RIO CONCHOS—–the Western genre sagged under the Brit Invasion in ’64; just a handful were released, and the only one to achieve any “what’s this?” notice and boxoffice success was the first spaghetti shootout A Fistful Of Dollars. Up-scale efforts Cheyenne Autumn, A Distant Trumpet and The Outrage were notable disappointments with both public and critics. Overlooked at the time, holstered down in the moneymaking pack at #40 for the year, this lean & mean, great-looking, cool-sounding actioner was the best of the batch, and is finally getting its due more than a half-century down the lonesome twilight trail.
A few years after the Civil War. Apaches butchered his family, reason enough for kill-bound ex-Reb ‘Lassiter’ (Richard Boone) to accept a pardon if he helps cavalry officer ‘Haven’ (Stuart Whitman) track down a cache of guns. They are rifles the Apaches will use in conjunction with some unknown benefactor of means, south of the border. Accompanying the mutually antagonistic pair are paroled rogue ‘Martinez’ (Tony Franciosa) and ‘Sgt. Franklyn’ (Jim Brown) one of Haven’s ‘Buffalo soldiers’. On the way to their ultimate confrontation with megalomaniac Confederate ‘Col. Theron Pardee’ (Edmond O’Brien), the quarreling quartet pick up an Apache warrior woman (Wende Wagner), fight grungy Mexican bandits, rough-up scurvy Anglos and skirmish with braves led by the fearsome ‘Bloodshirt’ (Rodolfo Acosta).
The cynicism-laden script by Joseph Landon (Von Ryan’s Express) and Clair Huffaker (The Comancheros, Flaming Star, The War Wagon) was very liberally lifted from Huffaker’s 1958 novel “Guns Of Rio Conchos”. The familiarity with 1961s The Comancheros (which co-starred Whitman) has to do with the idea of a few guys on a mission to infiltrate and derail a large criminal force composed of Indians, Anglos and Mexicans. A whiff of The Searchers—revenge—stirs the to-be-bitten dust as well.
Over a long career, dependable Gordon Douglas directed a number of turkeys (Harlow, Chuka, In Like Flint, Claudelle Inglish), but he was generally as good as his material, and when action called—Them!, Fort Dobbs, Yellowstone Kelly, Santiago—he delivered with flair. This is one of his best, with a gritty, no-nonsense tone and exciting set-pieces; the brief battle with the banditos led by character fave Vito Scotti (complete with groddy makeup and p.c. free accent) is a gem. *
It helps a lot to have an ace like Joseph MacDonald on camera, making everything stand out in great color; the location shooting was done in Utah around Moab, Professor Valley, Fisher Towers, Castle Valley, Arches, and Dead Horse Point and in Arizona’s Monument Valley, Vermillion Cliffs and Paiute Wilderness area.
The testosterone-emanating cast have fun with the gruff stuff. Boone, 46, had just come off back-to-back TV series (Have Gun,Will Travel, 225 episodes, 1957-63, and The Richard Boone Show, 25 episodes in ’63-64) as a good guy, and re-emerged here as a definite bad-ass, followed by scene-stealing turns in pictures like The War Lord, Hombre, The Arrangement and Big Jake. Whitman’s star seemed to be rising. Franciosa’s was cooling off into TV work; he plays it big here. It was Jim Brown’s film debut: at 27, the intense football star had a learning curve to tackle, but he certainly emanates trouble, his muscularity on display. Exotic-looking 22-year-old former model/underwater stunt double Wende Wagner has no English dialogue here, just a simmering presence: she passed away from cancer in 1997, just 55. Edmond O’Brien pulls out the gusto as the empire-imagining nemesis. The rreat ‘ker-boom!’ wrap-up will please cowboys of all stripes.
Making it all the better is Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score, kicked off with a main theme that’s equal measure lyrical, rousing and haunting, a perfect capture of the do-and-die mood that permeates the story. Someone uncorked terrific sound effects that make those action scenes pulse.
Along for the dust: Warner Anderson, Barry Kelley, Kevin Hagen, Timothy Carey (weird as ever), Marie Gomez, and Mickey Simpson. Box-office take came to $7,100,000.
* Gordon Douglas (under)plays it straight: “I have a large family to feed and it’s only occasionally that I find a story that interests me.” “Don’t try to watch all the films I’ve directed; it would turn you off movies forever.”