At a time when movie stars were truly larger-than-life and iconic, few stood taller and were more memorable than John Wayne. The Duke more or less played himself, the tall, laconic keeper of the moral code regardless of era or genre. He’s best remembered for his work in Westerns, ultimately earning his one Oscar for True Grit, a tribute to a career spent along the dusty trails of a bygone America.
Bit by bit, Wayne’s oeuvre is being preserved on DVD and now Blu-ray, with [[[The Comancheros]]] being the most recent offering. In time for the perfect Father’s Day gift, the deluxe package from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment offers up one of Wayne’s last big Westerns just as interest in the genre was beginning to wane. The movie is well regarded by many Western fans and Elmer Bernstein’s score has lived on, well beyond the film itself, used elsewhere ever since (including The Simpsons). It also has the historical footnote of being the final film from director Michael Curtiz, beloved for his earlier work on The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca. He was laid low early on by cancer and Wayne himself took over much of the directing but refused credit. Second unit action sequences were handled by Cliff Lyons. The unfortunate many hands approach probably led to the film feeling incredibly uneven, talky without much punch to the dialogue sequences, and sluggishly paced for the first third.
The film is adapted from Paul Wellman’s 1952 novel about the relationship between gambler Paul Regret, wanted for killing another man in a New Orleans duel, and Texas Ranger Jake Cutter. While Cutter tries to keep Regret from fleeing, they are both drawn into a conflict between the Rangers and the Commancheros, Spanish traders who profit from selling white men’s whiskey and munitions to the Comanche Indians, who then prey on settlers. Along the way, we learn that Regret has instantly fallen in love with Pilar Graile and yearns for her while Cutter mourns his wife, gone two years, two months and thirteen days. They make an odd pairing and the potential is there for a real interesting buddy relationship, long before that became an overused movie convention. The novel focused mainly on Regret but things were evened out a bit to accommodate Wayne, who was a second choice for the lead after Gary Cooper was too ill for the part.
The movie is filled with western veterans including Lee Marvin, Michael Ansara, Bruce Cabot and the uncredited Bob Steele, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, and Harry Carey, Jr. Standing tallest is Wayne as Cutter alongside Stuart Whitman as Regret. Little remembered Ina Balin is the attractive mystery woman and Nehemiah Persoff is later introduced as her wheelchair-bound father. Wayne’s son Patrick plays a young Ranger and his daughter Aissa has a cameo as a little girl.
In a land as wide and long as America is, there are an awful lot of coincidences that are used to propel the story and for a film focused on rifle sales, the use of the anachronistic Winchester rifle and Colt Peacemaker pistol is disappointing but such authenticity mattered little back in 1961 when this was shot.
There’s plenty to like despite the unevenness and the transfer to high definition is spectacular. Shot on location, the film breathes with rich colors from its original Cinemascope cinematography.
Previous releases had little in the way of extras, notably newsreel footage of Claude King and Tillman Franks awarded for a song that was excised from the final release. 20th has done a masterful job in honoring the film and its stars with a handsome 24-page booklet about the film and cast along with several new extras. Contained within are two miniature reproductions of the film’s one-sheets.
Cobbled from older interviews, Whitman, Persoff, Ansara and Patrick Wayne are represented in an interesting audio commentary for the 1:47 film. I truly appreciate the effort that went into the breezy and packed “The Comancheros and the Battle for the American Southwest”, a brand new featurette on the history that involved both novel and film. A variety of historians and archaeologists take us through the period and the development of the commancheros. There’s also a two-part, forty minute look at Wayne’s career at 20th Century-Fox. This is brand new stuff and well worth watching. Whitman also appears in a 12-minute audio-only interview where he covers his career.
ComicMix fans will appreciate the Dell Four Color comic being digitally presented here, a panel or two at a time. The artwork looks to be by Edd Ashe and interestingly, since this was produced prior to the film being shot, the original script ending is used so you can see what was intended.
The newsreel footage and original trailers round out this wonderful package.
When is the film set?
Before the Winchester was the Winchester, it was the Henry rifle, also known as the “yellow boy” for its brass frame. The Henry began production in the late 1860.
That aside, since the rifle pictured has a wooden forestock, it’s not a Henry, and since it appears to have a steel frame, it’s not a Winchester 66, either.