The Deadly Trackers (1973)

the_deadly_trackersTwo actors who were stars but never quite superstars, Richard Harris and Rod Taylor are two of my favorites. Both did a wide variety of films, but they always seemed most at home in good, old-fashioned guy’s guys movies, westerns, war movies, science fiction stories. A pairing of the duo has to be worthwhile, right? Let’s see with 1973’s The Deadly Trackers.

As the sheriff of the border town of Santa Rosa, Sean Kilpatrick (Harris) goes about his job in unique fashion. Never wearing a gun, he insists on bringing prisoners in for justice, not just shooting them on the spot. That strategy works when a gang led by murdering outlaw Frank Brand (Taylor) tries to rob the bank only to get cornered by the townspeople. Brand desperately threatens to kill a little boy, Kilpatrick’s son. In the ensuing chaos, both the boy and Kilpatrick’s wife are killed as Brand his gang escape. Vowing revenge on the men, Kilpatrick pursues the gang into Mexico, ignoring his beliefs of law and order. Always close behind Brand and his men, the revenge-seeking sheriff keeps running across a Mexican federale, Gutierrez (Al Letierri), who insists on bringing Brand in the right way, the lawful way. Kilpatrick obviously has other plans…

This little-known western was apparently beset by an avalanche of production issues. Based off a short story from Samuel Fuller, it originally had Fuller as a director with Harris and Bo Hopkins co-starring. Production started but was quickly halted to revamp…well, everything. The studio basically half-assed it from there, even borrowing portions of the musical score from 1969’s The Wild Bunch. To show you how bizarre things got, the opening credits are still frames with voiceover narration, but they look like the camera shot through a thick blanket. What happened to the footage? Apparently there was a mishap sometime after filming but before editing. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.

Ultimately, the production issues aren’t deal-breakers. Instead, it’s just the general tone of ‘Trackers’ that provides its undoing. Far from a bad movie, this is just too morbidly, cynically brutal and dark. Like so many revisionist westerns of the 1970’s, ‘Trackers’ is interested in a more honest look at the wild west. It’s bloody, sweaty, dirty and death never seems far away. There are no sympathetic characters, and it is only a matter of time before our cast of characters starts getting knocked off in gruesome fashion — scalping, trampled by horses, shot in the face, quicksand, gunned down by a flurry of shots, both blasts of a shotgun, stabbing…you get the idea — in this blood-soaked revenge western. It’s a movie in the vein of The Hunting Party, Soldier Blue, Lawman (actually pretty good), Ulzana’s Raid (also very good) and Chato’s Land but a little too uneven to be considered genuinely good.

The two leads deliver interesting performances, easily the highlight of the movie. Harris’ Kilpatrick has quite the character arc from law-and-order lawman to revenge-seeking, unhinged killer. It’s a physical performance, an intimidating performance. Not a ton of lines, just a man obsessed with the thought of brutally bringing his family’s killers to justice. Taylor plays against type in a big way — easily his most villainous, disturbing part — as Frank Brand, an outlaw and murderer who doesn’t think twice before shooting someone. Similarly unhinged, he’s an ex-Confederate soldier and a racist to boot! A villain you definitely love to hate.

In a supporting part, Lettieri gives one of his best performances, a subdued part as Gutierrez, a law-abiding peace officer who stands by his convictions through thick and thin. His conversations with Harris to provide some of the movie’s best-written scenes. As for Brand’s gang, look for Neville Brand as Choo-Choo, a bandit with part of a railroad rail for a hand (it’s kinda explained), Paul Benjamin as Jacob, a soft-spoken, educated gambler, and William Smith as Schoolboy, a mentally challenged killer with the mind of a child. Also look for Isela Vega as Brand’s former lover, Pedro Armendariz Jr. as a well-meaning blacksmith and William Bryant as one of Kilpatrick’s deputies.

Revenge stories are a staple of the western genre. A couple of those revisionist westerns I listed above are based solely on the revenge factor. Though I loved the cast here, I didn’t fall hard for the movie. You’re rooting more to see who gets killed and in what gruesome fashion. There’s not a ton of energy in the process in a rather slow-moving 110-minute movie. It’s never a good sign when horrific amounts of violence — oh, look! He’s getting scalped! — breaks up the relative monotony.

