The Comancheros(1961), a very entertaining, big-scale Western, was legendary director, Michael Curtiz’s final film. John Wayne, who stars in this film alongside Stuart Whitman, took over the directorial duties and completed the film after Curtiz became afflicted with cancer.
Another one of those rollicking, large-scale Western adventures made at a time when John ‘Duke’ Wayne was slowly transitioning into the final phase in his career- where he will begin to have some fun with his larger-than-life American icon image, The Comancheros(1961), that was made immediately after the rip-roaring “North to Alaska” and just before John Ford’s elegiac masterpiece, “The Man who shot Liberty Valance” tries to fuse the ‘Buddy’ comedy template of the former with a more serious tone of the latter. Like all John Wayne Westerns made in Duke’s prime, this very enjoyable film abounds in action, comedy, drama, romance, same truly fantastic visuals of the splendid Utah and Arizona landscape, and historical anachronisms galore. “The Comancheros”, based on Paul Wellman’s novel, was a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for almost a decade. The novel concerns a Louisiana gambler and womanizer, Paul Regret, who kills the son of judge in a duel and had to abscond, and is in turn pursued by a Texas Ranger. Wellman had conceived the character of Regret with Cary Grant in mind, but when the film was initially put into production, it was supposed to reteam the “Vera Cruz” duo of Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. Later James Garner replaced Lancaster, but the project took so long to get in front of the cameras that by the time shooting was to start, Gary Cooper had taken seriously ill. So, Duke stepped into the shoes of his old friend “Coop” to play the role of the Ranger and Charlton Heston was set to play Regret. But then, Ben-Hur became a blockbuster and won Heston an academy award. Obviously, now Heston wouldn’t take second billing to anyone, so he dropped out, and he was replaced by Tom Tyron. But Stuart Whitman, who was just breaking out into starring roles in films after he was picked up by Twentieth Century-Fox studios as part of their star-building program, lobbied hard for the role- going to the extend of personally meeting up with Duke, who backed his casting- and was eventually cast opposite Duke as Paul regret. On a side note, i thought this was a great opportunity to bring John Wayne and Cary Grant together on screen. It’s one of the great misses in movie history that these two iconic superstars were never paired together. It would have been great to see the polished and sophisticated Grant play off against the rough and earthy Duke. Howard Hawks had unsuccessfully tried to bring them together in “Rio Bravo”, with Grant playing the drunk ‘Dude” that Dean Martin played eventually. I guess both of them were such big stars that one wouldn’t have taken second billing to the other, and hence the pairing never happened. The film also had its share of director changes: originally George Stevens was going to direct it as a follow up to his “Giant”, but he dropped out. Then Douglas Heyes was selected as director, but he too left, and finally it was Michael Curtiz who went on to direct the film.
Curtiz was one of the top directors of golden-age Hollywood, consistently churning out classics for Warner Bros.- The adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and the crown jewel in his oeuvre, Casablanca. But his decline as a director coincided with the decline of the studio system. By the time he was making “The Comancheros”, he hadn’t made a quality film for a long time. On top of that he was sick, afflicted with cancer, and he was not in good physical shape to take full control of the project. Duke, ever a loyal friend, knew about Curtiz’s troubles and had picked him as director of the film purely out of loyalty. Curtiz had earlier made a Warner Bros. comedy titled “Trouble along the way” with Duke. It was Duke himself who directed much of “The Comancheros” because Curtiz was too ill to work and too unconcerned about the film. This was Curtiz’s final feature film, and he passed away soon after its release. Duke was just coming off from the back-breaking work on his dream project “The Alamo”- a film he produced, directed and acted in- and he was once again forced to take on the directorial reins of another project he was starring in. But he did an admirable job, with considerable help from his old friend, Cliff Lyons, who directed all of the spectacular action scenes in the film. Duke also had another old pal, Producer\Director George Sherman- who had directed him in countless low-budget Westerns for Republic Pictures- as the producer of this film. In an interesting side note: Duke plays Capt. Jake Cutter in this film, who’s referred to as ‘Big Jake’. Ten years after this film, George Sherman directed Duke in a film titled “Big Jake“. And on that film, Sherman fell ill, and Duke took over as director and completed that film too. That turned out to be Sherman’s last film as well. Like all films of Duke at the time, the film is filled with “John Wayne stock company” members both in front and behind the camera. Duke’s favorite screenwriter, James Edward Grant, rewrote the screenplay and the great cinematographer William H. Clothier- who had just shot “The Alamo” for Duke- photographed the film, bringing his considerable talents for colorful, widescreen location photography to this cinemascope production. In front of the camera was Duke’s two kids, Patrick and Aissa, along with his longtime friend & co-star Bruce Cabot.
