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, November 22, 2012

Rio Conchos

No matter what movies will tell you, there was nothing particularly pleasant about the wild, wild west. Let’s even limit that from the years immediately following the Civil War right up into the 1890s. Depending on the western, you’re going to get a different picture of that brutal, plain nasty survival based time. One of the deepest and darkest? That’s 1964’s RioConchos, an ahead of its time western that still resonates today.

It’s 1867 along the Texas/Mexico border, and a shipment of 2,000 new repeating rifles meant for the undermanned U.S. cavalry has been stolen without a trace. Jim Lassiter (RichardBoone), a former Confederate officer, is arrested with one of those rifles soon after brutally shooting down a handful of Apache warriors. Lassiter is approached to undertake a dangerous mission; find the rifles before they fall into the wrong hands. He doesn’t want to but agrees to it, an incident from his past haunting him. Under the command of Capt. Haven (Stuart Whitman) and a cavalry sergeant, Franklin (Jim Brown), and with a shifty bandit, Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), along to “even things out,” Lassiter heads into Mexico. What awaits? A Confederate officer, Pardee (Edmond O’Brien), trying to start a second war with an army of Apache warriors.

From the first time I saw this Gordon Douglas-western on a beat-up old VHS, I loved this western. It’s harder to find although it has received a DVD release the last few years. It has all the little things going for it. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is a gem (listen HERE), setting the stage for a similar score four years later with Bandolero! There’s also the location shooting in Arches National Park and Dead Horse State Park in Utah and  that adds that sense of realism that the best desert westerns have. Those little things, they can make a bad movie mildly acceptable and a decent movie into a good to great final product. The story as well doesn’t spell everything out for you. It’s not always clear what some characters’ intentions are, adding a sense of mystery to the mission.

What appealed to me most about ‘Conchos’ though was the casting. It’s a men on a mission movie, and a goodie. These aren’t four specially trained commandos working together. This is a group of four very different men at that. With his gravelly voice, heavily lined face and generally nasty demeanor, Boone looks extremely comfortable in the western setting. Lassister’s background adds some much-needed sympathy to the Lassiter character. Franciosa especially is a scene-stealer as the shiftless Rodriguez, always ready with a smile but mostly waiting for a chance to double-cross you. Whitman delivers a workmanlike performance, lost in the shuffle against Boone and Franciosa. In his first movie, Brown is a nearly-silent presence, but an imposing one at that.

The focus is on the back-stabbing quartet, but the supporting cast also features Wende Wagner as an Apache woman the group picks up along the way on the trail, Warner Anderson as Colonel Wagner, the Union commander setting up the mission, Rodolfo Acosta as Bloodshirt, a warring Apache chief, Vito Scotti as a Mexican bandit, and an uncredited Timothy Carey as a suspicious bartender with few answers. O’Brien as Pardee is nothing more than a cameo. The character is more important as a name and idea, Pardee finally showing up in the last 30 minutes. Hearing Boone say ‘Parrrrrr-deeeeeee’ is worth the price of admission alone.   

As for the whole nastiness factor, ‘Conchos’ has plenty of it and more to spare. We’re introduced to Lassiter callously gunning down five Apache warriors burying one of their own. Lassiter and Haven hate each other almost as much as the Apaches. The former Confederate wants revenge for the death of his wife and daughter at the hands of Apaches, and he sees Indians as one being; man, woman, child. It doesn’t matter. In a rage, he tries to bash Wagner’s Sally’s head in. The border setting helps too. It’s a country with little law or rule. Whoever is fastest with a gun rules.

Now up to this point, you wouldn’t be wrong to think this is an action-packed western. Ready to be surprised? It isn’t. The action is kept to quick-hitting scenes that don’t linger. That ends up being a good thing. It doesn’t overstay its welcome. An encounter with bandits is chaotic and bloody as is a showdown later with an Apache war party. The nastiness in the action department comes late when Lassiter and Co. encounter Pardee’s army of ex-Confederate soldiers, Mexican bandits, and Apaches, enduring some brutal torture at their hands. The ending still surprises me in its darkness, but it’s an ending that won’t be easily forgotten. An underrated western, one definitely worth catching up with.

Rio Conchos <---trailer (1964): *** 1/2 /****

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