Valdez is Coming: Burt Lancaster returns as the ‘lawman obsessed with justice’ in his second horse opera of the 1970s

Valdez is Coming is one of the three Westerns that Burt Lancaster made in the early 1970s, Lawman and Ulzana’s Raid being the other two. In all three movies, Lancaster played some variation of the aging Lawman obsessed with establishing justice at any cost.

Tell him Valdez is Coming.

It’s not easy to accept Burt Lancaster as a celestial blue-eyed Mexican; some actors are so quintessentially American, that it is impossible to accept them as anything else; think of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the notorious “The Conqueror” or Paul Newman as the Mexican bandit in “The Outrage”; on the other hand Marlon Brando is much more convincing when he take on other ethnicities or nationalities, whether it’s Emiliano Zapata, Mark Antony, Stanley Kowalski, Terry Molloy, Fletcher Christian or Vito Corleone, he is, may be nor equally convincing in all of them, but is convincing enough not to take you out of the movie. Burt Lancaster has been such an American movie legend for so long that it takes some effort to convince ourselves that he’s anything that irrespective of the character he’s playing, which is why in his greatest performance as the “Prince of Salina” in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard(1963), his performance works spectacularly in the Italian version, where he is dubbed by somebody else, as opposed to its English version where Lancaster himself provide the voice. His American English and its voice rhythms are completely at odds with the old-world, majestic. Italian aristocrat he’s playing in the film; a requirement perfectly fulfilled by the voice that he’s provided with in the Italian version. So when we first encounter Lancaster as a blue-eyed Mexican called Bob Valdez, the constable of a border town, in the 1971 Western “Valdez is Coming”, our jaw drop for all the wrong reasons. It’s difficult to accept him (at least immediately) in this avatar, and the mascara and dark facial makeup doesn’t help at all. Even worse is the put-on accent and broken English he’s made to speak, turning him into a exaggerated caricature than a living breathing character. It’s not like Lancaster hasn’t dealt with playing ethnic minorities before; he played a blue-eyed Apache in Robert Aldrich’s eponymous 1954 film, and it was difficult even then to accept him, but those were simpler times and were more simple movies. “Valdez” has aspirations to be a gritty, mud & blood Western in the mold of the Spaghetti Westerns that were made dime a dozen in Europe those days. But here’s the thing; Lancaster is a 24 carat movie superstar whose charisma shines through the most miscast character, even with a bushy mustache, long sideburns, unshaven face and a paunch over the belt line; it should be said that he is miscast only on the “ethnic” level, spiritually, this a character that’s perfect for him, age-wise and talent-wise. He has the ability to hold the screen like no other, and his subtle, effortless acting style, and his physical agility (he was 57 when he made the film, but he’s till in great shape) complements the character beautifully. And there’s nobody who looks so commanding (and born to be) on a horseback than Lancaster. So to our own surprise, about some minutes into the film, we find ourselves immersing into this character as played by Lancaster. It also helps that Valdez is less a character more a symbol or a cipher representing a divine force of nature that takes shape when the law is weak and justice needs to be established in a lawless land. Indeed, “Valdez” is quite an odd-duck of a movie; it’s an American film shot in Spain – where all the Euro-Westerns, including the Sergio Leone ones were shot. It is based on a novel by eminent American novelist, Elmore Leonard. It has a “larger than life” American screen legend playing a Mexican; It is directed by a Theater director, Edwin Sherin, who was making his screen debut; it was photographed by Gábor Pogány, who has photographed some of the neo-realistic classics of Vittorio De Sica like Two Women(1960); and the rousing score is provided by Charles Gross, who mainly worked in Television. The final result of these conflicting collaborators is a very predictable, albeit very enjoyable, and very interesting “Revenge” thriller-western, which rides on the charisma and the towering personality of its lead star, irrespective of however miscast he may appear.

Simply put, the plot goes something like this: Bob Valdez is a paunchy, diffident Mexican constable in the post–Civil War Arizona Territory who is maneuvered into killing an innocent black man by a white rancher, Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher). After Valdez realizes his mistake, he tries to raise some money ($200) for the dead man’s pregnant widow, an Apache. The townsfolk make a deal with him; they will pay $100 if he manages to raise another 100 from Tanner. But when he goes to Tanner with the request he is tied to a cross by the rancher’s men and set out to wander, Christ-like, across the desert. Debased and angry, he finds his old cavalry uniform – he was a scout for the 7th cavalry hunting down Apaches- and puts it on; armed to the teeth with his musty Buffalo Rifle, his battered Shotgun and his haggard Winchester, he barges into Tanner’s villa demanding the $100; but is repelled by Tanner’s ranch hand El Segundo (Barton Heyman) and his henchmen. Cornered, Valdez runs off with Cypher’s woman, Gay Erin (Susan Clark), as a hostage into the mountainous wilderness which is familiar territory for him. He is looking to trade the woman for the money, but Tanner is unflinching in paying the measly $100, and sets forth with a posse led by Segundo to capture Valdez and rescue Gay. As the story progresses, we realize that 100 dollars is an arbitrary number; what Valdez really wants is Tanner to pay for the senseless death of the black man and acknowledge the existence of his Native widow. Tanner is corrupted by power, pride, greed and racism and looks down on everyone else, especially non-whites like Valdez, the black man and the pregnant Indian. But he makes the mistake of underestimating Valdez because of his meekness, ancestry and disheveled appearance. Using the treacherous territory to his advantage, Valdez becomes a killing machine, eliminating 11 of Tanner’s posse, even as he eludes the posse. In the end, Valdez is shot down of his horse by Segundo and he is surrounded by his henchmen and Tanner, but by this time Segundo has evolved a healthy respect for the old-warrior trying to right a wrong, and he refuses to kill him. He orders his henchmen back to the town, leaving Tanner and Valdez to take care of their business. Tanner turns out to be a coward, who can’t bring himself to draw his gun in a ‘one on one’ duel. The film ends on an ambiguous note, with the stand-off between Tanner and Valdez unresolved, and Gay refusing to return to Tanner.

