Duel at Diablo (1966), directed by Ralph Nelson, is a thrilling, action-packed Western starring James Garner in his first Big screen Western,, Sidney Poitier in his first Western and Bibi Andersson in her first American film.
There are three things that immediately strike you once you start watching Ralph Nelson’s “Duel at Diablo (1966).” First, it’s the unique opening, where, without any exposition or build up, the film throws you directly into the middle of the action: a bloodied knife cuts through a curtain showing the the film’s studio, “United Artists” credit; and the torn curtain opens out into the arid, starkly beautiful southern Utah landscape, where we see a badly burnt corpse of a cavalry scout being viewed through his binoculars by Frontier scout, Jess Remsberg (James Garner). Jess then spots a woman riding alone through the desert and being chased by two Apache riders. The second thing that strikes you is the presence of Swedish actress, Bibi Andersson- she is the woman riding through the desert; It’s truly surprising to see Andersson, who is most famous for her very intimate Ingmar Bergman films, in this Western landscape. This is Andersson’s first American film and only she knows why she chose to make her Hollywood debut with a Western; maybe because Europeans are crazy about Westerns, as it is the indigenous American film genre. In the film, Andersson is playing Ellen Grange, a white woman captured by the Apaches and forced to live with them. In this opening scene, we see Jess saving Ellen from her Apache pursuers; and taking her to the safety of nearby town of Fort Creel. Aside: More interesting casting choices lie ahead, as you will soon see: Sidney Poitier turns up as the former officer turned gambler\broncobuster, and Bill Travers is there as a stoic Cavalry lieutenant. The third striking aspect of the scene is the guitar-driven, rhythmic and moody musical score by Neal Hefti that’s rather unconventional for a Western, nevertheless works very effectively for the sequence (and the film). I love these action-packed, middle-of the-action openings, where action defines plot and characters; and we gradually realize what’s going on, who these characters are, and why are they fighting each other, rather than everything set up for us to follow through clearly. We also get some bravura camerawork – an unbroken helicopter shot follows Jess and Ellen as they make their getaway from the Apaches, superb editing- the title\credit sequence is a well cut montage showing their excruciating journey from the desert wilderness into civilization, and some well staged, suspenseful action sequences, which is going to be a hallmark of this film.
It’s after reaching Fort Creel that we realize that Ellen has a businessman husband, Willard Grange (Dennis Weaver) who’s not very happy to see her back. About two years ago, Ellen was kidnapped by Apaches, but the soldiers managed to rescue her. She then voluntarily returned to the Apaches to live with the son of the chief, Chata (Michael Hoyt). Now she is back again and her husband treats her harshly; he would have liked her to kill herself rather than being violated by the Apache. After being badly treated by her husband and the townsfolk (some of them tries to rape her and she is once again saved by Jess), Ellen rides off again back to the Apache camp. Meanwhile, Jess is searching for the murderer of his Comanche wife; and he is determined to avenge her by finding the unknown white man who profited from her death by selling her scalp. Jess has learnt from his friend, Lt. Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers), that town marshal at Fort Concho has information about Jess’s murdered wife. Lieut. Scotty is taking an Army cavalry unit to Fort Concho next morning, and Jess agrees to act as scout. At Creel, Jess also runs into Former trooper, Toller (Poitier) , who is now planning to open a gambling house. To raise money for the new business, Toller is into breaking horses for the cavalry; but since he is yet to complete the contract, he is ordered to ride with the troops to Concho and finish off breaking the horses on the way- if he wants the rest of his money. Apart from Toller, Willard Grange is also accompanying the troops tp Fort Concho.
Jess rides on ahead of the troops and manages to locate Ellen; he is surprised to find out that Ellen has a half-breed child with the renegade Apache Chief’s son (who is now dead) and the child is the reason why she keeps returning back to the Apache. Jess rescues Ellen and her child and rides off with them to join up with the expedition to Fort Concho. However, the army supply wagons have been ambushed by Chata and his warriors, with serious losses of men, food and water. Scotty is seriously wounded, but is able to function. The men also look to Toller for leadership. Using the infant (Chata’s grandchild) as a shield, Jess and Ellen get through the Apache attackers encircling the besieged cavalry force. Scotty devises a plan to break out of their position and take refuge in Diablo Canyon, where there is water and better cover. But since they would be boxed in the canyon, they will require immediate army support, as the Apache are sure to lay siege to the canyon. So, it is decided that Scotty will lead his troops during the night to the Diablo Canyon, while Jess will ride ahead to Fort Concho and return with a relief force that will help them fight off the Apache. The plan succeeds. The besieged unit is able to break out and hole up in the canyon, and Jess, though his horse dies and he is parched from thirst, is able to kill his pursuers and get to fort Concho- where he finds out that his wife’s killer is Willard Grange; Grange had raped and killed Jess’ wife as retaliation for Apaches abducting Ellen. Jess then races back to the canyon, arriving with the army reinforcements just in time to save the last four survivors, including Toller, Ellen Grange and Troopers Nyles and Casey. Jess searches for Willard in the canyon , only to find him barely alive after being tortured by the Apache; Jess helps him to die. The film ends with Chata and his renegades being rounded up and returned to reservation, while Toller stands by the graves of the dead soldiers, including Scotty.
