliché and contrivance and, worst of all, a very patronising, back-slapping tone towards Wayne and his devoted audience. Far too many scenes during this hefty segment has supporting cast members obediently acknowledging Wayne's brusque-but-charismatic Texas Ranger with a sycophantic “Hi, Jake!”, “Oh, look, it's Big Jake!” or a simple admiring smile capped off with “Oh, Jake !” All of this generally felt love and respect becomes utterly grating when it appears that everybody on the frontier knows him … and it makes an utter mockery of the character's attempts to go undercover when he poses as a gun-runner to infiltrate this highly organised network. Honestly, the amount of times that people – usually Jake, but Regret gets in on the act too – are name-checked is ridiculous. It smacks of a screenplay written for, and by, people with insanely short term memory loss. Whilst the film is very intentionally a Wayne-vehicle, crafted for him and, indeed, driven by the star, it should be mentioned that the Duke also had a very serious hand in helming it too. When Michael Curtiz fell ill during the production, Wayne did not find it at all awkward to step behind the cameras himself and steer the sand-ship across the scorching deserts that he knew so well. He had just marshalled the leviathan production of The Alamo, so The Comancheros probably felt like a breeze. This naturally allows him to hog some screen time, especially when it comes to conversing with Ina Balin during a later sequence that denies Whitman's character the chance of some necessary relationship-building. Wayne is also responsible to shoehorning-in his own son, Patrick, and his little daughter, Aissa, but the clever thing about this is that, those in the know, can pick up on some telling lines and catch that twinkle of pride, warmth and devotion in his eye. Nepotism be damned, it can't help but add some poignancy.
But there are some other problems that are not so easily swept aside with the “cute” brush.
I get tired of Whitman's Paul Regret continually being referred to as “Mon-sewer” and as a “young man” when the guy is clearly in his mid thirties. This rankles even more when we see him and Ina Balin's fixated Pilar swooning together under the smirking countenance and sage-like platitudes of the Duke, himself, as he waxes lyrical about romancing young-uns … a prelude to frontier dogging, perhaps? Times were different then, but Curtiz's film, for some reason, seems to hit this usually easily forgiveable button a touch too often for my liking, and goes on to become witheringly condescending at times. Pilar is the daughter of the big bad guy at the head of the violent Comancheros, but quite why she becomes so smitten with Paul Regret at the start of the film (in a lazy sequence set aboard a paddle-steamer) is not properly disclosed … and this a part of the film that simply doesn't work. It is formulaic to have Wayne's younger co-star fall in love, but here the matchmaking that the story makes threatens to have some genuine intrigue and importance about it, yet, when it all boils to down it, there is nothing of the sort going on behind the scenes. As usual, the romance is merely there … because there just has to be some kissy-kissy stuff. Also, the writers botch the period in which the film is set, with the title card informing us that we in the year 1843, though quite clearly this a story that is set in the late 1870's from the look of the weapons (the Winchester Rifle is seen in large quantities), the fashions, the gear and the towns that we see. Basically, the makers knew that audiences were acclimatised to the Western vogue of cinematic yore circa Custer's period. Anything pre-Civil War, when the reign of the real-life Comancheros was at its height, would probably seem unusual to them, so it was best to play it safe and give them what they knew. Plus, you really couldn't expect the Duke not to blast away with a Winchester, could you?
But, these petty misgivings aside, The Comancheros still has a great deal to offer. We've got Elmer Bernstein's rousing and upbeat score to keep the bouncing and heroic travelogue style going. This was a year after his barnstorming classic theme for The Magnificent Seven, and you just know that directors of Westerns were demanding more of the same from him. With this in mind, you cannot blame the composer when you hear very similarly broad and bombastic stylings that are very reminiscent of his thunderously memorable score for John Sturges' perennial favourite.
