The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Savage Pampas

When it comes to watching westerns, I'd like to think I've seen just about anything and everything the genre can offer.  I started watching them when I was little and never really stopped.  I'll watch good and bad, classic and panned, it really doesn't matter to me.  Spaghetti westerns came along when I was introduced to Clint Eastwood and opened up all sorts of new doors for the western.  For a bigger picture, foreign westerns are almost always interesting, presenting a non-American's view of what our west was like in the 19th Century.

That's the difference though, most foreign westerns take place in the American west or south into Mexico.  That is not the case with 1966's Savage Pampas, a Eurowestern made with U.S., Spanish and Argentinian backing.  The story is set in the last quarter of the 19th Century and is set on the Argentinian pampas -- flatlands, think the American plains.  The basic premise is of cavalry vs. Indians, albeit on a different continent with different players.  For any number of reasons -- I'm struggling to pick out just one -- I really enjoyed this movie, but I don't know why.  One thing is sure though, it's different from just about any other western I've ever seen.

Commanding a remote army outpost on the Argentinian pampas, Captain Martin (Robert Taylor) is facing two major problems, one affecting the other.  A deserter from the fort and a renegade, El Padron (Ron Randell), is fighting with the indigenous Indians, encouraging them to attack the army outposts.  Making his plan more effective, Patron is offering any deserters women once they arrive in his camp.  Stationed days from any nearby town, the outpost's garrison hasn't seen a woman in years.  Martin has proposed a plan to bring women -- prostitutes called 'camp followers' -- to Fort Toro, which is approved but first he has to go get them.  With a mid-sized patrol, Martin heads out across the Pampas to pick up 'the cargo' but Padron has spies everywhere, and it's only a matter of time before he figures out Martin's plan.

Several American westerns have dealt with at least somewhat similar topics, including a Taylor western titled 'Westward the Women.'  But 'Pampas' has a style all to its own.  The Argentinian cavalry here looks to be a mix between the Foreign Legion, the U.S. Cavalry and the gauchos that work the pampas in their extravagant, stylish outfits.  Bandits are bandits, and the Indians basically want nothing to do with any development.  Change a few lines here and there and you'd never know this was set in the Argentinian flatlands instead of the American southwest.  But that's a strong part of 'Pampas' because director Hugo Fregonese films in Argentina.  Echoing many John Ford westerns, Fregonese uses many shots of troopers on the horizon on the spacious plains.  At a very basic level, Savage Pampas is a pretty movie to look at, and that's always a strong jumping off point.

After the first 30 minutes, the rest of the movie is almost exclusively dedicated to Martin's patrol picking up 10 women that will be brought back to the fort and work as prostitutes.  The story handles this well, making these women more than just something to leer at as the men on the patrol guarding them start to develop relationships with them.  I really didn't expect the story to take that sort of route, but it works surprisingly well.  Instead of just having lonely, horny soldiers trying to rape these women, we get character development.  Some of the men include Lt. Del Rio (Angel del Pozo), the new, inexperienced officer, Sgt. Barril (Marc Lawrence), a tough-talking leader, El Gato (Charles Fawcett), the veteran scout,  Pvt. Luis (Jose Jaspe), an older soldier who takes a protective eye on one of the women, among several others who step into the limelight.

That's what surprised me more than anything, the character development, especially in a Eurowestern which typically key in on action and shootouts.  Robert Taylor did what so many actors did in the late 60s and went to Europe for parts, and his Capt. Martin -- other than the non-Spanish sounding name -- is a strong lead.  He's good at what he does but fed up at the lack of help and supplies he's offered.  Taylor also has a pretty ridiculous looking goatee, but it gets lost in the shuffle.  Also along for the patrol are Camila (Felicia Roc), a political prisoner forced to become a prostitute, Rucu (Rosenda Monteros), an Indian girl Martin buys, and Carreras (Ty Hardin), an anarchist journalist sentenced to join Martin's force.  Taylor and Hardin have some great scenes together as they discuss the dangerous situation they're in, especially their last scene alone on the pampas.

The patrol storyline is nothing new or unique, but it certainly keeps the story moving along.  Padron's forces wait for their chance to attack in a large, well-staged attack in a lonely village that highlights the movie's action scenes.  There is a starkness to the pampas and seeing a huge battle play out has an almost apocalyptic feel as the two sides clash. The ending caught me off guard too, but in a good way.  It's a less than happy ending, but for how the characters and story developed, an appropriate one.

Savage Pampas definitely surprised me in just about every way possible.  The cast delivers fine performances -- especially Taylor and Hardin -- and Fregonese is able to bring something new to the cavalry picture by developing his patrol and giving us a reason to root for them.  The Argentinian locations are beautiful to look at and give a sense of how wide open the pampas really is.  DVDs and VHS tapes are difficult to find for a reasonable price so keep your eye out on TCM for another airing.  It is shown in widescreen and doesn't disappoint.

Savage Pampas <----TCM clip (1966): *** 1/2 /****

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