As for the plot of the film: the year is 1843, and the film opens with the unfortunate gun-duel-at-dawn that would turn Paul Regret a fugitive in the eyes of the law. After shooting and killing the judge’s son, Regret takes off. Soon, Wanted posters appear in every state, requesting Regret’s extradition for the crime. Texas Ranger Jake Cutter is the first one who manages to get his hands on Regret. He arrests Regret in Galveston; at the time, Regret was in the throes of a passionate tryst with a mysterious lady, Pilar Graile (Ina Balin), who disappears as mysteriously as she appeared. Regret tries to buy his way out of the arrest, but the honorable Jake is unrelenting, and he determinedly drags his prisoner all the way to Louisiana. On the way, they run into a Texan farm burned down by the Comanche. While burying the dead, Regret catches Jake off guard, clouts him with a shovel, and makes his escape. Jake returns to Ranger headquarters and is ordered to impersonate a gun smuggler in order to ferret out the secret stronghold of the Comancheros, a band of white renegades selling liquor and guns to the marauding Comanche. This mission has Jake travelling to a small town, where he gets in touch with the drunken-to-the-point-of-being-psychotic Tully Crow(Lee Marvin), a middle-man in the Comancheros’ operations. At a card game in town, Jake once again runs into Regret, but to his surprise, Regret does not give his original identity away to Crow. Eventually, Jake is forced to kill Crow in self-defense. Jake once again takes Regret into custody and continues on their journey to Louisiana.
This time on their journey they run into an actual Comanche attack on some ranchers, who are Jake’s friends. Regret fight side by side with Jake and others in warding off the Comanche. During the attack, Regret jumps on a horse and flees but instead of making a clean getaway, he returns with a unit of Texas Rangers and the attack is repulsed. Because of Regret’s act of valor, Jake decides to save him from hanging. On Jake’s persuasion, a company of Rangers and a judge lie that. at the time of the Duel, Regret had been working undercover as a Ranger to spy out the Comancheros’ supply line. So he could not have killed the judge’s son in Louisiana. This clears Regret’s name; he’s sworn in as a Texas Ranger and joins Jake in the undercover operation to nab the Comancheros. After travelling deep into the desert, the two men reach the Comancheros’ hideout, where Regret encounters Pilar, the women who mysteriously disappeared in Galveston; she’s the daughter of the head of Comancheros. Aware that Jake is a Ranger, Pilar decides to join him and Regret in their fight against her father, Graile(Nehemiah Persoff )- a wheelchair-bound, Confederate(?) ex-soldier who’s determined to keep the frontier forever in conflict. Jake, Regret and Pilar take Graile hostage, and sneak out of the stronghold after setting fire to the gun powder magazines. But before they can reach safety, they are attacked by Comancheros and bloodthirsty Comanche, but the Rangers ride to the rescue and repulse the attack. After saying goodbye to Regret and Pilar- who plan to leave together for Mexico, Jake rides off into the sunset.
