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): ***/****
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The Train Robbers (1973)

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): ***/****

The Deserter (1971)

the-deserterAs a freshman in college, I stumbled across the cast listing. That jumped to Amazon to see if the movie was available. Sure enough, a beat-up VHS tape was there and fairly cheap. Fast forward a couple weeks to Thanksgiving break — when I got home and a VHS player was available — and I got to sit down with a movie and cast that just sounded too good to be true. Verdict on 1971’s The Deserter? Brutally underrated, a ton of fun and deserves far more of a reputation.

After his wife is brutally murdered by Apaches, Captain Victor Kaleb (Bekim Fehmiu) shoots and wounds his commanding officer and deserts, going on a rampage killing Apaches. Two years later, the cavalry needs him and comes calling. An Apache chief is assembling a huge raiding party of Apache warriors below the border in Mexico with his attack looming, an assault that could wipe out hundreds. Kaleb’s mission is simple. He must recruit a small squad of men — specialists and troublemakers alike — and train them to fight like an Apache before leading them into Mexico to attack the Apache camp before it’s too late. Can Kaleb pull off the mission? Will anyone even get out alive?

For me, westerns with this formula don’t get much better than this. A western version of The Dirty Dozen, ‘Deserter’ is simply a hell of a lot of fun. The cast is crazy, especially when you assemble all those stars and recognizable faces for a men-on-a-mission flick. The formula is as straightforward as they get. Establish the mission, assemble a team, can the team pull off the suicidal mission and get out? Filmed in Spain and Italy (even Yugoslavia), ‘Deserter’ isn’t quite a spaghetti western, but it certainly has the feel of it. If you’re even a remote fan of the western genre, I guarantee you’ll get at least some entertainment value here. If not, I’ve got nothing for you…

A Yugoslavian actor who never quite made it big in the U.S., Fehmiu is an unlikely choice for the lead role as the vengeful anti-hero. Still, I come away impressed each time I watch the movie from director Burt Kennedy. Fehmiu is cold, harsh and brutally efficient at getting the job done. In undertaking the mission, he’s getting revenge hopefully. Nothing more, nothing less. Somewhat wooden at times, Fehmiu benefits from a script dripping with memorable one-liners, a script from western regular and always reliable Clair Huffaker. As for the rest of the cast….oh my. Just oh my.

What follows isn’t necessarily A-list stars, but instead, recognizable genre stars, character actors, and an all-around energy to fill out Kaleb’s death squad. There’s Richard Crenna as Brown, Kaleb’s former commander and rival, Chuck Connors as Reynolds, the bible-thumping Chaplain and dynamite expert, Ricardo Montalban as Natchai, the Indian scout, Slim Pickens as Tattinger, the wily veteran scout, Ian Bannen as Crawford, the British officer scouting the Southwest, Brandon de Wilde as Ferguson, the inexperienced young officer, Woody Strode as Jackson, the troublesome strongman, Patrick Wayne as Robinson, the Gatling Gun specialist, Albert Salmi as Schmidt, the vengeful sergeant, Fausto Tozzi as Orozco, the knife fighter, Doc Greaves as Scott, the sergeant, John Alderson as O’Toole, the fiesty Irishman, and Larry Stewart as the younger of the 2 Robinson brothers.

Other than some quick Kaleb exposition — he’s a dynamite man, a knife fighter, a Gatling gun specialist — we’re given little information about these men. We don’t need it though. It’s a specialist movie on an impossible mission. Who’s gonna make it? Who’s not? There’s some impressive star power so the guessing game will keep you guessing until the end. It did for me! Oh, and John Huston has a memorable turn as General Miles, the new cavalry commander who has to send Kaleb and his squad on the suicide mission. Under-utilized? Too much going on? Maybe, but it is F-U-N.

What are spaghetti westerns usually synonymous with? Their musical scores. No Ennio Morricone here, but composer Piero Piccioni brings his A-game in an often odd/bizarre score that resonates each time I check ‘Deserter’ out. Check out an extended sample HERE. The jazzy, playful theme is catchy as hell, but I love its quieter moments with an orchestra playing a soft, moving, mournful theme. Like I said, an odd combination but one that works.

So what else? The action isn’t overdone here with a couple little fights sprinkled here and there early. The extended training sequence has some fun surprises in store with the action — and mounting casualty report — kicking in over the last 30 minutes as the mission gets underway. Loud, chaotic and bullet-dynamite-knife-Gatling Gun riddled finale that does not disappoint. As I mentioned, the script is a gem of memorable one-liners (check some out HERE) in a story with dark undertones but some lighter, clever moments too along the way.

A hidden gem for me, and one of my favorites. I would love to see a widescreen print of the movie, having only seen pan-n-scan VHS copies and a public domain DVD that cut about 6 minutes off the finale run-time I saw on the VHS. If you can track a copy down, I highly recommend it. As far as entertainment value goes, this one is hard to beat.

The Deserter (1971): ***/****