The Comancheros


THE COMANCHEROS , historically, were enterprising (that’s being kind) New Mexican traders, mostly Hispanic, later Anglo, who dealt with the warlike Comanches over a hundred-year period starting in the 1780s. In 1952 popular historian-journalist Paul Wellman (31 books including The Iron Mistress) wrote a novel on the subject, which was adapted for this expansive, rollicking 1961 western hit, one of this boomer boy’s favorite John Wayne movies. *

1843, Texas. Nabbing wanted duellist ‘Paul Regret’ (Stuart Whitman), Texas Ranger ‘Jake Cutter’ (Wayne) convinces the slippery but basically decent Regret to redeem himself by helping Cutter track down the hideout of the fearsome raiders pillaging the countryside. While the genial Jake deals with dangerous curs like ‘Tully Crow’ (Lee Marvin whooping it up), his dude-gambler recruit romances ‘Pilar’ (Ina Balin), the daughter of the outlaw horde’s ruthless leader (Nehemiah Persoff).


Major here has told me what your troubles are. I’ve been thinking it over and in light of my forty years experience in legal jurisprudence, I have come to the positive conclusion that there ain’t no way to do this legal and honest… but being good sensible Texans, we’ll do it illegal and dishonest!”

Blithely dispensing with accuracy regarding props, costumes & locales, the “hell, just-go-with-it” screenplay by James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker has a basket of good lines for the colorful characters to toss at each other, and a slew of energetic action sequences. The rousing fights, with some exuberant stunt work, are unlikely, but who cares? It’s a JFK-era, Old School big-scale Saturday night at the drive-in. A hefty $4,260,000 budget arranged audience-attracting ingredients that harnessed $8,600,000 domestically, #33 for the year.


It’s also the last of 178 direction credits for the legendary Hungarian tyro Michael Curtiz, who was so ill with cancer that he was unable to do much more than be his usual imperious self.  Wayne assumed directing chores, doing at least half of the film, taking no credit so as not to tarnish Curtiz (whom he didn’t cotton to—few actors did). The star, at 54, was moving into the new decade with a mind to adjusting to his age and playing it up more than working against it. He’s relaxed, in effortless command, at ease sharing the spotlight with a new breed on their way up.

Mind a suggestion friend? Trouble with you is you don’t enjoy the game for its own rewards: stimulation, relaxation, pleasant association, and interesting conversation.”—–Whitman to a drunk & lethal Marvin, who answers succinctly “Shut your mouth.”  **


Along with easing the aging Duke toward elder statesman status, the film was a boon to Whitman and Marvin. Whitman was getting a build-up from Fox, and the same year he counted coup by an Oscar nomination playing a child molester in The Mark: that critical applause along with this co-starring gig propelled him up the ladder. Marvin, plugging away since 1950, had been off the big screen for three years, toiling on TVs M Squad.   Scene-stealing here, going toe-to-toe with the world’s biggest star, cued John Ford to cast him with Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Donovan’s Reef.  Lee’s attention-grabbing work in the trio no doubt helped get him Cat Ballou, and a seat at the table with the big guns. ***


The 107 minutes kick off with a surging gust of music from Elmer Bernstein, the first of eight scoring jobs on Wayne pictures. Fresh from his triumph The Magnificent Seven, Bernstein’s unabashedly heroic main title, with Duke—outfitted for the first time in an instantly familiar get-up he’d make standard issue in his remaining westerns—backed by the vastness of the landscapes—is a classic pronouncement of archetype. The entire score is a treat; the composer actually considered it superior to the ‘Seven‘.


Handsome cinematography from the great William A. Clothier frames up awesome desert landscapes, shooting in locations around Moab, Utah and choice parcels of Arizona. It’s supposed to be Texas: the show scrambles geography to suit the script, just like it has revolvers & repeating rifles a good two decades before they were available. Pictorially, it’s a beaut.


Crusty Edgar Buchanan as ‘Judge Thaddeus Jackson Breen’ : “Most say, except for them who are unfair minded, that I have the finest legal mind in the entire southwest. So you can have faith in your lawyer, son. How much money you got?  Whitman’s Regret answers: “I don’t have any.”   The judge: “Well, I’m beginning to doubt your chances against the law. ”

michael ansara - comancheros

60s fixture Michael Ansara shows up, sleekly outfitted as a secondary villain: the way he panther-smiles as he says “Your presence here has made me very happy” always cracks me up. People who love westerns know when & why to laugh along with them: it’s part of the whole myth, the makers were in on the joke. Those who sneer and don’t catch the drift? Well, fine, that’s more punkin’ pie for me, then.

With Pat Wayne, Joan O’Brien, Bruce Cabot, Guinn Williams (“Big Boy”‘s last role), Jack Elam, Henry Daniell, Richard Devon, Bob Steele, Aissa Wayne, Gregg Palmer, Roger Mobley, Tom Hennesey (as ‘Gordo’), Leigh Snowden, John Dierkes, William Fawcett, Alan Carney.


* After the personal expense, chore and stress of The Alamo, Wayne plunged into a whirlwind of projects and shifted his screen persona a belt notch or two to suit both his age and the new decade. He was in the business—and a part of American life—for so long that several generations had/have their own identification with the big guy (if you like him; those that don’t aren’t reading this anyway). Older fans (all gone now) would recall him from 30s B-films, then the 40s actioners.  Of age in the 50s, others might cite The Quiet Man, Hondo, The High and The Mighty or The Searchers.  My conception of The Duke arose from 1959-1965, basically Rio Bravo to The Sons Of Katie Elder, and includes along with those mentioned above, North To Alaska, Hatari, McLintock!, The Longest Day  and In Harm’s Way. Those more innocent JFK summers are long gone, and soon enough they who recall them will find their own lonely trail to blaze into parts unknown. Meanwhile, “Mount up! We’re burnin’ daylight!”


** Frequent Wayne writer and drinking pal James Edward Grant helped The Alamo fall (with critics, anyway) thanks to his long-winded speechifying, but here he keeps it trim and snappy.  From author Paul Wellman, on working as a screenwriter: “Writing for Hollywood consists of trying to figure out some lunatic’s idea and then putting it into words for him.”  A quote of his on Kansas: “Someone once said that the Eastern part of Kansas is an extension of Missouri, the southern part an extension of Oklahoma, and the western part an extension of Hell.”  Wellman sold over 5,500,000 copies of his books. His brother, christened with the live-up-or-perish name Manly Wade Wellman, was a vastly prolific writer of fantasy stories.

Back to Grant, this was one of a dozen he crafted for the Duke, whose loyalty to his wordsmith extended beyond the Pyrrhic victory of their previous Mexi-Tex epic. Other vets from The Alamo here: son Pat, daughter Aissa, Joan O’Brien, Guinn Williams, John Dierkes, cameraman Clothier, art director Al Ybarra, 2nd-unit honcho Cliff Lyons and his platoon of horse-fallin’ stunt warriors.


*** Elder statesman…or older gunman?—prior to James Bond, who sent more miscreants away–for good– than John Wayne?  The thoughtful folk at the site ‘All Outta Bubble Gum’ credit the pilgrim-identifier with ventilating twenty-eight bad guys in this sagebrush saga. Man’s gotta do, when another man is due. (start your wimpnoodle handwringing after the barroom door swats you in the keister…)


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