The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Treasure of Pancho Villa

Countless westerns set in the years following the Civil War showed gunslingers, cowboys, crooks, horse thieves, commoners and businessmen searching for riches in the American West.  But if there was ever a place where making money was easiest when it comes to movies, that place would be Mexico, the country where American gunfighters and mercenaries head south to join in on any number of revolutions and Civil War.  The Magnificent Seven, Vera Cruz, and The Wild Bunch stand out from the rest, but one forgotten gem is 1955's The Treasure of Pancho Villa.

Dealing with a story not so different from the previous year's Vera Cruz, 'Treasure' is one of those hidden gems that I'll always watch when I stumble across it on TV.  And because there's no VHS or DVD readily available, you've got to enjoy it while you can.  It's a B-western that isn't held back by flaws that brought down so many other 1950s westerns.  Again a lot like Vera Cruz, Treasure was a pretty good look into the future of what westerns would turn into in the mid to late 1960s when Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns put their own unique spin on what the American west was like.  Dark, cynical, double crosses, betrayals and plenty of action rule in this underrated western.

Looking to take one more big job that will allow him to retire for good, American gunman Tom Bryan (Rory Calhoun) teams up with a former alley and idealistic officer in Pancho Villa's army, Juan Castro (Gilbert Roland). With some help from Villa's revolutionaries, Tom and Juan knock off a heavily guarded and fortified train heading north with almost a million dollars in gold.  Now comes the hard part as they are forced to transport the gold by mule train to a prearranged meeting point with Villa's forces.  Mexican forces are following close behind hoping to get the gold back, but there's also a treacherous trail guide (Joseph Calleia) among their group who may pose a bigger problem. Time is running out though, and almost everyone starts looking out for themselves when the chips are down.

From the time I saw Clint Eastwood in Leone's spaghetti westerns, I was hooked.  So going back and seeing a movie made 10 years prior when so many American westerns presented this dull, whitewashed version of the west and seeing a movie as good and as enjoyable as this is a treat.  There are no real good guys, just different shades of bad, good and somewhere in between.  Calhoun's Tom is a cynical mercenary who goes wherever he can get the most money, principles or ideals thrown out the window long ago.  His weapon of choice is a Lewis gun, a light machine gun he uses to get out of trouble as quick as he gets into it.  Just one of many influences a low-budget B-western would have on one of my favorite genres, the spaghetti western.

One of the best things to come out of 'Treasure' is the pairing of star -- but not superstars -- Calhoun and Roland.  Neither actor was ever a huge star in Hollywood, but they were both solid actors who rarely disappointed on screen.  Both had a knack for playing characters not quite good and not quite bad, just somewhere floating in between.  They're introduced early as two similar men, a fighting man who is good at something that is extremely dangerous.  They fight for different reasons -- Tom for money, Juan for beliefs and Mexican freedom -- but when the time comes they can put aside their differences and fight alongside each other.  There are some great dialogue exchanges between them as each man begins to wonder if the other is trying to double cross him.

Filming in Mexico (it looks like some familiar locations in Durango), director George Sherman makes an exciting, fast-paced story that clocks in at just over 95 minutes. After the train robbery, the movie mostly settles in as a long chase movie, Tom, Juan and Co. hightailing it across the Mexican frontier chased by Mexican cavalry.  It's never long in between action scenes (surprisingly graphic and callous for 1955), including one of the more original final showdowns I've seen in awhile.  The opening scene actually partially reveals the ending only to flashback to how all the characters got to that spot.  It's a simple technique used to death in the years since on TV and in movies, but when handled right as it is here, it works in a big way.

My only real complaint from this otherwise very solid western is the addition of Shelley Winters to the cast as an American schoolteacher along for the ride after being caught up in the revolution. Her character quickly falls for the roguish mercenary, Tom, and we're "treated" to a series of scenes as they talk about personal convictions and beliefs, what drives them and what their dreams are.  The pacing slows down, and I found myself fast-forwarding through most of their scenes.  Other than that, nothing to complain about. It's a hidden gem, and a western ahead of its time in terms of storytelling, realism, and cynicism.  A 3-fer if there ever was.

The Treasure of Pancho Villa <---TCM trailer (1955): ***/****

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