By Richard Winters
My Rating: 7 out of 10
4-Word Review: Avenging his family’s massacre.
John Benedict (William Holden) is a rancher who returns to his home and family in Colorado after serving in the Civil War. While out one day hunting a mountain lion a group of Comanche Indians kill his family. When he races back to his home he finds only his friend Free (Arthur Hunnicutt) still alive. Free informs him that the Indians were lead by a white man (Warren Vanders). John then becomes compelled to seek vengeance and hires a group of convicts that he finds at a Mexican prison to help him in his quest.
This was one film that took me by surprise and a testament to the fact that if you go into a movie with low expectations you might end up liking it better than you thought. The review in Maltin’s book gave it the notorious ‘Bomb’ rating and critics at the time labeled it a Wild Bunch rip-off, or even a western cousin to The Dirty Dozen. All of which is true, but it still has an amiable quality and enough twists to keep it moderately enjoyable. Ernest Borgnine is a stand-out and many have considered this his best performance outside of Marty.
The concept of finding prisoners to act as the sort-of good guys makes it fun, particularly as Holden must tour the prison camp to pick which ones he wants, but the idea that they’d all stay loyal to him once they got out was an over-reach. The film has them abandoning him for a while, but then all coming back like they couldn’t survive without him, which is ridiculous as these are grown men and if needed could cheat and steal on their own to get by. They’re also use to working independently so the fact that they’d need someone to ‘lead’ them and openly submit to that is hard to believe. Having one or two stay with John while the rest went on their way would’ve been realistic and also helped the viewer bond with the characters as there’s too many and it becomes cluttered.
I didn’t like either that Zweig (Reinhard Kolldehoff) is shown to be a man who must be chained to a post and kept away from the other prisoners due to extreme anti-social behavior and yet when he’s with John and the group he shows none of these signs. If a person has anti-social tendencies in one situation it will come out again and won’t simply ‘disappear’ because it’s a different environment. Trying to allude that Chamaco (Jorge Luke) is possibly the illegitimate son of John from some long ago brief affair and then these two would magically meet in such a random way is pushing the odds too much. While Borgnine’s character if amusing the fact that this impoverished man, who doesn’t have enough money to bathe, would be on top of all the gossip and information is suspect. How is this guy, who smells so bad nobody gets near him and if he tried to overhear a conversation they’d immediately walk away once they got a whiff, be able to collect the info that he does?
The film has what seemed like a potentially novel twist where Chamaco shoots John and supposedly kills him. Initially I thought this was kind of cool as it’s rare that a protagonist dies in the middle of a movie and then it would be up to this vagabond group of misfits to finish the job for him out of loyalty, which if it had done this would’ve given it distinction. Unfortunately the bullet misses John’s heart by an inch and he’s brought back to health by a kindly nurse named Elizabeth (Susan Hayward), but this becomes pointless. For one thing he makes a full recovery, at least have him suffer some lasting injury, which would most likely happen to gun shot victims in real-life. For instance maybe he could no longer raise his right arm to shoot and be even more dependent on the group to help him. Why even have him get shot at all if it’s just going to be forgotten by the end like it didn’t even happen? Having him then forgive Chamaco and harbor no hard feelings and get along even better than before is a level of graciousness few people if anyone would have in that circumstance.
It seemed like the only reason the shooting took place was as an excuse for Susan Hayward’s character to exist, but I’m not sure why it was necessary. She’s a great actress and this was her last film, but the romance angle doesn’t work and nothing comes of it as he leaves her once recovered and never returns like it was a blip on the radar. She also says at one point that she’d still like to start a family even though it’s pretty obvious that she was over 50.
The villainous Tarp character could’ve been handled better as well. He had the potential at being this enigma that everyone talked about, but never saw like the Keyser Soze character in Usual Suspects. The mystery of the man could’ve been built-up, but this gets ruined when they find him rather quickly during the middle part only for him to then escape. Waiting until the very end for his appearance would’ve made the finale more exciting and tense, which otherwise falls flat.
My Rating: 7 out of 10
Released: June 21, 1972
Runtime: 1 Hour 46 Minutes
Director: Daniel Mann
Studio: National General Pictures
Available: DVD-R, Blu-ray, Amazon Video