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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Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

two_mules_for_sister_sara_posterFollowing his breakout success in Sergio Leone’s iconic spaghetti western trilogy – the ‘Dollars’ trilogy – Clint Eastwood returned to the states a marketable star. He wanted to distance himself some from the western genre, but still made a couple entries over the coming years. The best? A spaghetti-ish western with director Don Siegel, 1970’s Two Mules for Sister Sara.

It’s the years following the Civil War, and an American mercenary, Hogan (Eastwood), is working with the Juaristas as Mexican forces fight the French government. On the trail, he rescues a woman who is about to be raped by 3 drifters, killing her 3 attackers. Hogan is in for a surprise. The woman is a nun, Sister Sara (Shirley MacLaine), similarly riding south who is also working with the Juaristas. Knowing Sister Sara is seriously at risk traveling on her own, Hogan says she can travel with him as they ride through French patrols, bandits and Indian attacks.

Nothing too crazy here, just a good western story that leans heavily on its star, MacLaine and Eastwood, to do the heavy lifting. It’s an episodic story – clocking in under 2 hours – without any huge momentum. The focus is on the star duo who are working off a Budd Boetticher story (Boetticher apparently hated the MacLaine casting and the final product as a whole). It was originally intended for Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum (like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison) but was reworked and re-cast over the years for this duo instead. Apparently filming was troubled to say the least with some big personalities, but it doesn’t show in the end.

If they didn’t get along off-screen, MacLaine and Eastwood must have been saving their chemistry for filming. Eastwood’s Hogan is a spin on his familiar anti-hero gunfighter. He’s chomping cigars, gunning down bandits and just for good measure, he’s an explosives specialist (favoring dynamite). Thrust into a protector role, Eastwood is a quite scene-stealer to MacLaine’s religious antics. Her Sister Sara often repeats “God will provide…” all the while ignoring the constant dangers that could arise on the trail. They form a heck of a duo in the process.

No other huge supporting parts here to round out the cast. Manolo Fabregas is the most visible as Beltran, the leader of the Mexican revolutionary forces who are working with Hogan to take out a heavily-guarded French garrison. Western fans will recognize a couple faces here and there, but the focus is on MacLaine and Eastwood and their revolutionary adventures.

A lot to like here, especially filming on-location in Mexico. You feel like you’re there in 1860s Mexico on the dusty trails, the adobe-lined streets, the rock-capped mountains, and the ancient ruins. Throw in a memorable score from spaghetti western score extraordinaire Ennio Morricone – listen HERE – and you’ve got some excellent building blocks. It all fits together nicely. I defy you not to whistle the main Sister Sara theme for days after watching this western. Not much in the way of action here, but there are some pretty cool set pieces sprinkled throughout the film. Hogan taking out Sara’s attackers, a subtle but well-done chase with Sara, Hogan and French cavalry, and a later sabotage mission on a train trestle are all nicely handled. The final attack on the French garrison is nicely done and features some surprisingly gory action. And that twist in the last 25 minutes…it’s a gem but no spoilers here.

It was an interesting time in Mexican history as French invaders took over the country and the government. It’s provided some ripe pickings for westerns, including Vera Cruz, Major Dundee, The Undefeated and some others I’m no doubt forgetting. As for ‘Sister Sara,’ it’s well worth a watch.

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970): ***/****

The Wrath of God (1972)

wogposSimply put, but…Robert Mitchum was cooler than you. He’s cooler than everybody. A Hollywood legend, Mitchum was one of the first true bad boys. He didn’t care. He did things his way, and his laid-back but memorable acting style produced plenty of classic movies and performances. One of my favorites? A brutally underrated, truly odd western that’s all but forgotten, 1972’s The Wrath of God.

It’s the 1920s in an unidentified Central American country and three unique individuals have been brought together — blackmailed — to perform a suicide mission. The unholy trinity includes Van Horne (Mitchum), a machine-gun toting, bank-robbing priest, Keogh (Ken Hutchison), an IRA gunman on the run, and Jennings (Victor Buono), a cashiered British army officer now with his hand in anything and everything illegal, including gun-running. Their mission? Kill a rogue army officer, Tomas de la Plata (Frank Langella), who causes constant trouble for the army and government. Their work is cut out for them as de la Plata lives up in the mountains surrounded by a small army of gunmen and a heavily fortified hacienda. Can the trio pull off the job, clear their names and get out alive?

