Our review of The Comancheros (Blu-ray) DigiBook, published May 30th, 2011, is also available.
"In a very short time, a company of Rangers is gonna come boiling in here…and you'll hurry your end if you don't behave."—Captain Jake Cutter
In this 1961 Western from director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), Captain Jake Cutter of the Texas Rangers (John Wayne) is forced to enlist the aid of his prisoner, gambler Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), to track down a gang of criminals who call themselves the Comancheros.
One of the best things about The Comancheros is that it employs the organic narrative flow that works so well in Westerns. The plot description above hardly does justice to the picaresque tangents through which the film wanders. Unlike Ethan Edwards, Wayne's more famous Indian fighter from John Ford's The Searchers (1956), Jake Cutter is hardly singularly focused on his mission to track down the Comancheros. Instead, he gets ever closer to his adversaries by simply going with the flow of events, reacting to each situation in which he finds himself. What could be a narrative liability, works as a strength in a film set in the vast, unspoiled plains of 19th-century Texas.
Missing from The Comancheros is the thematic intensity of the best entries in the genre (think High Noon, the aforementioned The Searchers, or modern examples like Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven), but it's still a rollicking adventure with plenty of colorful characters, including Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen) in an excellent if too-brief turn as a badass named Crow, Michael Ansara (best known as the diabolical Klingon, Kang, in Star Trek) as a Comanchero lieutenant, and Jack Elam as John Wayne rifle fodder.
In addition, Curtiz and cinematographer William H. Clothier (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) make excellent use of the CinemaScope format to capture the wide Texas vistas (let's face it, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is especially aesthetically appropriate to the Western). Fox's DVD is the best I've ever seen The Comancheros look. Source elements were surprisingly clean, colors are bold and vibrant, blacks solid. It's not the sharpest image I've ever seen, but the film wasn't exactly shot last year. Considering the low-profile release and sparse extras on the disc, the quality of the transfer is a pleasant surprise. The treatment of the film itself is always the most important element of any DVD package, and Fox has delivered on this one.
The Dolby Digital 4.0 soundtrack is surprisingly immersive considering the age of the film. There are no directional pans, of course, but Elmer Bernstein's (The Magnificent Seven) score has been given the full-bodied mix it deserves. Hiss and crackle are completely absent. Also available are Dolby Digital 2.0 mono tracks in both French and Spanish. The French track, while less elaborate, is of a piece with the English, but the Spanish is far worse, thin and muffled.
If you're particular about Westerns and only enjoy the cream of the crop, it's probably best to leave The Comacheros off your must-own list. If you're a fan of the genre, this disc is for you. The film's lightweight narrative is offset by its visual beauty and the quality of its cast. It also happens to be a lot of fun.
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