Blue (1968)

Blue 1968I do my detective work when it comes to tracking down difficult to find westerns. It takes some work to be a fan! Typically Encore Westerns shows pretty familiar westerns, but they cover their bases with American and spaghetti westerns, older and newer, well-known and hidden gems, not to mention the TV shows they air. It’s rare though I find one I had no prior knowledge of, like 1968’s Blue.

 

In the border country along the Rio Grande River, a Mexican bandit, Ortega (Ricardo Montalban), leads a gang of 30 fellow outlaws who rob, pillage and kill. Among his men is a white man, Azul (Terence Stamp), who is accepted by the others and holds quite a reputation for his ability with a gun. Ortega is tiring of doing the same things over and over again and decides to lead a raid across the river into Mexico. It is a huge success, but a costly one. Azul (Spanish for Blue) is badly wounded in the raid. He is taken in by a young woman, Joanne (Joanna Pettet), and her father, a doctor, Doc Morton (Karl Malden), who nurses him back to health. Now Blue is left somewhere in between. Is he meant to stay and farm with the Mortons or returns to Mexico and his adopted father, Ortega? That’s a decision that is left up to Blue.

 

What an interesting — if flawed — western. Judging by the 1968 release date, the cast, and the crew, I figured I was getting a Euro/American cross-western with touches of a spaghetti western. Was I ever wrong! Instead, we get an artsy, almost literary western that belongs in a category all to itself. While there are touches of other westerns, ‘Blue’ is a flick content to march to its own drum. From director Silvio Narizzano, it is typical of the times with no clear-cut good guys and bad guys, no black and white but instead a whole lot of gray in the middle. Part Greek mythology, part romance, part western, it is quite the eclectic mix.

Name an unlikely lead for a western. Did you name Terence Stamp? You win! The 30-year old British actor is an odd choice to play Blue to say the least. It’s a mixed bag in the end. He brings some serious presence to the role as the quiet, intense and man of few words outlaw. His Cockney accent peeks through here and there — unless the character is supposed to be English?!? — and he seems less than comfortable with 1850s weaponry, but he brings a charmed and a doomed edge to the character. The backstory of how he ends up with Ortega actually lives up to the wait. Nothing too crazy, but effective as we see Blue tearing himself apart on what to do and where to go.

The rest of the cast holds their own too. Pettet plays well off Stamp and makes a strong female character in the process, a rarity in westerns. Their chemistry is believable and you’re rooting for them. Malden is a quiet, casual scene-stealer as Doc Morton, Joanne’s Dad. Some of the high points of the movie feature the father-daughter dialogue back and forth, neither one letting the other get the upper hand. Montalban is underused but highly effective as Ortega, the aging bandit at the head of an army of bandits, many of them his sons from countless sexual encounters with different women. Definitely an interesting choice there.

 

Not much else in terms of recognizable faces, but also look for Joe De Santis as Carlos, Ortega’s older brother who still rides with him, and Anthony Costello as Jess, a suitor of Joanne’s and a rival to Blue for her affections.

 

Pretty horrifically ripped by critics at the time, ‘Blue’ has generally been forgotten in the years since. I happened to enjoy it. Sure, it’s a tad slow-paced at times in the middle. The love story is slightly overdone and forced at others. But through it all, there is a charm I’m struggling to express. It is a beautiful-looking final product. Filmed on-location in the wilds of Utah, we get stunning shots of mountains and prairies and flowing rivers, including some familiar locations for John Ford movies. If you hate the story itself, the visual alone might keep you interested. I similarly enjoyed the underplayed score from Manos Hatzidakis. Check out the opening credits HERE. It is definitely more of an artistic western, not a down and dirty shoot ’em up. Lots of appeal though.

 

There were portions I wish there was more of. I loved the visual look of Ortega’s gang, popping with color as his bandit sons march into battle like a cavalry company. What’s the backstory here? The story takes place in the 1850’s, the clues hinting that Ortega fought with the Mexican Army during the Texas War for Independence. The finale itself packs a wallop too of action during a bloody river battle. Quite an ending overall, including a beautiful final shot. Flawed? For sure, but a lot of positives in a highly unique western.

