Texas Rangers, and no, not the Major League Baseball team, instead a small group of law officers who patrolled Texas trying to protect its citizens. Recurring characters in the western genre, one of the best portrayals of the Rangers is 1961's The Comancheros.
It's 1843 when a Louisiana gambler, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), finds himself on the run following an accidental death in a duel. Regret heads for Texas but as he readies to disembark from the riverboat, he is instead arrested for murder by a Texas Ranger, Captain Jake Cutter (John Wayne). The duel was fair by all accounts, but the dead man was the son of a powerful judge who wants vengeance. Intending to bring Regret back to Louisiana, Cutter instead finds himself working with the man. All through the territory, Comanche raiding parties are attacking one ranch and homestead after another. Cutter has long thought the Comanches are being led by a gang of white men who pull the strings, but he has no proof. Posing as a gunrunner and with Regret as his somewhat unwilling partner, Cutter heads into Comanche territory and finds just what he thought he would, a gang of drifters, bandits and killers -- Comancheros -- working with the Comanches. Can they get out alive?
The 1960s were a big time for John Wayne. He wasn't just a box office star, but by now after 30-plus years in the business, he was a screen legend. This was the decade where -- for better or worse -- he started playing himself more than meaty roles like The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. His mindset changed some as he started to make movies that typically had one objective....please the audience. These were movies meant to entertain, movies the whole family could go see. They would revolve around action-packed stories, good casts of familiar faces, great locations and whistle-worthy scores, movies like this one, The Undefeated, Sons of Katie Elder, McLintock!, Donovan's Reef and Hatari. This is a prime example of that type of movie. It's fun, exciting and with a whole lot of action. A groundbreaking, innovative western? Nope, but as far as popcorn movies go, it's hard to beat.
This obviously isn't a comedy western, but it isn't as dark and downbeat as the plot description might imply. For me, the best thing going for 'Comancheros' has always been the pairing of Wayne and Whitman, an Odd Couple pairing that works extremely well. It almost plays like a buddy western movie, the resolute Ranger and the roguish gambler. Wayne especially gets to show off a comedic side that most of his movies just didn't allow. His backwoods Ranger mispronounces Monsieur as Mon-sewer, providing some good laughs throughout. Whitman too looks right at home alongside the Duke, the duo exchanging some great dialogue scenes together on the trail. It looks easy watching them. Regret is far from a veteran trailsman, but he picks it up quick. Cutter bristles at times with his prisoner's unique ways, but thrust into a do-or-die situation, they end up becoming unlikely friends. Two good lead performances for sure.
While the A-list names might not be there, 'Comancheros' offers a very solid cast, one all western fans should appreciate. Lee Marvin makes what amounts to a cameo as Tully Crow, a brutal, vicious Comanchero, stealing the show and providing some great moments with Wayne in their scenes together. The one weak point is Ina Balin as Pilar, a beautiful young woman who falls for Regret and vice versa. Her scenes are pretty painful, especially as she "analyzes" love. Nehemiah Persoff is similarly a scene-stealer as Graile, the handicapped, brutal leader of the Comancheros with Michael Ansara as his sadistic henchman, Amelung, and also look for Jack Elam as one of the Comancheros. As for the other Rangers, look for Bruce Cabot as Major Henry and Patrick Wayne as Tobe, a young ranger along on the mission into Comanchero territory. Also look for the beautiful Joan O'Brien as Melinda, a widow who cares deeply for Cutter (and maybe more...uh-oh!) with Wayne's daughter Aissa playing Melinda's daughter.
Looking at the credits, Michael Curtiz is listed as the director, but Curtiz became sick during filming and was unable to complete the movie, dying soon after its release. Wayne stepped in and directed in uncredited fashion, finishing the movie. The story itself is pretty episodic, the first 45 minutes spent with the hunt and escape and hunt and escape between Regret and Cutter. It covers a lot of ground before the Comancheros are even introduced, but it's never dull and never really slows down. There actually isn't a ton of action, but what's there is enjoyable. What is noteworthy is a talented cast clearly having some fun with a story that's hard not to go along with. Also worth mentioning, Elmer Bernstein's memorable score, especially the theme. Listen to it HERE. Get your popcorn ready, sit back and enjoy this one.
The Comancheros (1961): ***/****