Shalako: Sean Connery starred in this old-fashioned, all-star cast Western adventure that’s reasonably entertaining

Shalako(1968), starring Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot, is a Western adventure directed by Edward Dmytryk. Connery made the film during his temporary sabbatical from James Bond, and it’s the only western he ever made.

Sean Connery as a cowboy is as alien a concept as a British Western. But in 1968 both these unusual concepts collided in the form of Shalako, a British-German Western directed by veteran American director Edward Dmytryk and starring Sean Connery and French star Brigitte Bardot. The film boasts of a great supporting cast; consisting of the likes of Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, Woody Strode and Connery’s Goldfinger Bond girl Honor Blackman. Connery blasted his way to super stardom by embodying Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond in 5 movies; starting with Dr. No in 1962. But by 1967, Connery had enough of his James Bond role. So, after completing the fifth Bond film You only Live Twice, he shocked the producers by retiring from the lucrative franchise – though eventually he would return to the role two more times: officially in Diamonds are Forever(1971) and unofficially in Never Say Never Again(1983). After turning his back on the role that made him a star, Connery would pursue films\roles that was completely opposite to that of the suave super spy; some really gritty stuff like The Molly Maguires, The Offence and films like that. So i guess, doing a western was a part of that strategy. It’s another matter that Shalako would be conceived and promoted as a sort of James Bond in the West by the producers. Also, the publicity blitzkrieg and the paparazzi that Connery hoped to avoid by ridding himself of James Bond would follow him here too; mainly due to the presence of the sensational Bardot, who liked to travel around with a posse of journalists and photographers. Shalako came around at a time, when the popularity of the Euro-Westerns were at its peak. The success of Italian auteur Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollar‘ movies had been a rage worldwide, and this in turn had revitalized the dying Western genre by giving it a more gritty, revisionist edge, making it palatable to a more modern, counter-cultural audience of the 1960s. Shalako does have the look and feel of the Euro-Westerns to an extend – it was shot in Almeria, Spain, whose Tabernas Desert was the main location for all the Euro-Westerns that were made during the period- but it’s more of a traditional Western adventure story. This might be due to the fact that the film is directed by an old-world Hollywood studio director like Edward Dmytryk, who has previously helmed Westerns like Broken Lance and Warlock, apart from epics like Raintree County and The Young Lions. But the film does have an exotic quality to it, mainly because it deals with a subject that isn’t much explored in Westerns: European aristocracy coming to the American West for big game hunting.

The film is based on a Louis L’Amour novel; though a lot was changed in its adaptation from novel to film. The story is set in New Mexico, on Apache reservation land, circa 1880. The opening scrawl give us information about the  several European dignitaries who had come to the American West from time to time for hunting. Then it cuts to a classical Western image: a lone cowboy – Connery in a buckskin jacket – in the (Spanish) desert, sleeping underneath the shadow of a hill. His horse is also huddled next to him in the shade. He slowly wakes up; then he wakes up his horse; and starts riding through the desert as the credits roll. And in one of the first nods to the James Bond films, a bombastic (and unintentionally funny) title track “Shalako, Shalako,….” starts playing on the soundtrack. Connery plays Moses Zebulin ‘Shalako’ Carlin, a former Colonel in the US Army, who maintains good relations with the native Indian tribes, and who makes sure that non-Indians are kept out of Indian land. Shalako means ‘The Rain Bringer’ in Zuni Indian. The Indians bestowed him the name, because every time he entered their lands, it rained. Post credits, we are introduced to a hunting party lead by Baron Frederick von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck). He is assisted by scout Bosky Fulton (Stephen Boyd) and his men. The Baron’s hunting party consists of the husband and wife duo of Sir Charles and Lady Julia Daggett(Jack Hawkins and Honor Blackman); an American senator Henry Clarke(Alexander Knox) and his Mexican wife Elena(Valerie French); and finally, the French Countess Irina Lazaar(Brigitte Bardot). The hunting party, true to their aristocratic roots, are pompous and arrogant and doesn’t give two hoots about invading the Apache territory. They are encouraged on by the sinister Fulton, who has his own diabolical motives.