Blue (1968): ***/****

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone

go_kill_everybody_and_come_back_aloneThough he starred in over 50 films, headlined a couple lesser-known TV series and was even a pro baseball player, Chuck Connors will always be remembered as TV’s The Rifleman, an iconic role and one of the great TV western heroes. By the late 1960’s though, Connors went the route that many American stars did and headed to Europe for the spaghetti western craze. He starred in an entertaining Dirty Dozen-esque knockoff with one of the coolest movie titles ever, 1968’s Kill Them All and Come Back Alone.

During the Civil War as fighting rages in Texas, a gunfighter/outlaw, Clyde McKay (Connors), is enlisted by Confederate forces for a dangerous mission. The Union army is sitting on a huge gold shipment at a well-guarded outpost in the mountains. The gold is actually hidden among bundles of dynamite, making a potential robbery even more dangerous. McKay recruits five other men — killers, cutthroats and thieves — to aid in the mission…destroy the gold at all costs. With a Confederate intelligence officer (Frank Wolf) along for the ride, McKay and his crew ride out into the desert. The thought persists though…why destroy the gold when you could just as easily steal it?

The name Enzo G. Castellari might not be synonymous with other great spaghetti western directors, notably the two Sergios, Leone and Corbucci. Castellari was still a young director in 1968 when he helmed this action-heavy western. Over the next 10-plus years, he would direct some high quality action flicks that were almost always crowd pleasers. There’s nothing much to this 1968 effort, just 96 minutes of crazy action, fun/cool characters and some twists, turns and betrayals along the way. Nothing classic but highly enjoyable and definitely a fun watch.

The formula here is a familiar one. Just a year earlier, The Dirty Dozen was released, the story of 12 convict commandos working together on a suicide mission. Countless knock-offs and reboots followed, both war movies and in westerns. The spaghetti western genre alone went back to the well several times, including A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die and The Five Man Army. There isn’t much in the way of star power here or even much character exposition (as in any), and no time wasted with anything but the streamlined action-heavy theatrics. Introduce the team, introduce the mission, let the fireworks begin. Easy-peasy, right?!?

Starring in his first spaghetti western, a very thin, vvvvery tan Chuck Connors is McKay, the intrepid leader of our suicide squad. Backstory? Nah! Connors is cool and looks to be having a ball. It is cool seeing him playing a pretty nasty character, especially relative to squeaky-clean Lucas McCain. Now we need some specialists to help! There’s Wolf as the suspicious Captain Lynch, then Hoagy (Franco Citti), a quick-handed killer with pistol or a unique rope garrote, Deker (Leo Anchoriz), a specialist with dynamite and an 1860’s dynamite launcher, Blade (Giovanni Cianfriglia), a half-Indian, half-Mexican knife expert, the Kid (Alberto Dell’Acqua), a steely-eyed killer, and Bogard (Hercules Cortes), the brutish strongman. A good team, star power be damned.

I was surprised when the main heist takes place just 45 minutes into the story. The attack on the mountain fortress is a doozy of gunfire, explosions and acrobatic death stunts. Our squad hits everything while an entire garrison of Union soldiers can’t even nick them. They also literally drop their weapons and charge at them for a good, old-fashioned fistfight instead. Noble, right? It’s big, overdone and dumb fun though. The last 45 minutes revolve more around some twists and betrayals that do slow the story down a touch. Castellari knows how to string together some action though. Criticize any number of things here, but the action is fun from beginning to end.

Turn your brain off and enjoy this one. Some great looking locations in Spain, a fun musical score, and action popping at the seams throughout. I watched it on Youtube HERE if you’re interested. Definitely worth a watch, especially for spaghetti western fans.