I was surprised to see that the film begins in 1843, Louisiana. It’s rather an odd time for setting a Western. Most of the Westerns are set either during, or right after the civil war. And this period accounts for much of the historical anachronisms that dot the film. The rifles, pistols, costumes worn by the actors, and the architecture of the towns all belong to the post-civil war period. But biggest mistake is making the Comancheros’ bossman a former Confederate officer; because the Confederate States of America did not exist until the onset of the Civil War in 1861. I really don’t know how this slipped by; or was the Year 1843 added much late in post-production. The film is set in the forth year of the old Texas Republic, and as far as i know. no treaty of extradition existed between the countries at the time. Duke had just made “The Alamo”, set in the Texas of 1836, on which he was a stickler for authenticity; and he was really mad that some of the Mexican soldiers carried anachronistic firearms. So it’s incredible that so many anachronisms slipped past him. This film was partially remade a few years later as “Rio Conchos”, with Anthony Franciosa in the Stuart Whitman role and Whitman himself in Duke’s role. That film avoided all these anachronisms by situating the story just after the civil war. Why the same could not have been done for this film is a mystery to me. Couple of other stuff that rankles include the atrocious scalped-wig that Marvin wears- it’s laughably bad, but ultimately adds to Marvin’s crazy performance- and some of Duke’s hairpieces that seem to change its size from scene to scene. Also, some of the scenes shot on soundstages does not visually link together with scenes shot on location: it’s specifically felt in some scenes set in the Comancheros’ hideout, like the long dialogue scene between John Wayne and Ina Balin. Perhaps Duke had to reshoot these scenes in the studio as the scenes shot on location wasn’t good enough. But in the end, all that doesn’t matter much- nobody watches Duke’s films for history lessons or period authenticity; it’s pure entertainment that we are after, and this sixty-year-old movie plays as better entertainment than most movies made today. It’s hardly cynical, tries to reinforce ideas of right and wrong, and knows its not to be taken seriously. The same goes for the portrayal of the Native Comanche- as either dimwitted drunkards or bloody savages; it is the usual Hollywood stereotype and it’s cringe worthy, but it’s keeping in with the times the film was made and the kind of simple ‘White hat Black hat’ Western it is.
Another striking feature of the film is that it’s does not follow a classical narrative like several John Ford or other John Wayne Westerns. Films like “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers” follow one clear storyline from the beginning to the end. Here, the story is cut up into several episodes. First episode features Duke tracking down Whitman, then Whitman disappears, and Duke goes on to another mission. That’s very unlike a Duke character, because he’s always obsessed about bringing a criminal to justice, and in any other film he would have doggedly pursued Whitman. In the second episode, Lee Marvin becomes Duke’s screen-partner, and once Marvin is disposed off Whitman reenters the scene. Then Duke saves Whitman in the next episode, so the journey to Louisiana never takes place. It’s only in the final episode that the film focuses on the eponymous Comancheros and the adventures of the two heroes to take them out. But frankly, this narrative strategy does not backfire on the film- maybe it makes it much more meandering than it should be in its middle portions; and since every episode is very interesting, packed with terrific action scenes and great performances, the film chugs along nicely. There are plot elements in the film that one does not usually find in Westerns- the unconventional heroine, an unusual wheelchair-bound villain, and the theme of an undercover operation inside a secret society of criminals- but they are not fully developed, with Duke & Co. settling for the less ambitious. Both the heroine and villain, who starts out promising, are quickly generified. One element that holds the film together brilliantly is the great Elmer Bernstein’s fantastically propulsive score that never allows the film to lag. Bernstein was at the top of his game at the time- he was coming off his most iconic score for “The Magnificent Seven“- and delivers another memorable Western score here.