The film is, what could be broadly termed, as a survival western. The theme of the hunter and the hunted is at the heart of the film. In the beginning, we see the Baron and his party hunting down a desert lion. But soon enough, it will be the turn of the aristocrats to become the hunted; as the Apaches, under their leader Chato(Woody Strode) would start hunting them for invading their lands. Shalako is caught between these two groups. He saves Irina’s life when she is attacked by a group of Apaches; she had recklessly ridden of into the wilderness to do some hunting of her own and got separated from the rest of the hunting party. Shalako escorts Irina to her camp: a dilapidated old fort, where the aristocrats are having a ball, right in the middle of the wilderness; an elaborate dinner complete with tuxedos, gowns and champagne cocktails. Shalako has already been warned by Chato to remove the hunting party from their territory, or else they are all going to be killed. Shalako conveys the same to the Baron, who couldn’t care less, and takes the whole issue lightly. The Baron and Shalako takes an immediate dislike for each other – baron’s smooth, sophisticated ways at odds with the rough and tough Shalako; their relationship is further complicated when Shalako and Irina – who is betrothed to the baron – starts getting close. Shalako knows that the Apaches means business, so he decides to ride out to convince the army to come to the hunting party’s rescue. But it’s too late , because, as Shalako is on his way, he notices Chato’s war party moving towards the camp. The next morning, the Apaches attack the camp, kill several of baron’s men and destroy most of their supplies. And just when it seems that the Apaches are going to overpower the camp completely, a smoke signal appears on the horizon, forcing the Apaches to retreat. This gives the aristocrats the much needed breathing space to regroup, but Bosky Fulton has other ideas. He double crosses the baron: by stealing their horses and supplies; robbing them of their belongings and taking off with his cut-throats; leaving the baron and Company alone in the desert at the mercy of the Apaches. Julia Daggett, Sir Charles’ philandering wife, chooses to go along with Fulton and his gang as she had taken quite a shine to Fulton in the interim, leaving the cuckolded Sir Charles shamefaced. And just when it appears that all is lost for the aristocrats, in rides Shalako to their rescue. It was Shalako who had created the ruse of the smoke signal to lure the Apaches away, and it seems that before he departed the camp, he had made sure that some of the supplies and weapons are hidden as reserves, which Fulton and his men were not aware of. So now reequipped with supplies and arms, the team, under the guidance of Shalako, starts moving out of the Apache territory.

Shalako intends to lead the team to the foot of a plateau where they are going to be safe for some time. But their journey is perilous as there is the threat of an Apache attack at every turn. The baron doesn’t help matters: by constantly feuding with Shalako and second guessing his decisions, even though baron repeatedly proves himself to be ignorant about the terrain and immature in his understanding of the natives. But gradually, he starts developing some respect for Shalako and in time, the baron gets an opportunity to redeem himself: when his mountain-climbing skills comes in handy in taking the party quickly up to the plateau- and thus earning them some valuable time in preparing for a showdown with the Apaches. Meanwhile, Fulton , realizing that his gang is coming under attack from the Apaches , rides of alone in to the mountains, leaving his lover Julia Daggett and his gang members to be slaughtered by the Apaches. Fulton too reaches the plateau and seeks asylum from Shalako, much to the disapproval of Sir Charles, who is livid that Fulton has let his wife be murdered by the Apaches. But Shalako, sensing that they need every gun they can find in their fight, allow Fulton to hold out with them. As expected, the Apaches attack at dawn , and in the midst of the fight both Sir Charles and Fulton kill each other. In the end, Chato challenges Shalako to a mano a mano duel to settle their conflict once and for all, which Shalako accepts. In the ensuing duel, Chato is defeated, but Shalako refuses to kill him. A dishonored Chato rides away angrily. Chato’s father, the tribe chief, allows Shalako and company to leave the territory safely. The final image see the aristocrats and Shalako riding off in two different directions, but soon, Irina leaves her company and joins up with Shalako; the baron had broken of his engagement with Irina, thus leaving her free to be with Shalako.

