Fox // 1961 // 107 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 30th, 2011
The final film of legendary director Michael Curtiz.
"Mon-sewer, you may not live long enough to hang."
Notorious gambler Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines) has just victoriously completed a duel with a violent rival. Dueling is technically illegal in Louisiana circa 1840, but the laws are never enforced as long as the duals are carried out with honor. Alas, Paul made the mistake of dueling with the son of a powerful politician. Paul goes on the run, but is quickly captured by Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne, The Searchers). Jake is intent on turning Paul into the Louisiana authorities regardless of circumstances, but soon the two men find themselves teaming up to battle a much larger threat.
For decades, director Michael Curtiz was one of Hollywood's great workmen; a director with a slightly impersonal style but an undeniably professional work ethic. While Curtiz's mixed bag of a resume will probably prevent him from ever being regarded as one of cinema's greatest directors, it must be said that his ability to do justice to an above-average script led to the creation of several beloved films: The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas and of course the incomparable Casablanca. Curtiz was so devoted to his craft that he literally kept working until he simply couldn't do it anymore. The director was suffering from cancer when he took on the boisterous western The Comancheros, forcing star John Wayne to direct considerable portions of the film when Curtiz grew too ill to work.
Despite the strained circumstances under which The Comancheros was made, the completed film is just about as entertaining as it was ever likely to be. This was never going to be one of the great Wayne westerns; the script is too meanderingly episodic and conventional for that. Still, it's an engaging picture that will prove satisfying enough for fans of both Wayne and the genre (though honestly, I can't imagine anyone being a fan of the former without being a fan of the latter).
The film was one of the earliest efforts in which Wayne began tweaking his familiar tough-guy image, as the later portion of Wayne's career was dominated by films in which The Duke took a more relaxed, playfully self-aware, slightly self-deprecating approach to his performances. While there are high and low points throughout every period of Wayne's career, I tend to prefer the sort of late-era performance he delivers in The Comancheros: still commanding and swaggering, but with a good-natured twinkle in his eye which suggests he's only taking the lightweight material as seriously as it needs to be taken.
Though the plot is rather unfocused, at least it manages to surprise on occasion with the manner in which it regularly dispenses with one idea and latches onto another. Early on, it seems as if Wayne's dilemma over what to do with Whitman will be a plot element running through the entire film, but that problem is resolved surprisingly quickly. Likewise, Lee Marvin's performance as the violent "Crow" is so striking and memorable that we're prepared to see him embrace the role of the film's big bad villain, but alas, Marvin makes a disappointingly early exit (we don't meet the film's actual big bad villain until Act 3, and he's a lot less interesting than Marvin's terrifyingly wild character). At times, The Comancheros feels less like an adaptation of a novel than a series of western short stories awkwardly woven together.
Still, these minor problems are matched by a host of minor pleasures: Duke doing what Duke does best, the surprisingly charismatic presence of Stuart Whitman, Marvin's electric ten minutes or so of screen time, a handful of welcome humor, a tremendously rousing score from composer Elmer Bernstein (who delivers a main title even more memorable than his much-lauded The Magnificent Seven theme), a relatively brisk pace, and some engaging action sequences.
Though The Comancheros isn't one of the biggest westerns I've seen, it's certainly sprawling enough to justify being shot in the Cinemascope format. The handsome 1080p/2.35:1 transfer offers strong detail and depth, allowing the viewer to really soak in the striking visuals on display. The film is remarkably clean considering its age, with very few flecks or specks on display at any point. Colors became a shade oversaturated at times, but not enough to cause any significant concerns. Some of the make-up work (read: Lee Marvin's partially-scalped head) looks pretty dated and silly in hi-def, but that comes with the territory. A level of warm, natural grain is left intact. This is a good-looking transfer of a good-looking film. Audio is also solid, with Bernstein's score coming through with particular vigor and clarity. Dialogue is also sturdy throughout. The chaos of the action scenes is loud enough, but less immersive than one might hope. Still, that's to be expected from a film made fifty years ago.
Delightfully, Fox has put together a brand-new batch of extras for this Blu-ray release, giving fans of the film ample reason to dump the nearly bare-bones DVD release. Things kick off with a commentary track featuring Stuart Whitman, Nehemiah Persoff, Patrick Wayne and Michael Ansara (all recorded separately); easily the best option for those interested in the history of this film's making. Two new featurettes dig into different territory: "The Comancheros and the Battle for the American Southwest" (25 minutes) is a piece looking at the actual historical figures who inspired the film (many clips from the film are included, though the historians featured don't actually comment on the film), while "The Duke at Fox" (40 minutes) is a compelling overview of Wayne's hot-and-cold relationship with the studio (only five minutes or so of the running time is devoted to The Comancheros, though). You also get to flip through a 1080p rendering of a comic book series based on the film, plus an audio-only interview with Stuart Whitman. The DVD's skimpy features are reprised, too: a brief Fox Movietone News clip (1 minute) and a couple of theatrical trailers. In addition, the film is housed in digibook packaging with 24 pages of additional photos and info on the film. The cardboard sleeve holding the disc is pretty flimsy, but otherwise it's an attractive set. You get a couple of mini-posters, too.
The film's treatment of Indians is plagued by condescending stereotypes, but unfortunately this was par for the course in most westerns of the era. The scene in which Paul marvels over Jake's ability to tell the difference between a "tame Indian" and a violent one is particularly eyeroll-inducing.
The Comancheros is neither one of Wayne's best westerns nor one of his weakest. It's a modestly satisfying genre film that delivers just enough fun to overcome its messy structure. Fox's Blu-ray release offers both a gorgeous transfer and an appealing collection of brand-new extras (something that happens far too infrequently on catalogue releases these days).
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 1961
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Newsreel Clip
* Audio Interview
* Comic Book Gallery