Now coming to the actors, the old Hollywood was still (at least partially) alive at the time, which provided an array of great character actors to fill the film with. Among them is Bob Steele (playing Pa Schofield, one of the ranchers saved in the Comanche attack and names his new-born child after Regret)), one of the great Western stars who appeared in 231 feature films in his six decade career. Others who make wonderful contributions in the film are Edgar Buchanan, Henry Daniell and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams. Lee Marvin, who shows up as the partially-scalped, deranged, Tully Crow, is a real scene-stealer. He shows up for just ten minutes, but almost manages to upstage Duke in their scenes together. He’s one moment a drunken clown, another moment an intimidating psychotic killer. This was Marvin’s first film with Duke; and so impressed was Duke with Marvin’s performance that he recommended him to John Ford for the title role of “The Man who shot Liberty Valance”- so much for the insinuations that Duke wont repeat any actor who tends to upstage him. Ford would not only cast Marvin as “Liberty Valance”, but also go on to cast him in his film after that as well, with Duke in the 1963 comedy adventure, “Donovan’s Reef”. Ina Belin is quite convincing in the unusual character(for a Western) of the cold, bold, almost emotionless Pilar, who beds, then abandons, and finally reunites with Whitman’s Regret. By the way, Pilar was the name of Duke’s wife at the time, and Belin does look a little bit like Duke’s wife; her characterization in the film seems to be a tongue-in-cheek touch added by Duke’s good friend, James Edward Grant, who wrote the film. Stuart Whitman, surprisingly, strikes up good chemistry with Duke and he’s pretty good in the action scenes, but he’s ultimately miscast. It’s not just the fact that, in star-power, star-charisma, screen presence and screen performance, he’s nowhere in the league of Duke, but he just isn’t smooth, charismatic and roguish enough to be the womanizing gambler of the story. It’s very difficult for any actor to pull off a role meant for Cary Grant anyway. This role really screams for an A-LIST star; a Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Paul Newman or maybe even Dean Martin. Since the character is of French extraction, maybe they could a gone with some hot French actors of the time, like Alain Delon or Jean-Paul Belmondo. it would have been interesting to see the ultimate American icon play off against these New-wave French kids.
As for Duke, well this is ‘John Wayne’ in his prime; before he was afflicted with the lung cancer that slowed him down a bit. Duke’s characteristic greatness with this sort of material comes through in this cantankerous, tough as nails Texas Ranger, who’s a sort of rustic, mid-nineteenth century ‘James Bond’- all that undercover work amidst a secret society of bad guys. His performance is funny and energetic. Duke also doesn’t flinch from having some fun at his own expense, repeatedly referring to the French, Regret as “Monsewer”, alluding to the illiteracy and unsophistication of a rustic Texas Ranger. In my review of “North to Alaska“, I had mentioned how much that film influenced Duke’s films for the the rest of his career. His “Jake Cutter” in this film was also influential to an extend, as far as characterization goes- while “North to Alaska” provided him with the feel-good, ‘comfort Western’ template that he will use in multiple films, this mature, fatherly role devoid of any romantic entanglements will prove to be the kind of character he will play more often for the rest of his career. After physically, mentally and financially suffering through the making of “The Alamo”, Duke really relished making this standard Western programmer- albeit on a huge scale- surrounded by friends and family. Unsurprisingly, Duke’s most touching moments in the film are the scenes he share with his children. Aissa Wayne, Duke’s 5 year old daughter, plays Joan O’Brien’s daughter in the film, and there’s a scene where Duke and Whitman visit their farm, and Duke tenderly takes Aissa into his arms. The love and affection between father and daughter is palpable. Duke’s son Patrick, who has done some 40 films- most of them with Duke- plays a young Texas ranger in the film, who gets killed at the end. The scene where Duke discovers his dead-body and then slowly covers his face with cloth is genuinely moving- one can only imagine what was going on in Duke’s mind while enacting that scene. “The Comancheros” was well reviewed and was a big hit on its release. Since Duke was the de facto director on this one, most of the credit for the film’s success should go to him. As already evidenced in “The Alamo”, Duke is a terrific action director, and with the help of Cliff Lyons, Duke has created some truly spectacular action sequences- staged on some breathtaking locations- which are the highlights of the film. Duke has borrowed some shots from his mentor, Ford’s “The Searchers”- the iconic scene in which Duke and company are riding through the valley with the Comanche riding in parallel against a horizon is ditto duplicated here by Duke (and so did Clint Eastwood in his own “The Searchers” inspired “Outlaw Josey Wales”). The back to back successes of “North to Alaska” and “The Comancheros” firmly solidified Duke’s position as Hollywood’s number one star. By this time, many of Duke’s iconic contemporaries like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable had all passed away, but Duke- then 54 years old- would soldier on for another decade and a half, and his stardom would reach legendary proportions by the time he was done.