One of the most redeeming qualities in ‘Trackers’ is the filming locations in Mexico. Any western fans will see some familiar sites, including locations you would have seen in Major Dundee, The Wrath of God, Vera Cruz and (I think) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Some of the ruins, the dusty villages, the rocky vistas, it all adds a very cool feeling of realism and authenticity. You believe the sweat you see pop up on foreheads. A mixed bag in the end. Worth a watch but keep expectations measured. The cast alone is enough to bring many viewers in.

The Deadly Trackers (1973): ** 1/2 /****

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The Guns of Navarone (1962)

gunsofnavaroneI love westerns, I love war movies, and throw in some heist flick, sci-fi epics and secret agent movies, and I’m a happy camper. But let’s get a little more specific with my favorite sub-genre across all movies. We’re talking of course of Men on a Mission movies. One of the first and still the best, here’s 1962’s The Guns of Navarone.

It’s 1943 in the Aegean Sea and some 2,000 British soldiers are trapped on the small island of Kheros. The only option to save them is to send six destroyers in the dead of night to rescue them, but there’s a problem. The only route through the sea is defended by two immense, radar-controlled super-guns that are protected in a seemingly impregnable cave on the island of Navarone. With so much on the line, a commando team is sent in to destroy the guns, including Mallory (Gregory Peck), a commando/spy and former mountain climber, Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), a former Greek officer and Mallory’s partner, and Miller (David Niven), an explosives expert. Time is running out though, and the odds are stacked against the team. Can they somehow pull off the suicide mission and save the men on Kheros?

The late 1950s and much of the entire 1960s were packed with epic WWII movies, and ‘Guns’ belongs in that conversation right up at the top. From director J. Lee Thompson and based off a novel by Alistair MacLean, this men-on-a-mission epic has definitely stood the test of time. There are flaws (more later), but as a pure popcorn film full of excitement and adventure, it is hard to beat. Filmed on location in Rhodes and Gozo, it is a beautiful film, fully taking advantage of the widescreen format. The look of a WWII epic can get overshadowed, but it adds an element here. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin turns in an Oscar-nominated score as well, a memorable score with a good theme and familiar notes.

But how about a team of specialists on an impossible mission?!? ‘Guns’ was one of the first films to use that basic premise to its full potential. Countless others followed in the 1960s and have ever since. The formula is simple. Assemble your team of specialists, all with their unique skillset, and give them something highly dangerous and likely deadly to perform. Who makes it out? Will the job get done? There’s nothing too crazy with the premise, but when handled correctly, it’s a gem. It belongs up there with The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare (another MacLean novel) as one of the sub-genre’s best.

This effort succeeds so well because of the casting. On my recent viewing, I came away impressed with Peck’s Mallory more than previous viewings. A capable officer, he’s thrust into an unlikely leadership role that forces him to make some incredibly uncomfortable decisions. An interesting part, and a solid character arc. Quinn is at his understated, scene-stealing best as Andrea Stavrou, a steely-eyed killer who hates the Germans. The Mallory/Stavrou history adds an excellent, mysterious edge to the story as well. And rounding out the lead trio, Niven lends some comedic effort as Miller, the explosives expert who has no real interest in war. Three Hollywood legends, and wouldn’t you know it? They all deliver.

The team also includes Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanical expert and knife fighter, Pappadimos (James Darren), the born killer, and Franklin (Anthony Quayle), the team leader. They’re joined on Navarone by two resistance fighters, Maria (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala). Not enough for you? Plenty of familiar British faces lend supporting parts, including James Robertson Justice, Richard Harris, Percy Herbert, Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and Walter Gotell.

It’s easy to take for granted what an impact ‘Guns’ has had on the action/adventure genre since its release in 1962. The men-on-a-mission angle especially is the key, but it laid the groundwork for so many like-minded movies in the years to come. There are flaws — a touch slow at times, especially the cliff-scaling scene; the Germans seem too stupid for their own good at times — but there are few movies that are as exciting, as fun, and simply put, well-made, as this flick from Thompson and a talented crew.

A classic for a reason. If you haven’t seen it by now, make a point of seeking it out. Hopefully you’ll like it just as much as I did!

The Guns of Navarone (1962): ****/****