Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Comancheros on Blu-ray (1961) ✭✭✭

Viewed within the perspective of his legendary career, 1961’s The Comancheros is a squarely second tier John Wayne vehicle. The fact that the movie was the last film ever made by the influential – and unbelievably prolific – director Michael Curtiz serves as its chief historical distinction. And even that milestone is murky, as Curtiz, reeling from the cancer that would kill him a year later, became ill during shooting. Wayne, who had established his directing credentials in 1960 with The Alamo, was left to finish the picture, largely flying by the seat of his pants. When Curtiz suggested that he and Wayne be credited as co-directors, the Duke magnanimously declined.

From our lofty, enlightened perches fifty years hence, The Comancheros can be difficult to watch. Indians are generally portrayed as brutal, subhuman savages; a fact this reviewer, an amateur scholar of Navajo culture, finds particularly offensive. Hispanic characters don’t fare much better, coming off as either shiftless wastrels or diabolic criminal masterminds. The fact that these parts are played largely by actors of Middle Eastern decent only adds insult to more insult. And of course Wayne himself is controversial, spending most of his life championing extreme right wing causes, remaining an enthusiastic supporter of both The Black List and The Vietnam War until the bitter end. If it’s any consolation, Wayne appeared to moderate at least some of his positions in later years; he attended the inauguration of Jimmy Carter and applauded Jane Fonda at an AFI event in 1978.

If one can tune out the film’s ugly socio-politics, The Comancheros can be appreciated as a robustly entertaining adventure. All the Wayne matinee formulaics are in play: spectacular scenery, laconic humor, hot but virtuous damsels, runaway buckboards and a motley assortment of scoundrels; some of whom even see the error of their ways and demonstrate their remorse through exciting heroics. Ammunition was likely a sizable budget line item, as rifles are fired with an efficient abandon; one shot often killing as many as three Indians simultaneously. Stunt actors had a field day, and earned every penny of their wages, as the art of falling off a galloping horse is demonstrated in seemingly endless variation. Whenever the film’s jaunty pace takes a bit of a breather, there’s a rough-hewn witticism or two from Wayne – his sharp comedic timing only improving with age - to propel us into the next pickle.

Essentially a buddy picture, The Comancheros details the reluctant friendship of a Texas Ranger named Jake Cutter (Wayne) and his slippery on-again, off-again prisoner, a fancy pants gambler from New Orleans called Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman). Regret, supposedly of French extraction, although we are thankfully spared any attempt at a French accent, is amusingly called “Monsewer” by Wayne – any non English culture is subject to ridicule in this picture – and the pair slowly makes their way to Austin where Regret’s extradition awaits.

The journey takes them through a region dominated by the Comanche tribe, whose aggressive, warlike practices have become more deadly due to their recent acquisition of high powered rifles from an unknown source. Wayne’s determination to stop the smuggling leads to a meandering series of mini-adventures that resemble the structure of a 1930s serial, with each exciting scrum growing in intensity and leading to a big final battle with the real evildoers, the Comancheros, a well heeled group of Hispanic capitalists all too eager to supply guns to the hostiles.

Along the way, we are treated to a carousel of well-known character actors in exactly the types of roles audiences expected of them. Lee Marvin is great fun as dodgy gunslinger Tully Crow, a man who survived a Comanche scalping and has a grotesque, scabbed over head to prove it. Marvin was able to summon deep darkness from his characters’ souls – even when he wasn’t trying to - and, on occasion, was too starkly evil for the mainstream American entertainment of his day. The antidote was to get his character inebriated, thus replacing his razor sharp edges with sloppy, comedic ones. This plot device was often used in films where Marvin was not the main heavy, and The Comancheros is no exception.

In addition, Edgar Buchannan shines as a slightly sleazy judge (imagine that!) and there’s young, skinny Jack Elam in a brief appearance as an enthusiastic redneck who’s too weird for words; a character right out of the John Ford playbook. Michael Ansara, who parlayed a commanding voice --with only one read -- into a fruitful career, plays the right hand of top baddie Nehemiah Persoff, whose cultured but slyly evil persona graced over 200 films and TV shows. Whitman’s love interest is played by Ina Balin. While not exactly a household name, her exotic beauty became a fixture on the Quinn Martin TV dramas of the 1960s and 70s.

Disc Review

Presented in CinemaScope and exciting DeLuxe color (well it wasn’t that exciting, DeLuxe simply meant the prints were made at Fox’s inhouse lab) The Comancheros looks amazingly good for a color negative of its era. The opening sequence, featuring titles in deep crimson over scenic shots of Sedona’s famous red rocks, is sharp and feels almost three dimensional with comic book style forced perspective. A sequence on a river boat features brightly colored silk gowns in saturated tones, and the transfer enhances this scene to a reasonable Technicolor facsimile. The scrumptious palette of the opening reels is toned down as the film progresses and our heroes forge deeper into the desert wilderness. DP William Clothier, a veteran with many westerns under his belt, had a magic touch with the bright desert sun, and demonstrated excellent judgment with fill light, unlike many of his contemporaries who tended to overcompensate. There are no complaints, either with the original photography or the transfer, which is very clean and rich and maintains a bright look appropriate for this rousing adventure.

The audio tracks present an interesting option. In addition to the de rigueur 5.1 remix, there’s the original 4 track featured on the release prints. While not exactly the same as quadraphonic sound – and readers of a certain age will remember Hi-Fi manufacturers attempting to foist that fad on consumers in the early 70s – 4 track was a process unique to CinemaScope; accomplished by sticking optical stripes on basically every unused speck, and I do mean speck, of the 35 mm printing stock. One such stripe was actually placed between the sprocket holes and the very edge of the substrate, and wasn’t much thicker than a human hair. However achieved, the spacious sonic effect was popular with audiences and producers, and the process remained in use for big budget films until about 1980.

Now exactly how a 5.1 system translates 4 track is beyond even this reviewer’s level of geekiness, but I did toggle back and forth a few times during the screening and I must say the 4 track sounded much more alive and punchy. Background sounds rendered as faint murmurs in 5.1 became integral parts of the proceedings in 4 track, and Elmer Bernstein’s stylishly corny heroic score seemed bigger and more lushly orchestrated. Perhaps our new technology isn’t always the advancement it’s cracked up to be.

Final Thoughts

Admiration of the fine, if at times rote, performances of a number of classic talents is the chief reason to recommend The Comancheros. Even the Duke’s aficionados concede that the film is nowhere near his best, and does little to augment their hero’s larger than life stature. But those of us who spend untold hours attempting to demystify the latest by Weerasathakul or Reygadas will likely find The Comancheros’ flashy momentum and simple minded contours a refreshing tonic. The film also delivers a chilling reminder of the prevalent thinking before the notion of “Political Correctness” grew to dominate our popular culture. And thank goodness it did.


Marcheline said...

Sorry, westerns no can do. The only film genre that I cannot stomach in the slightest. Even my all time favorite, Jimmy Stewart - I can't watch him in westerns. It's like a Michelangelo reproduced in crayon, or something.

Retro Hound said...

The Commancheros is one of our favorites. Mainly for the humor.

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