Before he became instantly recognizable as TV detective Kojak, Telly Savalas was a staple in tough guy movies in the late 1960’s and through much of the 1970’s. While many American stars went to Europe during this time to star in the spaghetti western flicks, Savalas sorta did that, heading to Europe for a trio of American-backed westerns that are quasi-spaghettis. The look, the feel…it’s almost there. The list includes 1972’s Pancho Villa, 1971’s A Town Called Hell and today’s review, 1969’s Land Raiders.
In the Forge River Valley in the Arizona territory in the 1870’s, rancher Vince Carden (Savalas) is king. With his immense cattle ranch, Carden keeps scooping up land as other smaller ranchers simply can’t keep up, both with him and raiding Apaches. One day, Carden’s younger brother, Paul (George Maharis), rides back into town after several years away from the family’s ranch. The reason? A tragic incident from their past, Paul forced to ride away. He’s drifted back home now, but his timing couldn’t have been worse. Vince continues to try to sweep away the raiding Apaches nearby, but efforts are being made to broker a peace treaty. Vince though…he may have ulterior motives. Right in the middle, Paul returning and simply looking for some answers.
I caught this western a couple times as a kid when it aired in the afternoon on TBS (oh, those were the days). From director Nathan Juran, ‘Raiders’ is a pretty good example of a wave of spaghetti western knockoffs that American studios released trying to duplicate the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. None reached those levels, but they’re almost uniformly entertaining. The filming locations here are familiar (in a good way) and frequent Ennio Morricone collaborator Bruno Nicolai turns in an excellent score that’s fairly reminiscent of the iconic Dollars scores (also in a good way). Give it a listen HERE. It doesn’t rewrite the genre, but I’m always entertained here.
My favorite Savalas role is in 1970’s Kelly’s Heroes, the rare role where he isn’t the villain. Man, he was so good at playing that dastardly, bastardly, bloodthirsty bad guy. That’s the case here in ‘Raiders,’ his Vince — actually Vincente Cardenas — is as greedy as they come, and he doesn’t care how many bodies he has to climb over to get to the top. Maharis is solid as Paul — actually Pablo Cardenas — who returns to deal with his past, a former love who died under suspicious circumstances. Not quite a heroic good guy, he nonetheless is far better than his brother. A cool dynamic between the Carden/Cardenas brothers.
Not much star power on display here in ‘Raiders’ other than our lead duo. Arlene Dahl plays Vince’s wife, oblivious to her husband’s actions, Janet Landgard as Kate, the sheriff’s daughter returning to town at the wrong time, Guy Rolfe as Major Tanner, the cavalry commander with an English accent (?), and Phil Brown as Sheriff Mayfield, torn between his boss (Vince) and his morals. Also, in some bizarre casting, Paul Picerni plays two different roles, one as Vince’s henchman and another as Arturo, an old friend of Paul’s. Are we not supposed to notice? Also look for John Clark as Ace, another Vince henchman, and familiar face Fernando Rey as a priest who makes a lightning-quick appearance.
I’ll give ‘Raiders’ credit. It deals with familiar territory — Indians vs. settlers/ranchers — but manages to make it interesting and unique. Some foggy, stylish flashbacks help illuminate the Carden/Cardenas history, revealing a twist that’s not so twisty in the end. It clocks in at 101 minutes, fleshed out with some footage from a 1950’s American western I can’t place. Much of the budget seems to have been saved for an action-packed finale as the Apaches finally attack a forted-up town defended by the townspeople and the cavalry. Pretty dark ending all-around.
A classic? Nope, but pretty entertaining, and decidedly different. Worth a watch.
Land Raiders (1969): ***/****