I first caught this on TCM back in the early 2000s, then couldn’t find it, then finally tracked it down a few years later. It’s been a favorite ever since. Based off a novel by Jack Higgins (as James Graham), ‘Wrath’ is an oddity, a unique western that is unlike just about any other western I can think of. It’s so odd at times that a fair share of reviewers think it’s actually a spoof. My thought? It ain’t. Simple as that. From director Ralph Nelson, ‘Wrath’ is a western that while influenced by spaghetti westerns and the changing times for the American western, stands alone. It’s a funny, cynical, violent and for me, highly memorable flick. A gem, one I can go back and re-watch time and time again.

My best description is that ‘Wrath’ has style. Filmed on-location in Mexico, it feels authentic, like we’re watching the story take place where it did happen. Gorgeous looking flick with familiar locations you’ll have seen in other westerns, like Vera Cruz and The War Wagon. The final shootout at the de la Plata hacienda was shot in the same location as the finale to Vera Cruz, a ridiculously cool extended sequence. Composer Lalo Schifrin turns in a great score too — listen HERE and HERE — that’s jazzy and flamboyant at times, but also reminiscent of a spaghetti western score in other instances. An underrated score, especially driving the action scenes.

But back to that Mitchum guy. Underplaying his part but clearly having a ball, he adds a third “priest” part to his filmography, joining The Night of the Hunter and 5 Card Stud. His Father Van Horne has some secrets — explained late — but it’s such a fun part from the word go. When he makes his big reveal, taking out a Thompson sub-machine gun and mowing down a saloon full of bandits, it’s a genuine laugh out loud moment. It never lets up as Mitchum delivers a surprisingly layered part as Van Horne. What drives this quasi-priest? Is it greed or something else? Well worth finding out.

Rounding out the unholy trinity, Hutchison and Buono aren’t big stars, but they’re perfectly cast. The chemistry among the three actors is impeccable. Any big reason? A script that crackles with great dialogue and one memorable line after another. Jennings’ oft-repeated “We’ll get along famously!” is a favorite, as is Van Horne’s “All is not what it seems.” Check out IMDB’s Memorable Quotes (I added those quotes years ago. You’re welcome!) for a good sample of the quality of dialogue. One of my favorite — if unlikely — men-on-a-mission teams. Hard to beat a machine-gun toting priest, an IRA gunman and an overweight, hard-drinking gun-runner. Hutchisons’ Emmet also gets the love interest, a beautiful Indian girl, Chela (Paula Pritchett), who’s mute.

Mitchum, Hutchison and Buono dominate the screen, which is odd considering how low Emmet and Jennings are in the cast listing. The reasoning? The bigger names playing smaller parts, almost cameos. Langella hams it up as the unhinged Tomas, always seemingly on the brink of losing it. Oh, and he loathes priests (ALL priests) with a passion. In her last film, Rita Hayworth plays Tomas’ tortured mother, trying to hold it all together. Struggling with Alzheimer’s during filming, she apparently had trouble reciting/remembering lines. Also, John Colicos makes the most of a one-scene appearance as Colonel Santilla, the messenger of death and commander of the region who sends the trio on their suicide mission.

Also, look for familiar western faces in Gregory Sierra, Frank Ramirez, Enrique Lucero, Aurora Clavel, Chano Urueta and Jorge Russek in supporting parts. Sierra is especially good as Jurado, Tomas’ brutal, bullish enforcer.

Not a huge action movie, ‘Wrath’ saves its firepower for the last 30 minutes when Van Horne and Co. make their play against de la Plata. A bullet-riddled shootout in a village square packs a whallop, but the finale at the de la Plata hacienda is the best, most memorable part. Some twists, some awesome moments — Buono driving a Mercedes as a battering ram with one hand, blasting away with a machine gun with the other stands out — and plenty of action. Mitchum saves the best for last in a classic final line. A classic movie overall? No, not by a long shot, but one of my favorites and a hilariously entertaining western. A must for western fans, and well worth tracking down.

The Wrath of God (1972): *** 1/2 /****

The Treasure of Pancho Villa (1955)

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 /****