The Sons of Katie Elder

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

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cannon for Cordoba

What I love more and more about movies as I look harder for those hard-to find gems is that there is always another gem around the corner.  They are the movies that you read about but can't find or can't afford that pricey VHS through an Amazon vendor.  They're the ones with these great casts that have somehow escaped your grasp for years.  I love stumbling across one of these older gems more than I appreciate seeing a really good new movie at the theaters.  For me, most of these gems are westerns or war movies, including 1970's Cannon For Cordoba

I read about this American western shot in Spain a few years back and was immediately interested but just couldn't find a copy anywhere, and it never seemed to be on TV anywhere.  Well, just like I was able to watch 1965's The Glory Guys last week, I found 'Cordoba' available through Netflix's Instant watch feature.  I knew from the first time I read about the movie I'd like it because it comes from the always reliable 'men on a mission' sub-genre that stretches across countless types of movies.  It is a mix somewhere between The Guns of Navarone, The Magnificent Seven, and The Professionals so it is fair to say you won't see anything you haven't seen before.  It is a western that follows the formula closely and is the better for it, even if it isn't anything new.

It's 1916 and General Black Jack Pershing (John Russell) is on the Texas/Mexico border with the U.S. army doing his best to protect the border from bandit attacks, none of whom is worse than a rogue general named Cordoba (Raf Vallone).  In a raid, Cordoba and his own army steals six artillery pieces and transport them back to his mountaintop fortress. Pershing has no option but to send some men undercover into Mexico to destroy the guns and possibly bring Cordoba out alive.  He chooses an officer, Captain Rod Douglas (George Peppard) to the lead the raid that will have his team travel 200 dangerous miles into Mexico. On his team are three men from his unit (Don Gordon, Pete Duel, and Nico Minardos), a Mexican officer (Gabriele Tinti) and a beautiful, mysterious woman who will be used as bait looking for revenge (Giovanni Ralli).  The odds are stacked against them though, and Douglas isn't sure any of them will come back.

Director Paul Wendkos sticks close the successful men on a mission formula from beginning to end here, and turns in a finished product that will never be thought of as classic, but it's like comfort food.  Just cause you've seen it before doesn't mean it's a bad thing.  He lays things out with an evil general as the villain, establishes a suicidal mission, assembles a team of specialists to pull off the job, throws in some curveballs, and lets the action take over.  Throw in a solid if unspectacular score from composer Elmer Bernstein, beautiful location shooting in Spain, a touch of nudity here and there, and enough action to fill in all the gaps.  It's typical of cheaper but well made westerns from the late 1960s and early 1970s that weren't trying to change the world. They were content to be damn entertaining, and whoever didn't like it didn't have to watch.

After some huge success in the early 1960s, Peppard was at a bit of a crossroads in his career, taking parts wherever he could get them.  He's not slumming here, but the part and movie as a whole clearly isn't as large scale as he'd probably like.  Playing Capt. Douglas, Peppard is a nice choice to lead a small team of specialists on a suicide mission.  He was cool in just about everything he did, and his cigar chomping (hello Hannibal!), don't give a damn officer is a solid anti-hero to lead the proceedings.  His team is made up of TV actors, and the four are given just enough background to make them interesting.  Gordon is the soldier looking for revenge against Peppard, Duel is Andy, the fun-loving nut of the group ready to turn on anyone and everyone, Minardos is the Greek immigrant with a touch for explosives, and Tinti is the loyal Mexican officer also looking for some vengeance.  I was surprised by which ones of the group actually makes it through the mission, but that's always part of the fun with these men on a mission movies.

This is an action western, and Wendkos does not disappoint.  Three huge set pieces dominate the gunplay, all building up to the explosive finale that is just an orgy of gunfire, explosions and nameless henchmen getting blown away.  Cordoba's raid on the cannons starts things off on a big scale, followed by Peppard's team tangling with some of Cordoba's men in a ruined, crumbling church.  Smaller scale, but still exciting.  Then in the finale, the actual suicidal mission.  For one, Cordoba's mountaintop fortress is a very cool set so placing a battle in its midst with chaos and explosions everywhere is a great finish.  It reminded me some of the ending to another Wendkos western, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, in terms of the large scope it takes.  Exciting to the very end with some good twists.

For a story set in the Mexican Revolution, 'Cordoba' does follow a fair share of genre conventions, all the better to stick with that formula.  You've got the generic evil general, the waves of nameless men in his armies more interested in women and drinking than fighting, and the requisite European general -- Swedish, not German this time -- played by Hans Meyer.  Vallone is given little to do as the evil Cordoba, but he looks the part with that menacing glint in his eyes.  He of course gets his comeuppance in the end as the bad guy always does.  A classic this is not, but an exciting, always entertaining western that is worth tracking down. No luck finding a trailer either, my apologies.

Cannon for Cordoba (1970): ***/****

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