Leonard’s story is rather convoluted; twisting and turning from wrong to right, a sincere if perplexing attempt to show the moral and strategic dangers of acting alone to right a wrong. Valdez is typical of one of the two kinds of heroes you find in an Elmore Leonard Western\crime thriller. As represented by the two characters played by Glenn Ford and Van Heflin in “3:10 to Yuma”, one character (Heflin character) is a decent, ordinary, everyman with a heart who (is forced to) turns tough when pushed to a corner; the other type (embodied by Ford) is a tough, no-nonsense guy who develops a heart through the course of the story. The other examples of the former kind are Charles Bronson in “Mr. Majestyk” and Clint Eastwood in “Joe Kidd”; one played by Paul Newman in “Hombre” is the latter type. Valdez belongs to the former type, with some shade of “Hombre”- racial prejudice in the West; and it’s here that Lancaster becomes key for the success of the character. For the first half of the film, Lancaster walks with a stoop, with his heads bowed down and giving the appearance of an ordinary, tired, old man: moving slowly and speaking carefully, almost deferentially, understandably cautious about being too outspoken. But the moment he puts on his old army gear, he transforms into this towering angel of vengeance without the actor doing anything extreme; there is something rather pulpy about the way that Lancaster turns from put-upon minor lawman to brilliantly competent guerrilla fighter, who never misses the target, but with just a few minor adjustments in his performance Lancaster makes this transformation credible. The overall understated, subtle nature of his acting style comes in handy here. He doesn’t start to shout or scream after this transformation; even as he starts growling “Valdez is coming” he is till speaking in a low-pitched voice and a resigned body language, but somehow the same “deferential’ speech and body language acquire a sinister edge, to the point that he becomes so scary that we fear for the life of the henchmen going up against him, especially the loudmouthed, coward, R.L. Davis(Richard Jordan) whom he takes captive, but refuse to kill because he had cut him loose when after he was “crucified.” A similar quite sinister edge can be seen in Burt’s performance in the film Lawman (Richard Johnson was in that film too), which was released a month before this film’s release, though it was filmed after this one. These two films along with the 1972 film, Ulzana’s Raid were a trio of Westerns that Lancaster made in the early 1970s. Each one of them was an allegory of the Vietnam war, and dealt with similar theme of Law & order and justice. Though in each of these films he play a different character, the characters have a spiritual connection, with the character of a ‘Lawman’ progressing to the next ’emotional’ plain through each of these films. Valdez used to be a scout for the cavalry in hunting down the Apaches, that’s until “he knew better.” so apart from revenge for his hurt and humiliation, his dogged pursuit for getting compensation for the Apache woman has his own redemption involved in it. This obsession for justice takes a dark turn in Michael Winner’s Lawman, where he plays an uncompressing lawman who follows the letter of the law, no matter what the consequence, even to the point of his moral corruption. In Robert Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid, Lancaster gets back being an Apache scout, who by this time had become cynical and reluctant; he has no special interest in pursuing a war party of Apaches who have walked off the reservation, but as a soldier he has to carry out orders. The film ends with his (unnecessary) death, thus bringing a closure to the character’s arc that has travelled through three movies.

