|Rio Conchos (1964)|
|Writers:||Joseph Landon and Clair Huffaker|
|Starring:||Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman, Jim Brown and Anthony Franciosa|
|The Plot: Maj. Jim Lassiter (Richard Boone) is a former confederate officer who has been left in disarray after the noted Apache “Redshirt” murdered his family. After being picked up by Capt. Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sgt. Franklyn (Jim Brown), he is put behind bars on a trumped up charge in order to keep him from continuing his string of murders against the native Apache tribes. The weapon that the Major has on him ends up pointing towards some stolen military cargo that the army has been in search of for quite some time. With the Major knowing just where to look, Capt. Haven and his men are put in place to lead him on an expedition to find the culprit known as Pardee, who appears to have been the one responsible for the stolen weaponry. Before taking off however, the Major refuses to go on this mission without his friend Juan (Anthony Franciosa), who is also currently being held by the US military. Now with a regular platoon behind him, Maj. Jim Lassiter must travel the south West in order to track down these missing guns.|
The western is a genre with a wide degree of acceptance around the Varied Celluloid universe. From the classic days of clean and respectable cowboys, right down to the dirty and sweaty wave of Spaghetti westerns, I know that I am a great admirer of these such films. Rio Conchos is a fine piece that fits snugly right in the center of those two very different staples of the genre, creating a rather unique western in many ways. In many other ways, it’s roughly everything you could probably come to expect from this type of production. This doesn’t have to be an all out terrible thing of course, since genre-nostalgia can sometimes make a decent movie seem great, but it seems to be a different case with Rio Conchos. While the familiarity of the plot is certainly a hurdle that caring audience members must seek to overcome, the genre-faithful out there will no doubt find it easy to look past. If you stick with it, Rio Conchos proves to be a deceptive western with political undertones, a dark underbelly and several really solid performances.
Before sitting down to watch the movie, the most I had ever heard about this film was that it featured the cinematic debut of Jim Brown. This was of course quite the instance in Hollywood history, as it wasn’t often that an African American sports star made the leap into the Hollywood mainstream during the sixties. His time in the spotlight wouldn’t last, as roles weren’t prominent for African Americans within the Hollywood world even in the midst of the civil rights movement. In fact, although he plays a sizable role in the film as a mere presence, Jim Brown has only a hand full of spoken dialogue. Although he is certainly there as a formidable screen icon, he is unfortunately left to sit in the background through many of the pivotal moments during the film. This could have been a stylistic choice however, as the racial tensions are certainly wrought within the film.
From the moment Jim Brown first pops up alongside Stuart Whitman, we get the feeling that something is uneasy here. We see Richard Boone pop up and when asked to saddle up, so that he can be brought back to camp for interrogation, he packs up his saddle and throws it into the hands of Jim Brown’s character. The intensity of the moment is built upon Boone’s character having been a rebel during the civil war and now here sits Jim Brown’s character, still a second class citizen, but placed in charge of him. There is most certainly an amount of running subtext within the film about questioning prejudice in all forms, even if the end result isn’t the most racially sensitive film ever made. As the film progresses, Brown and Boone’s characters actually become close partners within their group (with Boone’s character even beating up a bartender who refuses to serve Brown because of his skin color) and the film sets up even larger questions about American/Indian relations. The film unfortunately isn’t so progressive in its thinking that it presents Native Americans in a less-antagonistic role, but it does at least present one Apache character who isn’t bloodthirsty and ultimately the point is made that revenge is the driving force behind these two groups, and ultimately the cyclical nature of revenge will drive them further from their own humanity. With all of that said though, there are very questionable presentations of both Native Americans and Mexicans along the way, but for what it is, I was impressed with what the film had to say.
Within this cast, which is actually very impressive, Richard Boone is the real star of the show. He puts in a rather grungy performance as the Major, a role that would have been fitting in a spaghetti western but causes him to stand out even more in this classical setting. A Rooster Cogburn-esque character who is completely destroyed by the memories of his wife, Boone presents the character as a being that thrives solely on anger. Richard Boone was probably best known for the long running series Have Gun – Will Travel, and he shows up here in a very different kind of western setting. He is a character who is simply riddled with pathos. Moments such as the one where our main group stumbles upon another raided home, similar to the Major’s own where his wife and child died, really sends home the inner turmoil of the character. This scene also features one of the more disturbing moments found in a conventional western: where we see bloody bedsheets in front of what we are lead to believe is a tortured and brutalized woman who has been left for dead, while her child weeps away in the corner. A very dark turn in a movie that will surprise you in the very mature twists that pop up now and then.
Veteran director Gordon Douglas (who has nearly 100 credits to his name, among them: Them!, Stagecoach and he would later re-team with Jim Brown on Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off) keeps the movie flowing at a very brisk pace even if he doesn’t defer from what you would expect from a sixties-era Hollywood western. He keeps the surroundings big and the way he uses the awesome canyon scenery gives the movie an even larger feel than what it might seem in a less impressive landscape. Even if you had nothing nice to say about the movie at all, I think you would have to concede that it is spectacularly shot. The sights and the visual flourishes are what keeps you glued to the screen, but the characterization is what will stay in your mind afterward.
It’s very much a film that deals with regular Western pastiche. Honor, keeping your word, respect, friendship and comradery all play heavily into the story as it moves along. These are all things to expect, but the addition of the racial undertones definitely puts it into a minority audience, which in a lot of ways makes it somewhat special. The performances as well keep it floating above the “bland-line”. With these things in mind, I am going to give it a very high three. Had there been more to go on in terms of plot, in a capacity that might have given it a “new” feel, I would have give it a four without hesitation. Regardless, this is an incredibly strong western.