Monday, September 15, 2014

Another Look: RIO CONCHOS (1963 Western film)

This tough, gritty, generally overlooked action Western actually has a lot going for it and deserves to be ranked higher on lists of top Western films, where it seldom appears at all.

Heading the list of positives is the gutsy performance by Richard Boone in the lead role as harsh, uncompromising, embittered James Lassiter, a former Confederate officer with little regard for the post-Civil War U.S. Army operating along the Mexican border and a seething hatred for the Apaches who murdered his family.
The latter has set him on a quest to hunt down and kill as many Apaches as he can find. In the process of doing this, he confiscates a repeating rifle from the body of one of the braves he caught up with. His possession of same comes to the attention of Army Captain Haven (played by Stuart Whitman) who recently had a shipment of these rifles stolen from his command by marauders striking from south of the border.
Inasmuch as the Apaches have already been wreaking havoc throughout the territory with less formidable weapons, it would be disastrous for them to gain possession of these modern repeaters. Lassiter is first arrested for possessing the stolen rifle and then offered his freedom if he will lead a special covert unit into Mexico to locate and retrieve the stolen rifles before they fall into the hands of the Indians.
Unable to stand being penned up, Lassiter grudgingly agrees to the job. The unit is made up of Lassiter, Haven, a Buffalo Soldier named Franklyn (played by Jim Brown, in his first film role), and --- just to keep the "sides" even --- a knife-wielding Mexican outlaw named Rodriguez (played by Tony Franciosa), who shared Lassiter's cell during the time he was locked up.
After a series of violent encounters with both bandits and Apaches, not to mention a good deal of bickering and fighting within the group itself, the unit discovers the rifles are in the possession of a madman named Theron Pardee, a former Confederate colonel who at one time commanded Lassiter. Pardee's plan is to trade the rifles to the Apaches for gold, turn the Indians loose to conquer the scattered U.S. Army troops defending the border, and then use the gold to finance a New Southern Confederacy in the conquered territory.
With aid of a sympathetic Apache girl they had held captive for a time in order to help guide them, Lassiter and his unit take desperate action to foil Pardee's plan.
Lassiter and Franklyn sacrifice themselves by driving a burning wagonload of gun powder into the shipment of rifles, still stacked in their shipping crates. Before the massive explosion takes his life, Lassiter is able to kill Bloodshirt, the Apache chief preparing to take possession of the rifles and also the leader of the raid that massacred Lassiter's family.

This is a taut, tough, grim movie with expansive, top quality production values. What little humor there is comes in a few bits performed by Franciosa. Although he shares star billing, Whitman is given very little to do. The Apache maid, played by seldom-ever-heard-from-again Wende Wagner, could have been done by practically any actress in dark make-up and a black wig. Jim Brown hardly has more than a couple dozen lines, but brings a powerful physical presence that perfectly fits the role he's given to play.
Like I said at the outset, Boone is far and away the star here --- both in the role he has and in the way he chews it up and spits it out. The largely unlikeable Lassiter character, in his grimness and racial hatred, is somewhat reminiscent of John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in THE SEARCHERS; just as the latter two thirds of RIO CONCHOS is somewhat reminiscent of THE COMANCHEROS (which also starred Wayne, along with Whitman in a far more substantial role). But maybe that's an unfair comparison, and for sure not one meant to deter from all that is good about CONCHOS in and of itself.

A final note on the director, Gordon Douglas, a veteran whose career spanned over five decades and covered subject matter ranging from Our Gang shorts to Oliver and Hardy features to the cult classic THEM! to Elvis's FOLLOW THAT DREAM (one of his most entertaining) to a string of Frank Sinatra films through the mid/late '60s to the trio of Clint Walker westerns (FORT DOBBS, YELLOWSTONE KELLY, and GOLD OF THE SEVEN SAINTS) that have been compared to the Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott collaborations and too many more to mention … But, although it came somewhat late in his career, he seldom helmed anything better than RIO CONCHOS.

This is a good one.
Be sure to check it out if you get the chance.


Anonymous said...

The presence of Stuart Whitman in both movies, and also having Clair Huffaker as a screenwriter, makes RIO CONCHOS and THE COMANCHEROS seem more similar than they really are. Both involve the villains running guns to the Indians, but that's a common enough plot.

Wende Wagner may be best known for playing the secretary on THE GREEN HORNET (1966-67). She was a skilled scuba diver, and appeared as a stunt double on SEA HUNT and THE AQUANAUTS. She was also in the sci-fi/horror movie DESTINATION INNER SPACE. She died of cancer in 1997.

In the late 1960's, everyone made jokes about the cliche that Jim Brown always got killed in every movie.

Not sure what kind of rifles are used in the movie, except that they are lever action carbines. They don't look like 1860 Henry or 1866 Winchesters, which, AFAIK, were the only lever-actions extant in 1867 (when the movie takes place). Supposedly, the rifles were stolen from an Army shipment, but the Army generally used single-shot rifles, not repeaters. It doesn't ruin the movie, though, and 90% of the audience probably never knew the difference.

The trend toward moral ambiguity and graphic violence may have begun in the fifties, with Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott and Anthony Mann/James Stewart, but it still wasn't all that common in 1964. Most Westerns were still following the tradition of all-good heroes vs. all-bad villains. As a result, RIO CONCHOS looks almost as if it were made ten years later than it was.

RJR said...

Good for Anonymoius for mentioning the beautiful Wende Wagner. Her life was cut tragically short by cancer.