Spanish-American War. Okay, there I go again lying. It's actually a miniseries, 1997's Rough Riders, that's pretty good if not so well known. Well, I can kinda add a second movie to the list although it involves the years leading up to the war before the U.S. officially got involved. Here we go with 1956's Santiago.
Riding through the swamps of Florida, Cash Adams (Alan Ladd) arrives in Tampa with wagons loaded with guns, ammunition and dynamite ready to close a deal and make some money for himself and his men. Not so fast though, Mr. Adams. The deal he cut with Cuban revolutionaries fighting the Spanish is okay, but now he has to get all his materiel to Cuba himself. Adams finds an old steamboat captain and Civil War veteran, Sidewheel Jones (Chill Wills), to transport his supplies but it's not that simple. On board the boat is another gunrunner, Clay Pike (Lloyd Nolan), who has cut a similar deal with the Cubans. Adams has a rivalry with Pike dating back 10-plus years and the voyage across the Gulf of Mexico will be anything but easy. Spanish ships are waiting to stop them, if the ship can even get there before Adams and Pike tear each other apart.
Airing recently on Turner Classic Movies, 'Santiago' is from director Gordon Douglas. Not necessarily a well-known name, Douglas still has quite a few really solid movies to his name including Rio Conchos, Chuka, In Like Flint, Up Periscope and Golf of the Seven Saints among others. He specialized in tough movies, action and western and war flicks full of tough guy actors doing tough guy stuff. Douglas didn't have a huge visual style or anything that truly set him apart from the rest, but he was a solid, workmanlike director, and I have very much enjoyed a lot of his movies. This one? It's pretty decent, ahead of its time in certain moments with its use of on-screen violence and unfortunately too familiar in other scenes. It doesn't rewrite the genre, but I enjoyed it, 94 minutes of exciting action with a pretty cool cast and a different background, the Cuban War of Independence. Spanish-American War still to come!
The best comparison I can make is the similarities here with Robert Aldrich's 1954 classic western Vera Cruz, one of the most influential westerns of all-time. Here with 'Santiago,' Alan Ladd and Lloyd Nolan channel Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, two rivals who are forced to work together to battle a common enemy. All the while, they know a showdown is looming. Ladd is pretty decent as Cash Adams, his backstory providing most of the interest. A cavalry officer fighting the Apaches, he was dishonorably discharged when a captive Apache chief escaped because one of his men got drunk on guard duty. And who was providing those Apaches with repeating rifles? Why Nolan's Clay Pike of course! The rivalry is a little tame, little lacking in energy, but it seems Adams and Pike are never too far away from throwing down and having it out.
I wish there was more of that darker story material, and that becomes the issue. Yeah, it's a rivalry....but not really. Ladd's Adams is a good gunrunner (if there is such a thing), supplying materiel for the right side. Nolan's Pike doesn't care who gets the guns as long as he gets paid. And because that wasn't enough, we get a love interest with Rossana Podesta playing Dona Isabella, a beautiful Cuban revolutionary who works as the middleman for shipment of the guns. Who do you think she'll end up with?!? You won't need two guesses. There's also an adorable little Cuban boy who bonds with Adams, but you just know things aren't going to end well for the little stinker. At times, things are a tad too clean, a little slow-moving, but for the most part I was entertained throughout. Also, kudos to Ladd who in muggy Florida and Cuba manages to keep his tailored white shirts immaculate no matter what's going on. Now, THAT is talent.
Who else to look for? Wills is excellent, toning down his over the top act that could be a little hammy when overdone, Don Blackman playing Sam, his former slave and current right-hand man. Paul Fix is similarly very good as Trasker, Adams' loyal right-hand man with an interesting background that explain his loyalty. Some of the other tough guys on hand include Royal Dano, L.Q. Jones, and Frank DeKova. The movie is at its strongest when it leans on Ladd, Nolan and the familiar faces all around them. Romance? Motivations for independence? Meh, no thanks. The action and violence can be pretty startling -- even bloody -- and the finale especially is memorable. It even reminded me of the final battle in Major Dundee, a chaotic, quick-cut bloody mess where characters are dispatched without warning.
A decent movie that could have been better, but still worth a watch.
Santiago (1956): ** 1/2 /****