Wayne is just as laconic and rough as we love him to be. He's not exactly taxing himself as the resilient Ranger, mind you, as Jake really only moves through a very limited arc of devotion to duty, first, and then to friendship. There's no complications or contradictions at play, unlike his cantankerous Cavalry commander in The Horse Soldiers for his buddy John Ford, say. But, as I keep on insisting, John Wayne was excellent at this type of role. Truly no-one else could do it. At least, not with this sort of rough diamond persona and indomitable frontier spirit, they couldn't. But even if his fiercely single-minded, one-size-fits-all approach to characterisation is the thing that detractors are quick to leap against, they forget something very crucial. For all of his politicking and lobbying, his belligerence and his massive ego, Wayne rarely took his screen persona all that seriously. Which is why his characters all work so well and have become so endearing. Aye, they are mostly just minor tweaks on the same template, but watching Wayne is like admiring the clouds. They are what they are … and he is what he is. I've discussed how he changed as a person or, at least, wanted to be seen to have changed when I reviewed True Grit, but that was further down the line, and not without good reason. During this period, however, he was still eminently the Duke … and both he and the studios knew that that was all the paying public wanted to see. The very first shot that we see of him is just of his distinctive shadow framed in a doorway, and you can imagine audiences at the time grinning from ear to ear at the classy, movie-literate device of wordless introduction. Only Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford could pull this sort of thing of with anywhere near the same level of peerless cool. Just before The Comancheros, Wayne had made North To Alaska for regular director and close friend Henry Hathaway, and this was very much the antidote to the Herculean tasks he'd undertaken for The Alamo. His rowdy, brawling character in the light-hearted, often farcical yarn was to prove the turning point for him, ensuring that he would become far more relaxed and at ease from that point on. Hence, the unflappable Texas Ranger we meet here – arguably the same character that he would play throughout most of his following movies.
Whitman comes into his own with The Comancheros. Always a likeable presence in the multitude of films and television shows that he had made before this, he gets a big chance to shine here. Blending hints of James Garner's humorous approach with his own easygoing embellishments, Whitman surprises in his ability to hold his own against Wayne and spar very convincingly with him. The film is at its best when it is just these two indulging in sarcastic baiting with one another. People may choose to think otherwise, but Wayne was extremely accommodating when it came to his co-stars. Frequently, they have the better lines, or at least the more telling ones … and, in the best tradition of buddy-buddy set-ups, their sparkling onscreen rapport reveals everything that we need to know about their characters without any clumsy resorting to exposition. Paul Regret is hardly the notorious outlaw that the wanted posters proclaim him to be, and even a couple of escape attempts that the fugitive makes from Jake fail to make the relationship between the two any less affable. It is all patently unrealistic, but we are glued to the screen whenever the pair occupy it.
The action is fast and dynamic, even if it is not quite as plentiful as this frontier war may initially promise. The battles are old school. More Indians are shot off their mounts than ever rode into the fray in the first place, the redskins seemingly able to replenish their lives more often than a character in a videogame. The usual supreme stuntmen get dragged behind their horses for a flesh-stripping fifty yards or so. The good guys are absolute crack-shots. Even from atop a careering wagon they never miss an enemy rider, with steeds depositing their howling, yowling burdens right on cue – and often in abrupt twos and threes in a row, brought down by volley-fire. The actual physical violence is very nicely dealt with, too. Curtiz makes certain that he keeps one fist free for comedy value, though. Some huge roundhouses are launched and bodies tumble across the sets. But just look at Wayne's stunned face after the chair he has crashed over the head of a lumbering Mexican guard has been shrugged-off and there is now a mighty paw swinging his way. This is the type of knockabout violence that the genre thrived on … and that Sergio Leone swore to change. Icon-wise, there's a great shot of the good guys – Waynes Snr and Jnr and Whitman - posing together, all guns blazing as a whirlwind raiding party surges all around them and, for a big man, Wayne can't half move with some smartly coiled power.
A winning turn from Lee Marvin is the decided high point before our heroes go on the trail of the Comancheros. Playing one of the gun-running contacts who perform as a go-between for the bandits and their Indian allies, the Hollywood hard-man gets to act larger-than-life as the vicious, liquor-swilling Tully Crow. With half of his scalp wrenched away by less-than-friendly natives, he now sports what looks like a hefty slice of pizza on one side of his head, and his personality is just as split. Bonding with Wayne's covert Ranger, he is quick to laugh and to lash-out, becoming a volatile force of nature that is believably unpredictable and wholly dangerous, his brutish attitude a two-faced and two-fisted treat for lovers of saloon disturbances. Even though Marvin had not yet received the acclaim that would be coming his way, just seeing these two Tinseltown heavyweights going toe-to-toe is, admittedly, worth the asking price, alone. And then there is Michael Ansara as one of the heavies. Ansara had played numerous Indians and Mexicans by this time although he was actually classically trained. But, to me, he will always be the Klingon commander Kang from the Original Series episode Day Of The Dove. Here he is able to bring Tex-Mex etiquette aboard the steamer and surly, petulant distrust as he struts about in black leather pants and demands executions down in the Comanchero encampment.
