100 Rifles (1969)

100 RiflesA true Hollywood movie star, Burt Reynolds passed away this past week at the age of 82. The star of Smokey and the Bandit and Deliverance, Reynolds was one-of-a-kind. He was always having fun on-screen no matter the role. One of my favorite Reynolds’ flicks, a 1969 western, 100 Rifles.

It’s 1912 in Sonora and the Mexican Revolution rages on. In the town of Nogales, an American sheriff, Lyedecker (Jim Brown), is on a mission to bring a bank robber back to Phoenix. His bounty? A half-breed bandit, Yaqui Joe (Reynolds), who used the $6,000 he got from the bank robbery to buy 100 rifles for revolutionary forces. Lyedecker isn’t the only one hunting Joe though with the local military commander, Verdugo (Fernando Lamas), also desperate to get his claws into him. Catching the ire of the bloodthirsty Verdugo, Lyedecker must work with Joe to escape with his life. The duo become unlikely revolutionaries, on the run with the true revolutionary, Sarita (Raquel Welch), with Verdugo hot on their trail.

Far from a classic, ‘Rifles’ is still a highly entertaining western, mostly due to its cast and some solid action along the way. From director Tom Gries, it’s actually an off-shoot of the spaghetti western genre; westerns shot on-location in Spain and with European and American backing, but almost entirely American crews. You’ll see some familiar sandy, sun-drenched locations along the way, and the Mexican Revolution background provides a bloody, violent backdrop to the story (another sub-genre if you’re looking, the Zapata western). Also worth pointing out, Jerry Goldsmith — no stranger to memorable scores — steals the show with an underused soundtrack (listen HERE), including a great, booming chase theme.

Jim Brown, Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds. More movie stars than hugely dramatic actors, the lead trio is excellent in their parts. Interestingly enough, there was supposedly a fair amount of tension between Brown and Welch during filming, Reynolds often playing the peacekeeper. There’s a cool dynamic among the three, Lydecker the unwilling revolutionary, Sarita the true, devoted believer and Joe the bandit who’s unintentionally found a purpose. Lamas hams it up like his life depended on it and has a ton of fun as Verdugo. There aren’t a ton of speaking roles with a smaller cast, but those four do the heavy lifting.

Also look for Dan O’Herlihy as Grimes, the railroad execute looking to protect his train and its line, Eric Braeden as Von Klemme, the German military advisor (a staple of Zapatista westerns, Michael Forest as Humara, Sarita’s mute enforcer, and spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell as Paletes, Verdugo’s loyal sergeant.

I’m hard-pressed to say there’s much of a story here, instead a sorta extended chase scene broken up by action scenes that runs about 109 minutes overall. Lack of story? Not a huge problem here because the action and chases are pretty good — and surprisingly bloody and vicious. Gunfights, fistfights, chases and much of it on a moving train, it all adds up to a solid final product. Brown and Reynolds were two of the most physically capable actors around with the duo handling most of their own stunts, including several exciting fights with the two men handcuffed together. ‘Rifles’ saves its biggest explosions for the finale, an attack on the army train and then the train attack on Nogales. All-around good stuff though.

Couple other points worth making. ‘Rifles’ is — I believe — the first movie to have an interracial love scene, Brown and Welch passionately kissing and rolling around in bed. It’s pretty tame now but caused quite a stir in the socially charged 1960s. Welch’s Mexican accent is pretty cliched too, but the script seems hell bent on getting her nude, sorta nude and wet under a water tower. Not a complaint, just an observation! It’s a fun western overall, especially for the action and the buddy chemistry between Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds. Not a classic, but a lot of fun.

100 Rifles (1969): ***/****

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Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****

Cannon for Cordoba (1970)

cannoncoverI have three movie genres I claim as my favorites; westerns, war movies and heist flicks. Westerns are my favorites pretty much across the board, but there’s a unifier among the trio, a sub-genre of sorts that stretches across countless bigger genres. What is it exactly? A little thing I call ‘Men on a Mission’ movies. Stick around, and you’ll see plenty of them. Today’s entry? From 1970, Cannon for Cordoba.

It’s 1912 in the midst of the Mexican Revolution and U.S. Army General John “Black Jack” Pershing (John Russell) has been tasked with defending the U.S.-Mexico border. Bandits and revolutionaries are raiding across the border, including one power-hungry “general,” Hector Cordoba (Raf Vallone). Cordoba has stolen six heavy artillery pieces from Pershing’s forces and retreated to his mountaintop fortress deep into the Mexican desert. With no other options available, Pershing is forced to take desperate measures. He tasks one of his officers, Captain Rod Douglas (George Peppard), to assemble a small team of men, ride into Mexico, infiltrate the fortress, destroy the cannon and hopefully bring Cordoba out alive. Simple, right?

It took me years to track this western down, first watching it via rental on Amazon, and this time via MGM-HD on TV. ‘Cannon’ follows the men-on-a-mission formula to a T. Introduce your leader, give him an impossible mission, let him assemble his team, and light the fuse to the mission hijinks. ‘Cannon’ has touches of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, The Professionals, The Guns of Navarone and plenty others. It isn’t the most original idea, but it’s a lot of fun.

From director Paul Wendkos, ‘Cannon’ came along at one of my favorite times in westerns, the late 1960s, early 1970s. Influenced by spaghetti westerns, the American westerns became more violent, dirtier, sweatier, and far-more cynical. There aren’t good guys so much as less bad guys. Filming locations in Spain are gorgeous for the sun-baked mission, and Elmer Bernstein turns in a solid score with some unique touches. Still, his signature notes are quite noticeable.

Who better to lead our team here than George Peppard, future star of TV’s The A-Team? No one. That’s who! Even chomping on a cigar, Peppard’s Douglas is your typical anti-hero, smug, capable, dangerous and intensely focused on pulling off the suicide mission. His team includes the always-welcome Don Gordon as Jackson, his right-hand man who’d like to exact some revenge on Douglas, Pete Duel as Andy, the amiable, capable, guitar-toting killer, Nico Minardos as Pete, the Greek immigrant and specialist with explosives and mechanics, and Gabrielle Tinti as Lt. Gutierrez, a Mexican officer tasked with bringing Cordoba in. There’s also Giovanni Ralli as Leonora, a beautiful Mexican woman seeking revenge against Cordoba. A bit underdeveloped in terms of character to say the least, but a cool, eclectic group.

Not given much to do other than sneer and be a stereotypical Mexican bandit/general, Vallone is nonetheless a welcome addition to the cast, even if it is just as an intimidating presence. He gets a stock character out of the Mexican Revolution genre/canon, Hans Meyer as a sadistic Swedish officer, Svedborg, working for Cordoba, while spaghetti western regular Aldo Sambrell gets a decent-sized part as Ortega, a sergeant in Cordoba’s forces.

‘Cannon’ isn’t a hugely action-packed western, but when it’s there, it’s good. Cordoba’s opening raid to steal the artillery is a good scene-setter, and a running firefight at a ruined church about halfway through is pretty cool as well. The highlight though is not surprisingly the raid on Cordoba’s well-guarded mountaintop fortress. When the explosions set off the guns start firing, things get pretty chaotic. Lots of action, some cool camera angles, and plenty of wholesome carnage.

This is a movie that’s heavily flawed and is too slow for its own good at times. I would have liked even a little more characterization among Douglas’ team but also Cordoba. Still, it’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it just as much on second viewing. Worth seeking out for sure. YouTube has several “full movies” available, but they’re cut versions. The full version runs 104 minutes.

Cannon for Cordoba (1970): ***/****