Land Raiders (1969)

landraidposBefore 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): ***/****

Advertisements

Operation Pacific (1951)

operation-pacificThe buzz for the World War II submarine movie truly picked up in the mid 1950’s and has been a consistent source for solid to entertaining to classic flicks ever since. The first true gem was 1943’s Destination Tokyo, but getting in on the formula before it truly took off, here’s 1951’s Operation Pacific.

It’s 1943 and American forces are pushing back against Japan in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. One submarine, the USS Thunderfish, is commanded by Commander Pop Perry (Ward Bond), with his second-in-command, Lt. Cmdr. Duke Gifford (John Wayne). Both experienced submariners, the duo has a strong, reliable crew. When back in port, Gifford is trying to reunite with his ex-wife, Mary (Patricia Neal), who’s now working as a nurse in a naval hospital. Out in the Pacific though, the war is up for grabs, and the Thunderfish and countless other American submarines are working to fix malfunctioning torpedoes that are not exploding on contact.

This 1951 WWII flick from director George Waggner is never mentioned as one of Wayne’s best films. Instead, it’s one of those movies that his fans and war movie fans will like, but ‘Operation’ won’t be remembered as a classic by any means. It clocks in at 111 minutes and is a little slow-moving at times but mostly entertaining, especially because of the three leads. Later submarine movies are more fondly remembered, but this one’s pretty good, if flawed.

Wayne and Bond were best friends on and off the screen, and their chemistry always shines through when they’re starring together. By 1951, Wayne was one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood, a trend that would continue for years. He’s the out and out American hero here, saving babies and nuns, defeating the Japanese navy with some gutsy decisions, and being a cool dude too (because that never hurts). Bond is excellent in an underplayed part, the veteran commander who has an inkling he knows what’s wrong with the malfunctioning torpedoes.

If there’s a weakness here, it’s that the love story slows things down to a snail’s pace. Wayne and Neal have some strong chemistry, which is funny because Neal apparently DID NOT get along with Wayne during filming. It doesn’t show. Their scenes together are solid, and Neal doesn’t get overshadowed, more than holding her own against the Duke. Still, their history simply isn’t that interesting, the problems they had never really get fixed, and you still know he’s gonna get the girl in the end.

In the supporting cast, look for Philip Carey as Lt. Bob Perry, Pop’s little brother, a fighter pilot, and a rival to Duke for Mary’s heart (but you know how that’ll go). As for the Thunderfish crew, look for Scott Forbes, Paul Picerni, William Campbell, Martin Milner, Jack Pennick and Sam Edwards. It’s especially cool to see Pennick get more screentime – and even some lines! – as Chief, the Thunderfish’s veteran chief petty officer who helps develop the officers and keep the crew together. Not a big part, but a worthwhile one.

‘Operation’ is at its stongest when it is in the Pacific with the Thunderfish out on patrols. Not a ton of action, but what’s there is enjoyable. A lot of tension, some good twists and turns, and one genuine shock about a character’s demise. Nothing flashy, but a good, old-fashioned war flick with the Duke and Ward Bond leading the way.

Operation Pacific (1951): ** ½ /****

The Scalphunters (1968)

the_scalphunters_posterIn a legendary career that spanned parts of 6 different decades, Burt Lancaster was always at home in the western genre. There are more than a few classics in the bunch — The Professionals, Vera Cruz, Ulzana’s Raid — but one that always seems to slip through the cracks is 1968’s The Scalphunters. Not a classic but a highly entertaining venture with a fun cast.

After a busy season trapping and with a pack horse full of pelts and furs, fur trapper Joe Bass (Lancaster) is heading to the nearest town to sell his haul. Well, that’s the plan anyways. He’s stopped by a Kiowa war party who “trade” him for the furs, giving him a captured slave, Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis), for his season’s work. Joseph Lee had previously been a captive of Comanches. Now, Joe Bass is on the trail to get his furs back, but there are more problems. The Kiowas are attacked by a gang of scalphunters led by outlaw Jim Howie (Telly Savalas) who in the process also captures Joseph Lee. Howie’s gang is on the run and heading for Mexico, now with Joseph Lee in tow. Trailing not too far behind is Bass, just waiting for his chance to strike.

The first of three efforts Lancaster and director Sydney Pollack did together, ‘Scalphunters’ is an interesting western. Reading the plot synopsis, you wouldn’t think it had some heavy comedic — even slapstick — undertones. They are there though, giving the final product a kind of helter-skelter feel. Oh, Bass and Lee comedically beating the crap out of each other? Ah, a massacre of Indians! The tonal shifts provide some odd moments for sure, but the movie is still entertaining. When everything about westerns was changing in the late 1960’s, Pollack’s western seems like a bit of a throwback…that still’s trying to be violent and dark and unsettling at times.

What holds things together despite the oddness? I’d give you two guesses, but you’ll only need one. Lancaster, Davis, Savalas and Shelley Winters. There are other speaking parts, but this movie rides (or derails) on the shoulders of this quartet. It is definitely an ensemble too with each cast member given their chance to star. Lancaster is off-screen for large stretches of the 102-minute running time. When he’s on-screen, he’s a scene-stealer. It’s a bigger, showier performance but he doesn’t chew the scenery like several of his most iconic parts.

Sometimes chemistry is just spot-on, and that’s the case with Lancaster’s Bass and Davis’ Lee. Bass is the grizzled fur trapper, uneducated but not dumb, able to survive in the wilderness while quoting the Bible. Lee is an educated, intelligent slave who can talk his way in and out of plenty of uncomfortable situations. Throw them together, and you’ve got some great dialogue and a great back and forth dynamic. The story pulls the duo apart, but what’s there is excellent. Savalas gets to ham it up a bit as outlaw Jim Howie with Winters playing Kate, a prostitute and Jim’s woman who’s apparently also on the run for some past misdeeds.

As for the gang of scalphunters, look for Dabney Coleman, Paul Picerni, Nick Cravat, Dan Vadis and Chuck Roberson (John Wayne’s stunt double and a familiar face). Armando Silvestre plays Two Crows, a Kiowa chief who gets along with Joe Bass but always seems to come out with the upper hand.

Nothing groundbreaking here, but an enjoyable western. ‘Scalphunters’ was filmed on location in Durango, Mexico in similar locales as The War Wagon, Major Dundee, The Sons of Katie Elder and others, but it’s definitely a good-looking western. Composer Elmer Bernstein is on-hand to provide the score, and even if it’s not a hugely memorable score, a Bernstein score isn’t something to shake your head at. A good western with some excellent lead performances, especially Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis.

The Scalphunters (1968): ***/****