The setting of this Texicana conflict is able to bring in the Mexican angle that was fast becoming such a fixture in the genre of the sixties in both the Spaghettis and the American offerings. With US involvement in guerilla affairs overseas precisely like that of cavalrymen fighting a police-action across a hostile frontier, filmmakers found the lawlessness and ambiguity of dealings south of the border extremely appealing, and all very metaphorical. Whereas Ford would only use Mexican characters as a form of exotic set-dressing, others, John Sturges being perhaps the figurehead of this campaign with Eli Wallach's awesome Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, were going to turn them into idealists, opportunists, despots, tyrants, rebels and terrorists. In The Comancheros, the big baddie Graille, as played by Jerusalem-born Nehemiah Persoff, is a refined older Mexican warlord who has fashioned a bandit stronghold in the lost wilderness of the American desert. He recruits from the whites or Hispanics or the Indians, it matters not – all he demands from his people is ferocious loyalty. Graille lives like a king in a richly furnished and ornate house carved into the ridge above his large encampment, and he is educated and intelligent and not without a sense of humour. His men have their families down in the village, and he actively encourages a united society with a shared goal. Well, this is how it seems … the screenplay actually gets a little muddled over how this lost underground people are structured. But the point is being made that it is a Mexican, on the US side of the border, who is running things. This was insurgency and, of course, Wayne wasn't about to let this sort of thing go unpunished. Persoff plays Graille as a cripple, and he is extremely good in the role. We don't despise him in the least despite his cruel retribution towards the treacherous and his obvious condoning of Comanche atrocity along the range. He is just like a Bondian super-villain. He has his extravagant tastes, his aristocratic bent, and he has his secret base. And, just like in the Bond films that would come soon after, he is perfectly happy to entertain his enemies and converse cordially with them whilst trying to fully get the measure of them.
The Indians, themselves, are dealt with much less depth or detail. In fact, they are merely the racial stereotypes of nasty raiders and drunken revellers. We are permitted to see some clever equestrian skills in a daredevil display of machismo, but the Chief is merely there for inebriated comedy … although a nice touch is the Conquistador breastplate that he is wearing.
It would be remiss of me not to pay my dues to the fantastic photography of regular horse-opera cinematographer, William H. Clothier. Mind you, the photography had no excuse not to be fantastic. Clothier had been lensing this epic landscape since John Ford's Fort Apache in 1948. He knew the terrain. He knew how to keep apace with the horses and wagons. He knew how to use the horizons – by speckling them with suspenseful imagery of approaching redskins, usually. And he knew that the depth of the valleys, the imposing grandeur of the mountains, the rolling canopy of the sky and the intense colour of the land were all characters in their own right. He also knew John Wayne very, very well. He would cement the iconic visual image of the star and his favourite setting time and time again, with The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, McLintock!, The Undefeated, Chisum, Rio Lobo and Big Jake all placing the man and the myth in the same shot … to stunning effect.
There are even a few shocking little images along the way. We are reminded of the harsh realities of what pioneering folks faced if they chose to settle out on the frontier and far from civilisation, not least by the repugnant damage done to Crow's cheese-and-tomato flavoured noggin. When Jake and Regret happen upon a farmstead that has been raided by the Comanche, we get that time-honoured and always disturbing sight of the bodies of innocent people left out to sizzle under the desert sun, the men hung upside-down from the corral beams. Jake, and Wayne, himself, have seen all this before in The Seachers, for example, and when the Ranger makes the unnerving assumption that we will probably find the body of the little girl inside the ranch, it is hard not to feel that primal anger well-up inside. Propaganda? Western stereotyping? Yup. You bet. But these things did happen. On both sides. I know … I've seen old photographs of massacres just like the one depicted here. When you remember that films like this are considered “family fare”, it can still come as a hard-hitting shock sometimes. There is a later depiction of the unforgiving attitude that the Comancheros, themselves, have towards misdemeanours perpetrated by their own … and this is almost as sobering, with assorted bodies strung-up around their hidden headquarters, some still alive and in obvious torment. Once again, though, Curtiz seems to suddenly realise that he cannot afford to upset and to alienate his audience, so such things are swiftly followed with a comical quip or some irreverent activity.
