Barquero relies on a simple formula; pair two very successful western stars and let them do their thing. Not particularly flashy by any means, it's a meat and potatoes kind of western, just barely worth getting an above average rating.
At an isolated river crossing along the border, Travis (Lee Van Cleef) is thriving as the owner of a river barge. The crossing is the only spot for miles in either direction, and a little town has popped up around Travis' barge. Miles away, infamous outlaw Jake Remy (Warren Oates) and his gang have led a bloody raid on a cavalry convoy transporting silver and repeating rifles, wiping out a town in the process. Remy's gang heads for the river crossing, knowing time will become a factor with the Army in hot pursuit to get back their silver and rifles. Travis and the river town catch wind though, getting to the far side of the river. Now Travis and Co. are on one side while Remy's gang is on the other, plotting their next move as the Army closes in behind them. Who will cave first?
From director Gordon Douglas, this is a western from a sub-genre that popped up in the late 1960s in the U.S. In Europe, the spaghetti westerns had emerged as a factor to be reckoned with, and western fans responded. They wanted darker, more cynical and more violent westerns. Good guys weren't just good guys. They became anti-heroes. So studios gave them what they want, and the result is a sticky middle ground that isn't pigeon-holed clearly. I have always thought of them as quasi-spaghetti westerns, movies like 100 Rifles, Villa Rides, Charro!, Shalako and so many more. 'Barquero' wasn't filmed in Europe -- Colorado is the backdrop, and a good one at that -- but it still feels like a spaghetti western. Composer Dominic Frontiere's score is okay, but it's not memorable like some of his better scores.
The best thing going for this American-ish spaghetti western is the casting of Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates as rivals. Both actors were at the height of their popularity. Van Cleef became an international star because of the spaghetti westerns, and Oates had risen from a career of supporting parts to become a leading man/star in his own right. They look to be having a lot of fun in the process, two tough guys sneering and yelling at each other from across a river. As Travis -- dubbed 'the Barquero' (Spanish for boatman) -- Van Cleef is not playing his typical gunfighter, but instead a tough as nails working man who won't turn his back on something he has created. Playing Remy, Oates hams it up (as usual, but it's always interesting) as the unhinged outlaw. We learn some about his past, and how he got here -- most definitely crazy -- but he plays one nasty dude like few others can.
Beyond that tough guy duo, 'Barquero' lacks the star power, but the supporting cast doesn't disappoint. I thought the best part was for Kerwin Matthews as Marquette, Remy's right hand man in leading a brutal gang. He is a former French officer who survived when French emperor Maximilian was killed by Mexican revolutionaries, now working as Remy's reasonable thinking ally. Also providing a scene-stealing supporting part is Forrest Tucker as Mountain Phil, a mountain man drifter who teams with Travis to protect the crossing. Both fighting over Van Cleef's Travis, Marie Gomez and Mariette Hartley play the love interests. Rounding out Remy's gang of cutthroats are Armando Silvestre, John Davis Chandler, Ed Bakey, Richard Lapp and Brad Weston. Craig Littler plays Pitney, the town store owner doubling as a con man preacher.
While I did like this western, I can't say I loved it. The premise is cool; two rivals across a river from each other. Time is running out for one of them, and they need to get across the river. Sounds like a pretty decent cat and mouse game, doesn't it? It should be, but it isn't. Remy's plan is....well, he doesn't have one. He brews and stews on his side of the river for much of the middle portion of the movie without actually doing anything. It's Matthews' Marquette who finally comes up with a plan. Clocking in at 109 minutes, it's a tad long with not enough going on. Still, it's a worthwhile popcorn western. Enjoy it for what it is, and watch Van Cleef and Oates be cool together. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube.
Barquero (1970): ** 1/2 /****