Sumptuously mounted, if rather nonsensical and episodic to a fault, Michael Curtiz's The Comancheros (1961) is a super western of the old school, a last gasp of the old establishment as the Hollywood of yesteryear reluctantly gave way to grittier, more contemporary realism throughout the 1960s. Curtiz, who was in ill health at the start of production, continued to decline and was forced to withdraw midway through, leaving his star, John Wayne the defacto director on the project. That Wayne proved himself as skilled behind the camera as he undeniably was in front of it was perhaps no surprise. After more than 100 films he had obviously learned the craft from the ground up.
Based on Paul Wellman's best-selling 1952 novel, the narrative patched together by screenwriters James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker periodically waffles, perhaps because the hero of Wellman's novel is Paul Regret and not Jake Cutter - the Marshal played by John Wayne. Casting Wayne necessitated rewrites to flesh out his character at the expense of the former. The tale begins in earnest in Louisiana, circa 1843 with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman in a role originally envisioned by Wellman as belonging to Cary Grant); a wily gambler with a certain ruthlessness about him. After an accusation of having cheated at cards Regret guns down his accuser, Emil Bouvier (Gregg Palmer) during a gentlemen's duel.
The duel's overseer, Gireaux (Henry Daniell) informs Regret, owing to the fact Bouvier was the son of a local magistrate, the likely penalty will be his hanging for the murder – despite their gentlemen’s agreement. Instead, Regret flees the state, bringing about a countrywide man hunt with a sizable bounty on his head. Aboard a gambler's riverboat, Regret meets and is seduced by Pilar Graile (Ina Balin); a mysterious woman of means whose former lover, Esteban (Richard Devon) is now Pilar’s servant. After spending several pleasurable days with Regret in her private suite, Pilar curiously vanishes without a trace.
Enter Jake Cutter (John Wayne), a U.S. Marshall who arrests Regret as the boat docks. Determined to bring him into custody unharmed Cutter's plans are foiled when, after encountering an Indian massacre, Regret seizes the opportunity to knock Cutter unconscious and steal his horse. Returning empty-handed to his outpost, Cutter is given a new assignment; to learn who has been selling guns to the 'Comancheros' - a barbarous sect of ranchers allied with the Indians and living obscurely by their own rules of lawlessness. Under a distant escort from Texas Ranger Tobe (Patrick Wayne), Cutter buries his supply of guns for trade in the wilderness before driving an empty wagon to the prearranged destination where he meets unrepentant and mildly psychotic roughrider, Tully Crow (Lee Marvin). Learning what he can from Crow, Cutter enters a game of poker at Crow's behest and is inadvertently reunited with Regret who recognizes Cutter immediately but keeps his true identity a secret from Crow.
After losing several hands of poker Crow becomes violent and Cutter is forced to kill him. Arresting Regret once again, Cutter takes him to the location where he buried the guns and makes him dig up his stash. Cutter explains his mission to Regret who reluctantly goes along for the ride. Recognizing that Regret's act of murder was a case of fair play rather than cold-bloodedness Cutter takes him to the Marshall's office to plead his case. Regret is made an honorary Marshall by Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Breen (Edgar Buchanan), thereby absolving him of his crime.
Regrettably, from here on in, the plot becomes intriguingly convoluted. Regret accompanies Cutter on his mission to learn the whereabouts of the Comancheros. The pair is ambushed by Esteban, who recognizes Regret from the riverboat. Even after Cutter pretends that he and Regret have come on business to aid the Comancheros, he and Regret are strung up by their wrists along a narrow precipice, presumably to die in the sun. They are saved from this rather gruesome fate by Pilar. As it turns out she is the daughter of the Comanchero's ringleader (Nehemiah Persoff). Pilar and Regret are reunited and Pilar's father affords Cutter and Regret every hospitality under Esteban's watchful eye. After a night of drunken revelry, Wayne and Regret stage a daring escape from the Comanchero's stronghold with Pilar in tow and her father bound and gagged. The Comancheros make chase. But Tobe has brought the U.S. Cavalry with him and the entire band of outlaws is apprehended. Cutter departs for his next mission, leaving Pilar and Regret to start their life together in the open wilderness of Mexico.
The Comancheros clings together largely because of Wayne’s larger than life persona, and the exemplary production values afforded the film. This is a class ‘A’ feature, immeasurably fleshed out by some stellar talent working behind the camera. Composer Elmer Bernstein provides a spectacularly memorable central theme under the main titles that manages to capture the vast open spaces of the old west. More directly, it borrows heavily from his own underscoring for another super-western, The Magnificent Seven (1960).
The best thing about the film is John Wayne. By this stage in his acting career, Wayne had matured to a place of being comfortable in his own skin. As the embodiment of the old west Wayne delights in the more flippant dialogue he's given throughout the narrative. To be sure, Wayne is a towering monument of a man, but he’s also very relaxed and a born natural for these landscapes. His persona reaches beyond the screen and pulls the audience into the story - no small feat, given the shortcomings of the script. Regrettably, the other cast members do not live up to Wayne's high standard, particularly the very wooden Stuart Whitman and even more rigid and uninspiring Ina Balin. There is some minor buddy/buddy chemistry at play between Wayne and Whitman but virtually zero romantic chemistry between Balin and Whitman, leaving the plausibility of the film's finale highly suspect.
The Grant/Huffaker screenplay makes its share of misfires - mostly during the latter half of the story when Pilar inexplicably pivots from Comanchero loyalist to Cavalry informant. In the course of two brief scenes she rats out her own father in favor of starting an uncertain relationship with a man she barely knows. None of this makes much sense even if one buys the western fairy-tale course of untrue love. Nevertheless, The Comancheros hangs together - awkwardly so at times, but for the most part without drawing too much attention to its weaknesses.
Previously Fox Home Video made the The Comancheros available as part of their John Wayne: The Fox Westerns Collection on DVD. Now we get a deluxe Blu-ray offering that is infinitely more satisfying on every level, not the least of which are the Blu-ray's bounty of extras. More about these in a moment. The transfer is exceptionally detailed and very crisp and pleasing. Colors on the Cinemascope DeLuxe print are surprisingly bold, especially when directly comparing them to the rather tepid tones on the DVD. Flesh tones look more natural on the Blu-ray too. Softness in long and medium shots remains, but the image is infinitely tighter on the Blu-ray.
The audio is a 5.1 Dolby DTS. There's also a 4.0 Dolby track for purists of the original directionalized stereo masters. The DTS is often quite exhilarating - especially the Bernstein music cues. Dialogue is never as natural sounding, too much front channel and rather strident at times. Still, this is a faithful reproduction of the original theatrical soundtrack. Extras on the DVD were limited to a theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray provides a bounty of extras worthy of a re-purchase. We get an extensive 'making of' documentary that also critiques the real struggles incurred to civilize the west. A two part documentary on Wayne's Fox tenure features extensive film clips from the likes of The Barbarian and the Geisha, Red River, North of Alaska and The Alamo – titles that this critic hopes are in the works at Fox for a Blu-ray re-issue in the very near future.
There's also a well-informed audio commentary, a stills gallery, the original Comanchero's comic book digitized on 97 screen displays (the ending of the comic greatly varies from the film's ending, so it's definitely worth a look) and the original theatrical trailer. Overall, Fox has outdone themselves on this offering. Let's all hope it's the start of a trend. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)