These films could also be considered Lancaster’s political treatise on the America of that period mired in civil rights movement and Vietnam war. Lancaster was a life-long liberal, and these three films are liberal in its Leanings and Message, telling tales of oppressed Natives, minorities, Blacks, Mexicans, Women; that is set in a time when whites overtly flaunted their privilege and took advantage, and the law was not strong enough to stand up to them. This is evident particularly in this film, the character of Valdez who is trying to atone for his sins against the native tribes could very well be the point of view of a 60s\70s liberal who at the time was revising the image of Natives in history and popular culture. Though the film has the look and feel of a Spaghetti Western, these distinct qualities distinguishes it as a truly American film of the 70s; the character of Valdez who carries the burden of past guilt and who becomes a ‘one man army’ shooting his way through injustice and corruption is a typical 70s American film hero, whose influences can be found in Charles Bronson’s “Chato’s Land” and “Death Wish”, which were directed by Michael Winner(Lawman) and Sylvester Stallone’s “First Blood.” The Vietnam-war influences can be found in the film’s racial politics; as depicted in the film, the main battle is between the Mexicans; Valdez on one side and Segundo and his men on the other, with an American capitalist leading the latter group. The lone Mexican leads them into his home-territory and starts cutting down his enemies one by one, while the army lead by the American is left clueless in an unfamiliar, alien terrain. In the end, the Mexicans realize the folly of their ways and leave the American to take care of his personal business on his own. Then there is a general aura of untruths, hypocrisy and paranoia that pervades the film; Gay Erin kills her husband (unbeknownst to anyone) to be with his brother, Tanner; Tanner is less horrified by the death of his brother, and more by the stain on his reputation that he killed his brother to get his woman. In order to clear his name, he starts hunting down “ghosts,” mostly minorities whom he can believably pass on as the killer of his brother and thus retain his reputation in the community. The Black man who gets killed by Valdez at the beginning of the film was just another of those; Gay Erin also contributes to the innocent man’s death by never revealing the truth. Gay is also a representation of the liberated 70s woman; she kills her husband to be with her lover, and when she is treated less than respectfully by him, she sides with her kidnapper, and she becomes almost his equal as she starts riding and hiding along with him. Though their relationship does not develop into a full-blown romance, she does acquire great deal of affection and respect for the elderly Valdez. In the end, She chooses to stay back with him and not to return to her lover. These story elements also reveal the biblical roots of the film, especially when you take into account the excruciating crucifixion sequence. In this tale of Meek, Valdez, overcoming the odds and triumphing in the end, we can see reflections of Herod Antipas, Herodias\Salome, John the Baptist\Jesus Christ in the characters of Tanner, Gay and Valdez. Valdez undergoes a “Christ” like crucifixion and resurrection moment, after which he transform into a supernatural force, though he’s still very much a New-testament god rather than old; his “Vengeance ride” is less an act of personal revenge, more an act for upholding righteousness and justice; he does not want o kill until he is forced to and in the ambiguous ending, it’s indirectly conveyed that he’s not going to kill Tanner, he’ll just break his pride and extract the $100 and forgive him for the sins committed on him. This is again a departure from the Spaghetti Westerns, where in Sergio Leone films, the heroes are blatantly amoral who lampoons religion; or in Sergio Corbucci films like “Django” and “The Great Silence”, the hero is a Christ figure, who is part Marxist revolutionary, part old-testament god, who extracts his revenge in elaborate blood rituals. following the “eye for an eye, blood for blood” philosophy.

As it is obvious, this is not a lazily conceived film; there are themes and subplots that add great depth to, what could easily come off as, a low-budget star-vehicle oater. But the problem is that most of these ideas does not translate well to the screen. Part of the problem involves two key supporting roles. Susan Clark lacks the necessary vulnerability and natural allure to provide much interest to her rather unconventional heroine character, which is not fully developed in the first place. Similarly, Jon Cypher is too bland and generic a villain; you are left wondering how bad Gay’s husband must have been for her to kill him to get this man. The scenes involving Cypher and Clark are dated and dull, their love scenes are mechanical and devoid of the heat to justify that their relationship could have originated out of a crime of passion. The direction of Edwin Sherin is barely serviceable, his theatrical roots and inexperience with the cinematic medium is clearly visible in his compositions; which is mostly a lot of actors clustering together in every frame. Some of the action scenes do work; like the scenes where Valdez picks out Tanner’s men from afar- from a mountain top, or the climax portions where Lancaster shows his agility by riding two horses; which i guess is the handiwork of some experiences stunt coordinators; other times, even the action is rather badly staged and choppily edited. Cinematographer, Gábor Pogány, shoots the film in a non-classical, avant-garde style, with shaky camera movements and a dark palette. The Almeria locations that Leone films showcased as brightly sunlit enough to give the viewer a sunburn, is transformed by Pogány into a dark terrain, with dust, clouds and fog; a lengthy episode in the film is set in the fog, which is very unusually for Spain-shot Westerns. Obviously, this was not meant to be a beautiful looking film with gorgeous “John Ford” like Vistas; it’s intended more to be a gritty, down & dirty Western keeping in with the times.

I was surprised to know that the film was originally conceived to star Marlon Brando as Valdez and Burt Lancaster as Tanner, and to be directed by the great Sydney Pollack. Pollack’s regular screenwriter David Rayfiel had turned in a terrific adaptation of Leonard’s novel. But the film was delayed due to Lancaster’s other commitments, and when this project came up again, Lancaster decided to play the lead role himself. By then Pollock had bowed out and Rayfiel’s screenplay was discarded (though he’s credited, nothing of his was used) and Lancaster brought in his frequent collaborator, writer Roland Kibbee, to modify the script to suit his needs. If Brando had starred and Pollock had directed it, this would have been a very different movie, perhaps less of an action-oriented star-vehicle and more of a well rounded Western with all the depth and complex layers the source novel offered. But Lancaster being a more physical actor and an action-star, I guess the more violent and action-oriented aspects of the story (and character) were stressed. In the end the film is an uneasy compromise between action-movie set-pieces and something more thoughtful and interesting, with Lancaster’s star-power and charisma almost saving the day. 


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