Sean Connery is a star of great charisma and does what he could with the role. He holds the screen like no other, and looks comfortable in the saddle, though he does appear a little funny in that Caesar toupee that he wears in the film. But the big problem with the character (and it does extend to the film too) is that it’s too much of a straight arrow, too much of a noble, and in turn, bland character. Connery made his bones as a star by playing a colorful, self-mocking, insouciant characters like James Bond which was a perfect hero for the consumerist 60’s. Connery needs elements of amorality, humor and goofiness to shine in a role. Also, the audience had tired off the traditional western by the end of 60’s; the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, etc. had killed the enthusiasm for movies with clear cut ideals of good and evil. They wanted complex stories with complex characters, which Shalako wasn’t. I am really surprised that Connery choose to do this sort of a film as a his lone western outing, but again, he must have found it rather different from Bond, and there was also an additional incentive of a hefty paycheck: $1.2 million plus profit percentage. The film was a lavishly budgeted affair ($5 million), as opposed to the low budget , down and dirty Spaghetti westerns that was being turned out dime a dozen in Spain those days. The film does look great, thanks to Bond Cinematographer Ted Moore, who shot the film and it has some truly suspenseful action scenes, but it does appear inert and bland from time to time. Another big letdown is the casting of Bardot, who has zero chemistry with Connery, and appears quite out of place in the film; with her thick accent, thick makeup and glamorous costumes. And for someone who set the temperatures soaring with her dare-bare act in films as diverse as And God created Women and Godard’s Le Mepris, Bardot comes across as rather asexual, and even her top less love scene with Connery hardly creates any spark. To be fair, these two extremely sexy stars doesn’t have enough scenes together to get a chemistry going. And again, the lead charterer’s nobility gets in the way; it’s no wonder that Henry Fonda was the original choice for the role. You can feel Connery’s dilemma here : As Bond he is famous for forcing the issue with women, and his instincts are to do the same here as well (we get a sense of that in their first love scene, when he starts passionately kissing Bardot, only to pull back), but that would be out of character, and he is not very good at playing the noble lover. Honor Blackman is utterly wasted in the film, and she doesn’t even have a scene with Connery. But Stephen Boyd is terrific as the treacherous Fulton and infuses some energy into the proceeding. One gets the feeling that, in casting these supporting parts, the producers were going for a greatest hits compilation of these stars. Boyd as the treacherous friend from Ben-Hur; Hawkins as the aristocrat from the same film; Honor Blackman from Goldfinger; and rather ridiculously, African-American star Woody Strode, here cast as Apache warrior Chato, trying to recreate the ‘Spartacus‘ magic in a spear duel with Connery. Edward Dmytryk, though a rather good director in his prime, just does a serviceable job here. He does attempt to paint a broad allegory about the conquest of the American west by the European settlers, but the film never rises above the level of above-average. Worse, the treatment of the natives is terrible, reinforcing age old stereotypes of them being no-name, violent savages speaking broken English, that too in a time when a lot of westerns  – like “Soldier Blue” and “Little Big Man” –  were being made from the perspective of the native tribes.

The film was a big flop at the time of its release, barely recouping a million dollars in box office rentals, which didn’t even cover Connery’s salary. It was a very difficult period for Connery, when he was struggling to find a foothold in the industry after renouncing the Bond role. He would be forced to return to playing Bond again in 1971. It would not be until 1975-76 that Connery could make a name for himself, independent of James bond; with films like The Man who would be King, The Wind and the Lion, A Bridge too Far, etc.., though it would take another decade for him to  regain that level of super-stardom; with films like The Untouchables, The Hunt for Red October and so on. Shalako remains an interesting oddity in Connery’s filmography and in the annals of the Western genre. If made well, It could have been a truly original Western film, but, as it exists now, it’s a reasonably entertaining old-fashioned Western yarn that has some good stuff in it, but is overall  rather uninspiring and unexceptional.