“Duel at Diablo” is an interesting Western that came at a time when the the appeal of the traditional Western was waning and the revisionist Western was slowly making its mark. Though this film was made before the release of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns in America , the film does have the more gritty, violent tone of those Euro-Westerns. The film broadly has the very traditional ‘Cavalry Vs Indians’ theme, but within this template, the film manages to make strong social commentary regarding race relations, mistreatment of the Natives, and regarding the endless cycle of violence that is unleashed due to irreconcilable differences between two civilizations. But it must be said that the social commentary or the ‘messaging’ is not the primary intend of the film; the film strives to be primarily a thrilling action-packed Western adventure and the meditation on the more prickly themes are done more subtly and even casually. So, this might give the feeling that the film is lacking in depth and it’s rather too shy to tackle the serious issues head-on, but it also saves the film from being too preachy and simplistic as far as its treatment of Native tribes are concerned. We see that there are good and bad people on both sides, and the two main protagonists in the film, Jess and Ellen, are characters who straddle both worlds, with very tragic results. But to avoid too much complications, we never see either Jess or Ellen with their native better halves- Jess’ wife and Ellen’s Apache husband are (conveniently) dead before the story begins. Also, while the Apaches may be cruel in their treatment of white men and they maybe the chief instigators of violent attacks, it is clear that this is only because they have been oppressed to the point where they have no other resort. They are forced to come out of the reservations because the living conditions there are terrible; and once they are on the warpath, their only mission is to kill and torture as many white men as they can, as they are the reason for their miserable existence. Hence, the battles depicted in the film goes beyond the simplistic good guys vs Bad guys theme and, by the end, acquires a nihilistic dimension where nobody wins.
The most intriguing aspect of the film is the casting of Sidney Poitier as a kind of smooth, charming African-American Clark Gable- in his three-piece suits and his polished, businessman like attitude. The race of Poitier’s Toller is never brought up anywhere in the film; and it’s rather surprising to see a black man leading a bunch of white troops in their fight against red men. One gets the feeling that the role was originally written for a white actor and it was cast with Poitier when he he became available to do the film at the last minute- hence they didn’t have time to rewrite the role, or maybe this was another sly subversive tactic adopted by director, Ralph Nelson, with regards to the depiction of race in the film. This was also a the time when the Civil rights movement was at its peak, so having a black actor in the lead of the film, with his race being never explicitly evoked maybe be by design. Poitier had already made “Lilies of the Field” for director, Nelson, for which Poitier won an Oscar. So, I guess, Poitier and Nelson liked working with each other. Of course, Poitier is not given any romantic interest, so some things just don’t change. One of the greatest pleasures of the film is seeing Poitier in action- he is really good at riding horses and shooting guns and makes for one dandy cowboy; very athletic and energetic. James Garner, who till then was more famous for his comic “Maverick” persona gets to play an angst-ridden, hardboiled character here, and he is really good at it. Garner plays an archetypal Western hero that we will get to see in a lot of ’60s and ’70s Westerns: a white man whose sympathies lies with the natives, but who still work for the Whites. The romance that develops between Garner and Andersson’s Ellen is also not the usual love story we find in a Western, because Ellen is a tortured soul exploited by both sides in the conflict. Garner would go on to play an even more cold-blooded Western hero in his next film: as the vengeful Wyatt Earp in John Sturges’ fantastic Tombstone-set “Hour of the Gun.” Dennis Weaver, who up to that time was mainly known as a simple good guy in TV’s Gunsmoke, plays the part of a Ellen’s weak-willed husband, who is basically the villain of the piece. Weaver is really good, bringing nuances to a character who alternatively loves and loathes his wife.
Ralph Nelson is neither John Ford nor Sam Peckinpah when it comes to directorial artistry with regards to the Western genre, but he brings a workmanlike professionalism to the execution of this film. Nelson’s films range from either being very sentimental or brutally unsentimental, and I think “Duel at Diablo,” which is quite an unsentimental and brutally violent take on the Cavalry Vs Natives theme, is his best film. Nelson is more famous for “Soldier Blue” that he made after this film; and which was the first of the truly revisionist American Westerns that showed the massacre of Natives by the American army. I find “Soldier Blue” to be a very clumsy film; and I find it very hard to sit through that one, despite its noble intentions. This film may shy away from fully committing to its social consciousness, but it definitely delivers on the cinematic front. This film is above all a terrific Action picture, where the classic tools of cinema like photography, editing, sound design and judicious use of locations and placement of actors are used to build up suspense and then stage rousing action sequences. Apart from the terrific opening sequence, the scene where the renegade Apaches ambush the cavalry is a true highlight of the film. The scene builds momentum very slowly, with Poitier’s Toller riding ahead to detect the presence of the Apaches; and for a moment there everything looks peaceful, but then the attack comes and its ferocious in its intensity and violence. The scene were Jess and Ellen, using the half-breed infant as a shield, cuts through Apache lines and reach the army camp is also well choreographed. Suffice to say that there is hardly any boring moment in the film, with the action set pieces coming one after another. The film also goes deeply into the various military tactics adopted by both sides, and we get a good idea how each side is progressing in a battle. The climactic sequences inside the Diablo canyon, where the Apaches slowly gain upper hand by systematically cutting down the soldiers, is also very suspenseful and well staged. The southern Utah locations are strikingly captured by photographer, Charles Wheeler, who is very successful in conveying the majestic beauty and the harshness of the landscape. We feel the heat, the thirst and the fatigue of the men\horses moving through this unforgiving landscape. All in all, “Duel at Diablo” is a very entertaining and visually arresting Western with a great cast.