The Treasure of Pancho Villa

trpanvilposThe western genre loves to revisit some historical eras and periods over and over. One of my favorites? The Mexican Revolution where it seems via the movies that countless American cowboys, bandits and gunfighters rode south to join the fighting. Released in 1954, Vera Cruz was ahead of its time in that portrayal of Americans involved in the fighting. Just a year later, 1955’s The Treasure of Pancho Villa tackled similar topics with a similar story. It’s not as good, but it’s still an enjoyable watch.

It’s 1915 in Mexico and the Revolution is raging. An American mercenary working for whoever pays him, Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) is sick of his chosen profession and looking for one last job that will allow him to retire. He finds that job — potentially — through an old friend, Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland), an officer in Pancho Villa‘s army. An immense shipment of gold is being shipped via train and Castro knows when and where. With a small company of revolutionaries, Castro and Bryan pull off a successful robbery but now comes the hard part. They’ve got to transport the gold via mule train to safety and with the Mexican army chasing after them. Can they? Can they avoid treachery among their ranks?

Following in the footsteps of the previous year’s Vera Cruz, ‘Treasure’ is a lot of fun. It had been years since I’d seen it, but once it popped up on Turner Classic Movie’s schedule, I had to set a recording on the old DVR. Too often 1950’s westerns are either too polished and clean or too much like a soap opera with big EMOTIONS and FEELS! ‘Treasure’ goes for more action, more betrayals, more cynicism, and overall, just a much darker story. Like Vera Cruz, it reflects more where the western genre will go than where it came from. These are stories that seem perfectly fitted to the spaghetti western and all the crazy violence and unhinged bandits and in-your-face violence. A fun, little B-western from director George Sherman.

Stepping in for Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, we get Rory Calhoun and Gilbert Roland. Neither actor was a huge star, but they’re perfectly cast as quasi-partners who don’t quite trust the other one. Their chemistry is easy-going and full of snappy dialogue, two tough guys who can always get the job done, however nasty. Calhoun played roles like this with ease, anti-heroes who were not always sure of their intentions. He also lugs around a Lewis gun — dubbed the Cucaracha — as his weapon of choice too, another spaghetti western precursor. Roland gets to ham it up some as Castro in bandito-mode, bandoleers across his chest, well-kept mustache, leather chaps, stylish hat and always smooth, always suave mentality. Nothing rattles this guy.

There’s not much of a cast here with Calhoun and Roland dominating the screen (that’s a good thing). The biggest weakness here is Shelley Winters as the daughter of an American miner forced to travel with Castro’s gold train. A schoolteacher, she talks a ton with Calhoun’s Bryan about principles, ideologies and motivations for fighting in the Revolution in scenes that lack any real punch and slow things down in a big way. Joseph Calleia is very solid as Pablo Morales, the mule driver who’s got some greedy plans for the gold if he gets a chance. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos has a small uncredited part as a representative of Pancho Villa working with Bryan.

I don’t know if my memory played tricks on me or what, but I remembered liking the movie a lot more than I did this time. A tad slow in portions in a 93-minute movie that should pop a little more. The action when it’s there is pretty solid, especially the train robbery and the finale with a sandbag fort of gold coins helping to hold off an advancing company of cavalry. Most of the movie is an extended chase, but it doesn’t always have a ton of energy.

Still a fun western but not quite as fun as I last remembered. Plenty to recommend though. Some great location shooting in Mexico add a whole layer to the story, a great feeling of realism as we watch things develop. We’re watching a story happen on the land it probably did happen so that’s pretty cool! Give it a shot. Not a classic but very entertaining.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955): ** 1/2 /****

The Hunting Party (1971)

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The history of the western genre took quite a turn in the late 1960’s with the growing popularity of the spaghetti western. Sam Peckinpah took things one step further with his classic, extremely violent western, 1969’s The Wild Bunch, setting the genre on its way to a revisionist decade that looked at the American west with a more honest, cynical eye. Then, there’s 1971’s The Hunting Party, a western that defies descriptions or labels. Brace yourself for this one.

A cattle baron with few if any equals, Brandt Ruger (Gene Hackman) is leaving his ranch to go on a two-week hunting trip with four wealthy friends of his. His wife, Melissa (Candice Bergen), will be left behind at the ranch, but that changes in a flash. Not long after Brandt leaves on a luxurious train, Melissa is kidnapped by an infamous outlaw, Frank Calder (Oliver Reed), and his gang of 20-plus bandits. She desperately tries to escape time and time again, but Calder is always there to stop her, not to mention holding his men off from raping her. It’s down the trail that Brandt receives the news of his wife’s kidnapping. He has a plan, an altered hunting trip. Outfitting his friends with newly-fitted telescopic rifles, Brandt intends to ┬áhunt the gang down one-by-one from a distance. Safe, right? What about his intentions with his wife?