It is great to see some stars from the Golden Age appearing in the film too. There's the caddish Henry Daniell as Gireaux, the referee in the fateful opening honour-duel fought between Regret and the Mayor's son, and then there's King Kong's hero, Bruce Cabot, as the leader of the Texas Rangers, Major Henry. But our eyes will drift towards that famous “bug” eye of the cult favourite Jack Elam, as one of Graille's more aggressive foot-soldiers. The instantly recognisable character actor was a mainstay of Westerns. Like Lee Van Cleef, he had made a career out of providing support villainy. Cleef would, of course, go on to achieve massive acclaim and stardom courtesy of his immortal roles in Leone's For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, becoming as iconic as Clint Eastwood, himself, in the visual tapestry of the genre (Spaghetti variety, his speciality). Elam, on the other hand, would toil away in the backgrounds of a plethora of classic oaters. His showboating turn would also come courtesy of the great Sergio Leone in the epic opening to Once Upon A Time In The West, his tremendous cameo as Snakey, the fly-bothered one of three assassins waiting at a train station for the arrival of Charles Bronson's Harmonica was originally supposed to have gone to Eli Wallach – Leone's uber-cool masterplan to have had the three pivotal stars of his Dollars Trilogy (Eastwood and Van Cleave alongside him) getting killed off at the start of his elegiac closing statement on the American West. Elam makes such a meal of the seven-minute role that he is probably best remembered as that grizzled gunfighter more than any other he has played, including his nasty turn as a violent rapist in cahoots with Ernest Borgnine and Stother Martin in the bizarre Raquel Welch revenger, Hannie Caulder. Although his sense of comedy is unwanted here in The Comancheros, it is well worth remembering that he was also a expert at sending himself up, as roles in Cactus Jack (opposite Kirk Douglas) and The Cannonball Run so effortlessly proved. Here, though, it is worth waiting for the bit when he brutally slams a rifle-butt into Whitman's face in one of those sizzlingly sheer boo-hiss moments.
Curtiz regular, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams attempts to steal the show from Wayne and Cabot in the genuinely amusing jail-cell sequence in which captured gun-runner, Ed McBain (now there's a name to conjure with) plays with words, twists stories and generally darts and deviates from confessor to liar to snitch all in one intricately verbal dance. Oddly enough, the well-known actor is uncredited in the final film.
Although saddled with a few poor elements, the film certainly gets its act together, but it is the chemistry between Wayne and Whitman that carries it throughout even the duller stretches. The two would work together again on The Longest Day, and Whitman would even go through pretty much the same thing in 1964's Rio Conchos. Michael Curtiz, forever loved for Casablanca, had unleashed a few classic action movies throughout his time behind the camera – Captain Blood and The Sea Hawk with Errol Flynn to name just two - but The Comancheros was to be his final feature. Sadly, the grand master died six months after the film wrapped.
Still very highly thought-of, The Comancheros is ripe Western entertainment but, despite some occasionally grim imagery, its director plays it all very safe. The Duke is having a fine old time of it, of course, and Whitman makes for a very engaging co-star. It is great to see Lee Marvin and Michael Ansara crop up too, especially Marvin, who clearly relishes his role as the disfigured gun-runner. Bernstein's score is typically infectious and fits the gloriously spectacular landscapes to a tee, perfectly capturing the spirit of the genre as it was being crafted at this time, and the larger-than-life characters that we love to idolise. The scope is large, with a great deal of varied location work that adds to the happily episodic nature of the adventure. But the film suffers from a screenplay that throws in a lot of incident and sub-stories that rarely get the space to breathe that they need. Plus, the film is absolutely riddled with cliché. Even so, fans know what to expect from a John Wayne picture and Curtiz's vibrant and ribald romp makes sure that it delivers the goods.
I may have a couple of reservations, but The Comancheros is excellent fun. It also represents possibly the last stand for the conventional Old School American Western, and the interesting thing is you can already see the new evolution of the genre beginning to take form even here.