The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Viva Max

From the time I watched Disney's Davy Crockett episodes, I was hooked to the story of the battle of the Alamo. I read all I could about one of Texas history's most infamous events. I watched every movie I could from John Wayne's The Alamo to 1955's The Last Command and everything in between. But 20-some years, one movie managed to steer clear of my grasp...until now that is. It took me years, but I finally tracked down 1969's Viva Max.

Along the U.S./Mexico border, a company of Mexican infantry from the Rio Nuevo garrison crosses the Rio Grande river, throwing the border patrol for a loop. Their commander, Lt. General Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos (Peter Ustinov), has told his men very little about what they're actually doing, instead keeping his plans close to his vest. What exactly is he up to? In 1960s Texas over 130 years since the actual battle, General Max intends to retake the Alamo mission, now an instantly recognizable landmark sought out by millions of tourists each year. What are his motives? Well, that's for Max to reveal at his choosing. Before Max and his small army are done, the San Antonio police (including Sheriff Harry Morgan), the National Guard (including General Jonathan Winters) and the Army (including General Keenan Wynn) are all going to get involved. How can they solve this ridiculous situation peaceably?

I visited San Antonio for the first time with my Dad when I was 10 years old where I bought one of my favorite books, Frank Thompson's Alamo Movies. I've done my best to track down and catch up with all of the listed movies, but this 1969 flick managed to avoid me. The catch? This movie from director Jerry Paris is a comedy, a screwball, physical comedy at that. Yes, you read it right. A movie about a horrific, bloody massacre is a comedy. A comedy!!! That was my biggest worry heading into a flick I've long wanted to see. It wasn't that it was going to be in poor taste. I assumed on that much. But how badly in poor taste was it going to be? I hold the Alamo story above almost all else and even have a distant relative/ancestor who fought and died there in 1836. Heroic efforts on both sides ending in costly casualties. Should you even remotely touch that in the comedy department?

Just know going in that you probably will be offended at some point during this film because of that subject matter. Now all that said, I enjoyed this 1969 comedy a whole lot. Yeah, it is dumb, even stupid at times. Some efforts at physical, goofy humor fall short but as a whole? It's funny as the more subtle gags and lines work because of a talented cast stepping to the plate. This ain't rocket science but 'Max' is funny. As an Alamo buff, one thing stands out above all else. San Antonio and the Alamo allowed 'Max' to film on the mission grounds in downtown San Antonio. To film A LOT. All the footage works as a behind the scenes look at the Alamo a lot. What's left of the mission is almost miniscule compared to what the Alamo looked like in 1836 (check it out HERE), but it works as a backdrop where a Hollywood backlot wouldn't have. Issues with the humor/story aside, the visual works in effortless fashion.

Playing our title character, Ustinov throws himself into the part as Max, a Mexican general who inspires....well, no faith in his men, and that becomes his motivation. I won't give it away completely, but his motives for retaking the Alamo are far from historical reasons, revenge reasons or basically anything you'd think. His motives? Far more personal. Ustinov -- heavily tanned -- has a lot of fun with the part with his Max, a generally quiet guy who's a bit of a dandy, a bit of a doof and pretty oblivious to just about everything around him. He gets some especially funny scenes with a beautiful young woman (Pamela Tiffin) who has an odd request of the Mexican general as she's captured inside the Alamo. His right-hand man, Sergeant Valdez (scene-stealing John Astin), tries to keep his men in line and his general at the front...something that proves harder than you'd think. A very funny performance for Ustinov.

The whole cast doesn't disappoint. We're not talking subtle, smart laughs, but usually big goofy laughs and moments. Morgan, Winters and Wynn split time in the clueless command spots, Winters especially getting some laughs as the politically correct, generally inept National Guard general. I loved Astin's part, the underplayed performance as Valdez, Max's loyal, capable sergeant. Also look for Alice Ghostley as a paranoid prisoner convinced Max and his men are Chinese Communists, Kenneth Mars as her ultra-patriotic nephew with a para-military group, and Ann Morgan Guilbert (Paris' co-star and on-screen wife in The Dick Van Dyke Show) and Bill McCutcheon as a married couple who Max's infantry comes across. Also look for Gino Conforti and Larry Hankin as two of the more visible/vocal troops in Max's makeshift army.

I probably shouldn't have liked this movie, but I did. It cracked me up in all its badness. An early on-screen message says 'No one mentioned in this movie is real except for Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, William Travis, John Wayne and Richard Widmark.' John Wayne's Alamo becomes a running gag at times, him and Widmark's name becoming passwords and countersigns as the "battle" develops. It's those smaller, quieter and smarter moments that work, especially Max's version of Travis' line in the sand moment. Still, I liked it throughout, a mindless but very entertaining way to spend 90-plus minutes. Worth tracking down if you can.

Viva Max (1969): ***/****

No comments:

Post a Comment