Well, I’m usually not one to struggle with describing a western. I can typically find something redeeming about any western from a big epic to a low-budget B-movie. This 1971 western from director Don Medford is surreal at times, horrifically violent, cynical, downbeat, masochistic, slow-moving, uncomfortable and a whole lot of other adjectives I’d use if I could just find my thesaurus. It isn’t a good western or one I particularly enjoyed (even a little), but I’ll give credit where it is due. This is a ballsy western. It’s fascinating to watch, albeit in incredibly dark fashion. Recommended for die-hard western fans only, but my goodness, what a movie.

One of the biggest changes to hit the western in the 1960’s was the farewell to traditional good guy vs. bad guy stories. More anti-heroes came along, gunfighters and cowboys who found themselves somewhere in between. By the 70’s though, even anti-heroes were used less and less. Here in ‘Hunting’? There’s NOTHING but bad guys. No character is even remotely sympathetic, much less likable. Reed’s Calder oddly enough becomes the most sympathetic character (however little that sympathy is) only because everyone around him is so despicable. You’re actually rooting for no one. Not one character! The story gives no reason to, and even Bergen’s Melissa makes some inexplicable decisions, seemingly for the sake of the story moving along.

The cast certainly helps keep things interesting through the gory violence, masochistic tendencies and slow-moving story (winning trio, huh?). Reed’s Calder is a fascinating character, an outlaw who kidnaps a woman he thinks is a schoolteacher because he’d like to learn to read. As his gang is picked off from long range, he begins to unravel. He’s helpless, a pawn in someone’s rifle sights. A moody, physical part, one Reed handles nicely. Hackman’s Brandt becomes the villain, a man rich with everything in life who thinks only of himself, of his pride, of his reputation. He’s not worried about his wife’s well-being but instead how the kidnapping and repercussion will make him look. Bergen throws herself into the mix, but the script does her no favors in the process. Her actions are odd to inexplicable depending on the scene.

Western fans won’t be disappointed in the supporting cast backing up our lead trio. Calder’s gang includes Mitchell Ryan as Frank’s right-hand man, Doc, L.Q. Jones, William Watson, Rayford Barnes, and Richard Adams. For the most part, the gang is nameless fodder for Brandt’s hunting party. Brandt’s friends and fellow riflemen include Simon Oakland, G.D. Spradlin, Ronald Howard and Bernard Kay.

It’s not that ‘Hunting’ is one of the most violent westerns I’ve ever seen. It’s that it seems to revel in its violence. It has echoes of a snuff film, of an exploitation film, of graphic violence meant solely to shock. The opening scene shows a cow’s throat being graphically cut. No CGI. It happened. Once Brandt and Co. go on the hunt, it’s a series of long-range shooting with heavy-caliber bullets tearing men apart. Head shots and body shots and squibs galore with blood and rain matter all over the screen. In The Wild Bunch, the violence was on par with what we see here, but it made an emotional impact. That’s not so here. ‘Hunting’ wants to push the boundaries and keep on pushing for the sake of doing it. There’s no end-game in sight. The Missouri Breaks would use a similar storyline with the capability of long-range rifles five years later.

Unfortunately, that feels like the whole point of the movie. Brandt rapes Melissa in their opening scene and later tortures a prostitute by burning her with a lit cigar. Calder’s men want nothing more than to have their way with Melissa. Calder himself ends up raping her instead. Pleasant, right? Things never let up in a western that runs about 110 minutes. It’s exhausting and because there’s no real connection — other than wishing horrible things upon certain characters — with characters, the story moves at a slow, deliberate pace. So much negative in a film that with some tweaks (rather aggressive tweaks I guess) could have been infinitely better. Similar storylines have been tackled in The Professionals, Big Jake, The Last Outlaw, The Naked Spur and many others.

Some positives? Sure, there’s a few. ‘Hunting’ was filmed on-location in Spain with countless familiar backdrops from spaghetti westerns dotting the scenery. It’s a dreary, dusty and sweaty world but the visual backdrops can be beautiful with a variety of terrain from sandy deserts to a desert oasis to tree-capped mountains. Also, Riz Ortolani‘s score is haunting in a good way in helping bring the slow-moving story to life. Listen to the main theme HERE.

I can’t outright recommend this 1971 western because it simply isn’t very good, but as I mentioned, it is horrifying and fascinating throughout. The solid cast, the location shooting and a memorable soundtrack ever so slightly outweigh the immense negatives in this horrifically morbid revisionist western.

The Hunting Party (1971): ** 1/2 /****