Stagecoach (1966)

poster_of_the_movie_stagecoachOh, no. Here we are again. The unnecessary….remake!!! Considered by most to be one of the best westerns ever made, 1939’s Stagecoach is a key film that helped lay out a foundation for a whole type of western, not to mention helping skyrocket John Wayne to stardom. It’s one of those movies that doesn’t really need to be remade, retouched, reboot and re-anything. There just isn’t much to improve on. That said, Hollywood seems to take that as a challenge. A TV remake was released in 1986, but that’s looking ahead too much. Today’s flick is 1966’s Stagecoach.

In the town of Dry Rock, several undesirables are being booted out of town for different reasons, including Dallas (Ann-Margret), a dance hall girl, and Doc Boone (Bing Crosby), an alcoholic doctor with some debts. Sioux warriors have been reported on the warpath — including a massacre of a small company of cavalry fixing the telegraph line — so travel isn’t encouraged, but Dallas, Doc Boone and several other passengers desperately need to get up the trail to Cheyenne. Hoping to thread the needle, eight desperate people board a stagecoach. They’re in for a surprise on the trail, meeting the Ringo Kid (Alex Cord), an escaped convict looking for revenge. Ringo has his reasons though, and another gun on-board couldn’t hurt. Can the coach make it through unscathed?

So let’s get this out of the way. There’s no need to remake the original Stagecoach. Can you tweak some things? Update story devices to be more current, more modern? Throw an interesting ensemble together? Sure to all three questions. But do you need to? No, not really. From director Gordon Douglas, this 1966 version is a pretty decent movie. The cast is solid, the filming locations gorgeous, and the story itself works. There’s a reason the basic premise worked so well in the original. We’re talking life and death in the wild west. It’s hard to mess that up. This remake is good because the script/story is good, and little else. It will feel familiar and comfortable but not necessary in the least.

The biggest changes? The story breathes a little bit more, clocking in at 115 minutes to the original’s 99 minutes. The additional 16 minutes doesn’t add much unfortunately. More talking, more repetitive scenes, but not much more character development. Dallas’ personal life is explored more and more obviously — she’s a GASP prostitute! — and we actually meet the evil Plummers here which is a positive. Filmed on location in Colorado, the visual appeal is evident with snow and tree-capped mountains filling in for the dusty desert and massive rock formations. As well, composer Jerry Goldsmith‘s score is good, a precursor to his score two years later with 1968’s Bandolero! Some positives, some negatives, a mixed bag of changes.

An ensemble cast with a story full of misfits and flawed characters is a gimme. The cast is what pulled me in here more than the story. Like I said, how much can you change? Some good star power though here for sure. Ann-Margret is a more mean-spirited, angry Dallas. Cord is okay but not flashy as Ringo. John Wayne’s original entrance is an all-timer, but here, it’s an afterthought. The chemistry feels a tad forced between Margret and Cord even though the love between two outsiders should have been a gimme. The high point is Crosby as the hard-drinking, fun-loving, accepting life as it is Doc Boone. Steals the show with a fun performance.

Who else to look for on our stagecoach? The always reliable Van Heflin plays Curly, the marshal riding shotgun on the coach while keeping an eye on Ringo. It’s not a flashy part but Heflin is a pro and fits in nicely. Slim Pickens plays Slim Pickens, um, Buck, the worrisome coach driver and has some good chemistry with Heflin. Also look for Stefanie Powers as Lucy Mallory, a young pregnant wife on the way to meeting her husband, Red Buttons as Peacock, a whiskey drummer, Mike Connors as Hatfield, a gentleman gambler looking out for Lucy, and Robert Cummings as Gatewood, a robbing banker. Also look for Keenan Wynn as Luke Plummer, a killer and an outlaw who crossed Ringo and his family in the past.

Things are pretty slow for the first hour as everyone is introduced and things are laid out. The highlight of the film though is the Sioux attack on the stagecoach in the last 45 minutes. It’s an underrated action gem. Some great stunt work, even cooler camera angles and shots (thinking some helicopters were used of some sort) and a whole lot of carnage. I think Ringo, Curly and Co. may have wiped out half the Sioux nation in the process. A final showdown between Ringo and the Plummers is also expanded where in the original, the entire gunfight happened off-screen. A little slow early, but the action late is worth it.

Flawed but entertaining in the end. Still stick with the John Ford original from 1939, but western fans will get a kick out of this 1966 remake. Also worth sticking around in the credits as famous American painter Norman Rockwell painted portraits of the 10 main cast members. They look great and are a cool, unique addition to the credit sequence.

Stagecoach (1966): ** 1/2 /****

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): ***/****