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968): ** 1/2 /****

The Train Robbers

poster_-_train_robbers2c_the_28197329_01In the later years of his career, John Wayne stuck with the genre that made him a star. Sure, there were some Dirty Harry-esque excursions into the rogue cop genre, but the Duke stuck with the western. The efforts weren’t classics, but they were always entertaining. Case in point, 1973’s The Train Robbers, flaws and all.

A train pulls into the tiny, isolated town of Liberty, Texas. Two passengers get off the train, an aging cowboy named Lane (Wayne) and a pretty young widow, Mrs. Lowe (Ann-Margret). Lane has been hired by Mrs. Lowe to recover $500,000 in gold hidden somewhere in Mexico. Mrs. Lowe’s recently deceased husband is the only person who knows where the gold is, and he happened to tell her before he died. Unfortunately, several members of his old gang also would like to get their hands on the long-hidden gold, and they’ve hired a small army of gunmen to help them. With two old friends, Grady (Rod Taylor) and Jesse (Ben Johnson), along with three other gunmen, Lane and Mrs. Lowe ride into Mexico after the gold. Can they find the gold? More importantly, can they get out alive?

This western was a favorite of mine growing up. My Grandma recorded it off WGN, and I’d watch it whenever me and my sister had weekend sleepovers at her house. Does it hold up so many years later? Sorta. It’s still entertaining, but there are some major flaws. I wonder if it’d even be remembered if John Wayne wasn’t out front leading the way. From director Burt Kennedy, ‘Train’ clocks in at a swift 92-minutes (more on that later). It’s unlike just about any other Wayne venture. Is that good or bad? I guess that depends on how big a John Wayne you are.

You watch this movie because of John Wayne. It’s a familiar part for him, the resolute, capable gunman/cowboy, albeit one who’s getting up there in years. This is a performance he could do in his sleep, but because he’s the Duke, you can’t help but like him. Kennedy’s script provides him with some great one-liners — both comedic and dramatic — and he carries the movie with that easy-going, likable charm. His chemistry with Taylor and Johnson is impeccable, especially as we learn about their history dating back to the Civil War. There are issues with the story and pacing, but the quieter moments among our heroic lead trio and the lovely Ann-Margret always manage to bring it back together.

Here’s the best way I can critique ‘Train’ without completely ripping it to pieces. In writing the screenplay, Kennedy had an idea for the quiet, windy opening (a la Once Upon a Time in the West), a shootout over the gold at the halfway point, and a final shootout for all the marbles back at Liberty. In between? Filler, and lots of it. I would wager 20-25 full minutes are just shots of Wayne, Margret and the crew riding across Mexico. I’m not exaggerating either. The only reason that isn’t a deal-breaker is the location shooting in Mexico (similar locations as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, Chisum, Big Jake), and a memorable, whistle-worthy score from composer Dominic Frontiere. ¬†Give it a listen HERE.

It just feels like something is missing. The bad guys are nothing more than a faceless gang of riders on the horizon. We never get a name or even hear them speak. Budget issues? An intentional choice? There was some pretty good potential with the entire story, the cast and the execution. It just feels like there’s something missing. Also look for Christopher George, Bobby Vinton and stuntman Jerry Gatlin as the rest of Lane’s crew. George has some good scenes with the lead trio and more than holds his own.

And then there’s the finale. It’s rare you can say a western had a legitimately good twist, but ‘Train’ has it courtesy of Ricardo Montalban. Until the end, he’s just a presence lingering on the trail with our train robbers. He’s got a secret though, one that provides a great ending, especially a quick scene between Taylor and Johnson and a perfect final line(s). If it’s slow going getting there, know that it’s worth it in the end. A flawed final product, a bit of a mixed bag, but still a John Wayne flick worth watching.

The Train Robbers (1973): ***/****

Hombre

hombre_28film29Ask most western fans what their favorite Paul Newman western is, and I’d say 9 times out of 10, you’d get “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” back. I’d say it. It’s a classic and deserves its status. Let’s not forget about 1967’s Hombre though, an underrated gem featuring one of Newman’s all-time best performances.

