Wednesday, January 19, 2011

ANOTHER LOOK: 100 Rifles

            100 Rifles (1969 – 20th Century Fox) has long been one of my favorite films. Not among the top tier perhaps, but nevertheless holding a prominent spot somewhere in the middle of the mix.
            I believe I first saw it at a drive-in theater (where I did most of my movie viewing in those days) and then saw it again, as part of double- or triple-bills probably, at least two more times in subsequent months before it was pulled from circulation. It had (and still has, upon re-viewing) a lot going for it: It's a tough, gritty "Western", albeit set in revolution-torn Sonora, Mexico, circa 1912; it has plenty of slam-bang action; exchanges of snappy, rough-hewn dialogue, most of it between stars Reynolds and Brown; a few touches of wry humor; and, of course, Raquel Welch in one of her sultriest and possibly most under-rated roles.
            When it was first released, 100 Rifles garnered a good deal of attention. Trouble was, most of this was publicity surrounding the film's steamy interracial love scenes (something still fairly uncommon back in '69) between Welch and Brown. Adding to this bit of controversy were reports that, contrary to what showed up on screen, tensions between the two performers were hardly loving on the set and at the core of this, at least in part, were some alleged racial issues. These distractions aside, the film met with decent reviews and box office success.

            100 Rifles was co-written (with veteran Western author Clair Huffaker) and directed by Tom Gries. Previously, Gries had directed some low-budget movies and several TV episodes ("Rat Patrol", "Rifleman", "Wanted: Dead or Alive", etc.) and had won an Emmy for his work on "East Side/West Side". The prior year he had won acclaim for directing Charlton Heston in another Western, Will Penny, based on an episode of "The Westerner" TV series which Gries had also written and directed. He would go on to direct another eight moderately successful movies until he died at age 55 after playing tennis at the end of a day's post-production work on the Muhammed Ali bio-pic, The Greatest.
            100 Rifles marked the start of the break-out period for Burt Reynolds that would take him away from his initial TV popularity and propel him to becoming the most popular screen actor of the 70s and 80s. His role as Yaqui Joe in Rifles (his fourth feature-length film) is early indication of both his comedic flair and the intensity he could bring to a role when called for (watch his silent reaction to the mass slaughter of Yaqui Indians by the rurale soldiers).
            Jim Brown, arguably at the peak of the spotty acting career that came immediately on the heels of his football fame, turns in a solid performance as Lyedecker, the Arizona lawman who has ventured down into Mexico on the trail of Yaqui Joe for a bank robbery committed north of the border. Brown had already established a strong screen presence in such films as Rio Conchos and The Dirty Dozen, and perhaps his best was yet to come in 1970's  tick … tick … tick.
            Raquel Welch was also at the height of her popularity with this film. In fact, movie-wise, she was probably the most solidly established of the three main stars. In 100 Rifles, playing Sarita, the hot-blooded revolutionaria, she is not so much flashy-sexy (the way she is in other films of the period like Fathom, Bedazzled, Magic Christian, etc.) as she is sexy in a sultry, smoldering kind of way. And she, too, is capable of ratcheting up the intensity when she somberly wields a rifle to fight the rurales or thwarts a would-be rapist by kicking him in the groin and then slamming the tip of a broken tree branch into his heart. Like I said earlier, in the opinion of this humble viewer the role of Sarita is one of Ms. Welch's most effective and underrated performances.
            Also of note is the work turned in here by Fernando Lamas, playing cold-blooded General Verdugo, scourge of the Yaquis. To be sure, Lamas does a good deal of scenery-chewing with his expansive gestures and smirks and wickedly dazzling smiles—but somehow it works, and only serves to emphasize his true ruthlessness. In one memorable scene he dispatches three Yaqui captives with a single bullet (from a pearl-handled, silver-plated .45 semiauto, no less) and then explains: "I know the value of things. These Indians, they are worth nothing … But a bullet, now that has value." You just know that he is going to "get his" before the movie is over and, to the viewers' delight, he surely does.
            It may be also worth noting that 100 Rifles is credited with being based on The Californio, a fine novel by Robert Macleod. Although the only resemblance between the two, at least as far as I could ever determine, is that they both are set around the Arizona/Mexico border at about the same time period. My advice would be: See the movie, enjoy it for what it is. Read the book, enjoy it for what it is. But as far as having anything in common, you ain't gonna find much.
            In a nutshell, 100 Rifles is an exciting, enjoyable Western. Kick back, spend the 110 minutes it takes to watch it, and I don't think you'll come away disappointed.

Persevere — WD

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