Guerrilla warfare has been around....well, probably as long as war itself has. In American history, guerrilla warfare goes back into the French and Indian war, especially the American revolution, but in my goofy head, I always think of the Civil War as when the guerrilla fighting took a particularly nasty turn. Because it was so vicious -- Bleeding Kansas, Quantill's raiders -- not as many films explore the topic. Unfortunately, the ones that I've seen that do jump in...they're not very good. As for 1969's The Desperados, it isn't very good, but it is badly entertaining.
It's late in the Civil War, a group of Confederate guerrillas led by Josiah Galt (Jack Palance), a former parson, is doing its best to terrorize Union forces in the western theater. Among his men are three of his sons, including David (Vince Edwards), who's grown disgusted with their tactics. Following one attack on a peaceful town that degenerates into a massacre, David decides to leave his father's group. He's caught though and sentenced to death by his own father, only managing to escape at the last minute. David manages to start a new life, marrying his sweetheart, Laura (Sylvia Syms), and with the end of the Civil War thinks he may be safe. Years pass, but Josiah is still at the head of his gang of guerrillas turned bandits, terrorizing Texas and the southwest. David hopes he can steer clear, but the Galt gang may be heading his way.
I had never heard of this western -- at all -- before finding it on the Movie Channel (original name, huh?). I'm always curious to see little known westerns like this so I recorded it, and here we sit. From director Henry Levin (with backing from producer Irving Allen), 'Desperados' has the distinct feel of an American western posing as a spaghetti western. Maybe it was cheaper, but it was definitely filmed in Spain and not the American west. The look of the film -- in La Pedriza and Colmenar Viejo, Spain -- is definitely one of the most positive aspects of the game. The cynical/dark nature of the story with some Greek/Roman mythological undertones combined with some surprisingly bloody violence all leans toward the spaghetti western genre. It isn't though, just a decent American impression.
The biggest part of the Greek tragedy from mythology comes in the story's focus on the Galt family. Who better to play a nutso family patriarch with some bizarre religious beliefs than Jack Palance? The answer you're looking for is No One. Given a second career in Europe with spaghetti westerns, Palance hams it up like only he could. He's big and loud and all over the place in a part that -- as usual -- borders on being too much. Edwards is okay as the do-good David, but he gets lost in the shuffle too much as the heroic brother who wants to do the right thing. He does rock some awesomely big hair so he's got that going for him. Also starring as the Galt brothers are George Maharis as Jacob, the loyal brother who sticks with his father through thick and thin, while Adam (Christian Roberts) is nuts, the youngest and possibly unhinged brother.
Having some fun in a key supporting part is Neville Brand as Marshal Kilpatrick, the peace officer who knows David's true identity and wants to help him lead his new life. Kate O'Mara plays Adah, a dance hall girl/prostitute who worries about David's well-being and that of his family. John Paul plays Sheriff Lacey, another peace officer who questions David's intentions.
Basically across the board, this is a pretty weird western. It is at its strongest early on when the Civil War is raging, the pace slowing down some once the war ends and David settles down to a new life. The finale makes up for some of the goofiness in the middle, including a final twist that definitely caught me by surprise. On top of the surprising violence -- lots of blood post-shooting -- is some really funny and bizarre nudity. At one point, a pimp/saloon owner stands over his girls who are topless wrestling (strategic places are covered up). All very tasteful. There's also some concealed nudity with Syms swimming, Edwards dangling her clothes just out of reach. It's just that kind of western. Pretty odd, at times really bad, but mostly entertaining. Where else can you see a preening Jack Palance screaming and taunting his grandson who he intends to kill? The answer is nowhere.
The Desperados (1969): ** 1/2 /****