It’s the late 1800’s in the Arizona territory. John Russell (Newman) is a white man who was kidnapped at a young age by Apaches and raised as one of their own. Now a grown man, he associates more with the Apaches than white people. His adopted father though has passed away, leaving him a boarding house to decide what to do with. Russell sells it for a string of horses and takes a stagecoach to finish the deal. On-board, he finds his presence is less than welcome by his fellow passengers. The irony? One of the passengers intends to rob the others on the trail, and John’s skillset as a capable fighter and more than capable frontiersman will be more necessary than ever.

Point of conversation: This is a difficult movie to write a plot synopsis for. I don’t want to give too much away because in a somewhat messaged-based story, there are some good twists and turns along the way. It has some touches of Stagecoach, but in a more brutal, honest way. Hey, it was 1967 as opposed to 1939. Times had a’ changed!

From director Martin Ritt, ‘Hombre’ is one of the first — and best — revisionist westerns that began to look at the American west in a more honest fashion. They weren’t as white-washed as some 1950’s efforts and weren’t as flashy or exaggerated as spaghetti westerns. ‘Hombre’ takes the side of the Apache tribe who by the late 1800s was mostly in poorly-run reservations. We hear more about their plight, especially in quick, understated dialogue, and through one of several twists revealed about halfway through the movie. The bad guys then? Well, technically, everyone. Let’s cut to the chase though. The white folks don’t come off smelling like roses. It’s a fascinating story because it is so different from so many other genre entries.

Now for that Paul Newman fella. Playing John Russell, Newman steals this scene, seemingly without breaking a sweat. His dialogue is minimal, and when he does speak, he gets his message across in short, direct lines. His physical mannerisms are striking, his movements similarly minimalist. It’s just a fascinating character. Russell has chosen basically to live as an Apache warrior, leaving his white roots behind. He feels more at home with the Apaches and their way of life. In his fellow white passengers, he sees prejudice, racism, brutality, and maybe in most aggravating fashion, assumptions based on nothing but rumors. It’s only too perfect that these individuals come to depend on Russell for their very survival.

‘Hombre’ is interesting for a whole lot of reasons, but the biggest? Even with Newman’s Russell, there isn’t really a single sympathetic character in sight. You come to appreciate Russell’s personality and general intention, but sympathetic? Nope. As for the other passengers, look for Jessie (Diane Cilento), an out of work boarding house owner, Fredric March as Favor, the Indian agent, Barbara Rush as his wife, Richard Boone as the surly Cicero Grimes, Martin Balsam as Mendez, the stagecoach driver, and Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye as young married couple working through some issues. Cilento is especially good, the conscious of the movie and a conversational counter to Russell as their situation gets ever more dangerous.

Who else to look for? Keep an eye out for western regulars Frank Silvera, Cameron Mitchell, Val Avery and a pre-All My Children David Canary. Silvera is also a scene-stealer as an unnamed Mexican bandit. His scenes with Newman crackle.

Clocking in at 111 minutes, ‘Hombre’ isn’t fast-paced or action-packed. It is more of a slow burn full of tension, betrayal and some surprises along the way. Composer David Rose’s score isn’t big and booming, mostly relying instead on one memorable, quiet theme. Filmed on location in Arizona, it is a stunner of a flick. The desert and its barren qualities end up being a key additional character.

It all builds to one of the more startling endings I’ve seen in a western. Sticking with its realistic, downbeat tone, the finale features one of the more realistic shootouts I’ve ever seen in a western. Newman owns the last scenes, spewing one-liners with a bite. The movie is full of quick, snappy and biting dialogue, and what would you expect from a screenplay based off an Elmore Leonard novel? I guess I forgot to mention that earlier! Any-hoo, so much to recommend here. I liked this western more on my recent viewing than I ever have before. A must-see for western fans.

