Director: Michael Curtiz; uncredited John Wayne
Writer: James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker; based on The Comancheros by Paul I. Wellman
Cinematographer: William H. Clothier
Producer: George Sherman
by Jon Cvack
Every time I think I’m at the end of the line for what’s available from Michael Curtiz, Netflix adds another few films and his position in the Master List continues to grow. At this point I’m somewhere around a dozen films deep and I’m still not particularly aware of a Curtiz style. It’s an interesting aspect of the classical era of cinema, in which directors would have contracts with studios and while incredibly talented, weren’t so particular with their filmographies. They had to make a certain number of films, some of them were great, many were good, and a few were bad. Michael Curtiz is a chameleon, seeming to adapt this craft to the quality of the story.
The Comancheros is one of the classic era westerns that remind me of how boring they can be. I’ve been on a role these last few years when turning back - The Sons of Katie Elder (1966), Nevada Smith (1966), El Dorado (1966). Especially for the ones who’ve been remastered. They look absolutely wonderful; as though they were shot today with that old school technique. It made me wonder if maybe the reason I didn’t like old westerns is because they have worn out, cropped transfers; typically repeating a very specific set of actions.
The Comancheros opens on a duel where gambler Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) shoots and accidentally kills his opponent. He’s sentenced to death and flees, soon ending up on a river boat where he meets the wild and wealthy Pillar Graile (Ina Balin). Just as the two seem about to enter into some bizarre love affair, Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) barges in to take him back to prison. Paul then escapes again and heads to a bar where the classic bar fight takes place.
They return back home where a gang of Comancheros, led by a former Military officer, has been raiding the community while smuggling guns and alcohol. They attack Regret and his neighbors, and as Paul Regret seems to escape once again, he returns with some Texas Rangers. He’s awarded an act of valor and joins Cutter on a type of spy mission where they act as gun smugglers bringing in the latest shipment. It takes us to the film’s more interesting moments, as we discover a type of self-sufficient commune, run with the profits and the tyrannical control of the former officer Graile (Nehemiah Persoff) who’s turns out to be Pillar’s father. I’m not sure what shifts from there, but even though the commune seems relatively harmless and provides benefit to the community, Regret and Cutter destroy both them and a band of Comanches who storm the place.
It’s the type of film that makes me want to watch more westerns in order to best understand what makes these work against such limitations. Recently I read Thomas Schatz Hollywood Genres (1981), examining westerns as the myth of the American Manifest Destiny and the free market ethos. In nearly every action western, there is the law abiding sheriff battling against either the “wild” and lawless Natives or against actual outlaws who often steal, rob, pursue women, and drink. There is often a beautiful woman who’s an archetype of innocence or, in more modern versions, an empowered gun-wielding female (such as The Furies (1950)); sometimes one and the same. There are bar fights, duels, and wandering the town before the gun fight. There’s the burgeoning town, the nascent railroad, log cabins, livestock, and individuals doing their best to survive. There’s more, but these basic elements have produced great cinema throughout the last 80 years, in each and every decade. Somehow within these strict confines, cinema continues to pump out great additions.
The Comancheros fails to blend these elements. At its core, it’s about an uninteresting gambler fighting against John Wayne who plays the same character he always does, without much of a plot to thread the story. It bookends great - opening with a man who kills a judge’s son in a duel, but then meanders as he gets caught, escapes, gets caught, finds himself in some rural community and attacked by Native Americans, then recruited to become a Ranger and finds himself in another battle against a pre-Hippie commune. It’s and-then storytelling, switching from one moment to the next without focusing at all on the characters. However, given that it was Michael Curtiz's last film, and John Wayne assumed directing it due to his demise, maybe that's the reason it has no spark.
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