Hombre (1967): *** 1/2 /****

The Last Sunset

the_last_sunset_-_film_posterA Hollywood legend, Kirk Douglas wasn’t one to follow the beaten path during his career. He marched to his own drums, sticking to his beliefs and doing what he wanted, not what Hollywood necessarily wanted. Even though writer Dalton Trumbo had been blacklisted, Douglas chose Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus in 1960. It started a streak of three movies where the duo worked together, continuing next a year later with 1961’s The Last Sunset.

Riding deep into the Mexican countryside, Bren O’Malley (Douglas), a gambler and gunfighter, is on the run, but he knows where he’s going. He rides to an isolated ranch where he finds a beautiful woman, Belle (Dorothy Malone), from his past. He fully intends to get back together with her…but she’s married. O’Malley isn’t alone though. A sheriff, Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), is on his trail for a murder he’s suspected of. Stribling finally catches up with O’Malley, but the duo make an unlikely deal. Belle’s husband (Joseph Cotten) is driving a herd of cattle north to Texas. For vastly different reasons — Bren wants Belle, Dana wants justice — both men agree to help drive the herd north, their confrontation awaiting at the end of the trail. Bandits, killers, Indians and betrayals may have something to say about that.

What an odd, interesting, flawed western from director Robert Aldrich. I saw ‘Sunset’ for the last time six or seven years ago, revisiting it recently. It’s fascinating. It is a true adult western, avoiding the soap opera tendencies of so many 1950’s westerns while also avoiding going full-on dark, revisionist westerns that became prevalent late in the 1960’s and into the 1970’s. It manages to tread the fine line in between, a bit of a loner in the western genre.

Let’s talk nuts and bolts first. ‘Sunset’ is a visual stunner, filmed on-location in Mexico in the vein of Vera Cruz and The Wonderful Country. You feel like you’re there riding north with the herd through the jagged rock-covered mountains and dusty, sand-swept trails. The musical score is understated and has some cool, memorable notes here and there. Aldrich mixes it all together, using some incredibly interesting camera angles. A final shootout is clearly an inspiration for future spaghetti westerns. The visual look pulls you in from the start. As the story proves, this isn’t your typical western. The camerawork and film techniques are just the start.

When I say a ‘true adult western,’ I’m not saying pornographic. I mean adult issues, no-holds barred, no joking around. There is no comic relief, just major personal issues, history and hidden agendas anywhere and everywhere. Its main proponent? The unlikeliest of plot devices; the love triangle! Bren wants Belle back, Belle doesn’t want anything to do with him, Dana wants justice and he wouldn’t mind getting Belle too in the process. It isn’t light and fluffy though obviously. These lives depend on the resolution. Not everyone will make it through that resolution.

The strongest aspect of ‘Sunset’ is the pairing of Douglas and Hudson as the rivals turned unlikely trail partners. Their relationship is cautious to say the least. They’ve agreed to put off their confrontation/showdown until they reach Texas…but what’s keeping your word in a life and death matter? Their scenes together crackle with a simmering intensity. You’re waiting for one or the other to pull a gun, throw a punch, make a decisive move. The key though is how the relationship develops over the course of the drive. It might seem odd where it goes, but the whole dynamic works. Throw in Malone too who more than carries her weight. Three very solid performances, even if Hudson’s Dana seems to fall in love at the drop of a hat.

Also look for Cotten in a scene-stealing (if small) part, Carol Lynley as Belle’s teenage daughter, Regis Toomey as the ranch foreman of sorts, Neville Brand, Jack Elam and James Westmoreland as three treacherous trail hands, and Adam Williams as a sneering gunfighter who knew Cotten.

How about something not often associated with the western genre? Yeah, ‘Sunset’ features a doozy of a plot twist revealed in the last 25 minutes. On second viewing, that twist seems telegraphed from a mile out, but it still doesn’t take away from the impact. Ahead of its time in the actual twist, it makes for incredibly interesting viewing as all these seemingly separate storylines and characters converge. There are some slow moments on the trail getting to that point, but this is an above-average western that deserves more notoriety, more of a reputation. Definitely worth checking out.

The Last Sunset (1961): ***/****

The Man from the Alamo

poster_of_the_movie_the_man_from_the_alamoOne of the legends of the battle of the Alamo is that late in the siege, Colonel Travis drew a line in the sand, asking the men who were willing to stay and fight to cross over the line. Supposedly, only one man chose not to, a Napoleonic veteran named Louis Rose. Did it really happen? Probably not, but it remains an enduring story almost 200 years later. The premise is certainly interesting though, and here it is, delivered with a twist, 1953’s The Man from the Alamo.

With the Mexican army surrounding the fort, the defenders of the Alamo desperately wait for reinforcements. Word has reached the defenders that raiding parties are attacking settlers and homesteads, including one area well-represented in the Alamo. A group of defenders draw straws to see who will leave the potentially doomed mission to look after the families. The one chosen? John Stroud (Glenn Ford), a tough, hard-working farmer who’s never run from a fight before but now he must. Stroud rides out of the Alamo only to find that he’s too late when he gets home. Farms and homes alike have been burned by raiding parties, but not Mexican soldiers. Instead, it is a gang of Americans who have sided with the Mexicans in hopes of acquiring land. With a stigma attached to his name, Stroud goes about exacting his revenge.

Ever since watching Disney’s Davy Crockett episodes as a kid, I’ve been hooked on the Alamo. This film effort was one that took awhile to track down, but it was worth the wait. It’s on my Alamo rotation I watched every year during the siege — Feb. 23 through March 6 — as it unfolds.

‘Man’ is an interesting entry, mostly because it uses the Alamo as a jumping off point and not an end result. The opening 15 minutes or so depict the siege, a high-walled, claustrophobic fort under heavy bombardment. We meet Crockett, Travis and Bowie briefly as we learn that time is running out on the defenders. Certain death awaits. What the opening lacks in historical accuracy, it makes up for in tension and a no-holds barred feeling. It gives you a real sense of what it must have been like to be part of the siege from the Texan perspective. A very cool intro that sets the stage nicely for the rest of the movie.

Once John leaves the Alamo, we return to a pretty standard B-western. We’ve got six-shooters and cowboys who look more appropriate for the 1870’s than 1830’s, but it’s fun. Director Budd Boetticher was still a relative unknown as he would pair up with star Randolph Scott in the coming years for his most memorable movies. ‘Man’ is solid though. It clocks in at just 79 minutes and is always on the move. Some good action, an interesting, unique story and entertaining throughout. The potential of the story — a man leaves the Alamo, mostly against his will — certainly could have been more involved, more in-depth to explore the character, but what’s here is entertaining, streamlined fun.

Glenn Ford has always been an actor I welcome when I see him in a cast listing, but one I’ve never thought of as one of my favorites either. A good actor, but he doesn’t have many classic or close classics to his name. He does what he can here as supposedly cowardly John Stroud, but the story never lets him slow down and breathe. Stroud finds out what happened to his wife and son but never gets a chance to show any frustration. He’s just immediately on the road to revenge! Not a flashy part, but a good one.

Also look for Julie Adams, Hugh O’Brian, Chill Wills (he’d star in John Wayne’s The Alamo 7 years later), Victor Jory as the villain, and Neville Brand as one of his henchmen. Marc Cavell has a solid supporting part as Carlos, a young Mexican boy who worked with his father on the Stroud farm. Even keep an eye out for Dennis Weaver as one of the Alamo defenders.

Nothing too flashy here, but a western I’ve enjoyed with repeated viewings. Especially noteworthy for its Alamo opening, ‘Man’ also features some pretty cool stunts in the finale as a gang of murderers chases across the prairie after eight wagons full of women, children, and a big old safe of gold. Worth a watch if you can track a copy down.

The Man from the Alamo (1953): ***/****