April 18, 2009 -- I was browsing DVDs at the University of Wyoming's new library addition when I saw this 1961 John Wayne title. I don't remember seeing this movie before, but I do remember the song based on that movie, sung by Claude King and written by Tillman Franks. Oddly enough that award-winning song is not on the movie soundtrack. One of the extras on the DVD, however, is an old Fox Movietone news clip of King and Franks picking up their award in Hollywood for the song, accompanied by Johnny Horton's widow. I'm not sure what Johnny Horton had to do with the song. Maybe he was originally selected to sing it before his untimely death in an auto accident. Tillman Franks was a songwriter, arranger and manager for both King and Horton. It was that song that got me to pick up the DVD and watch it. The film turns out to be a better-than-average western epic with an unusual amount of humor interspersed with the usual gunfights, fist fights, trail rides, songs, card games, drinking and killings. It boasts a lot of talent in front of and behind the lens, with Academy Award-winning director Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) directing (in his final film), a top cinematographer in William H. Clothier, director of photography, and an Academy Award-winning musical composer, Elmer Bernstein. In addition to the legendary John Wayne, there is also another iconic Western actor in the film, Lee Marvin. Both Marvin and Wayne won best actor Academy Awards.
The story starts out with Paul Regret (played by Stuart Whitman of “The Longest Day”) gunning down a prominent New Orleans man in a duel, then fleeing to Texas to escape an arrest for murder. Even though Texas was not in the union at the time (1843) the Texas rangers felt obligated for some reason to capture Regret and send him back to Louisiana to be hanged. Ranger Captain Jake Cutter (John Wayne) was dispatched to capture Regret, which he did. Regret managed several escapes, embarrassing “Big Jake” (Wayne starred in a film called “Big Jake” 10 years later). Big Jake managed to recapture Regret several times, these scenes include some of the film's best humor, especially when Big Jake is forced to return to Ranger Headquarters on a mule. During a major gun battle with the Comancheros, outlaw gangs comprised of Comanches and white men, Regret's prowess with a six-shooter impresses Big Jake and he convinces his superiors and fellow rangers to figure out a way to let Regret off the hook. How this is done comprises one of the film's better comic scenes, involving colorful, none-too-sober Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Jackson Breen, played by Edgar Buchanan of “The Rounders.”
There is also a romance between Regret and Pilar Graile (Ina Balin of “The Patsy”). This romance is unconvincingly developed. Pilar is the daughter and heir-apparent to the leadership of a large gang of Comancheros. Pilar's father, Nehemiah Persoff was a precursor to many Bond villains, the only thing missing is the long-haired white cat and the big map of the world on the wall. Graile talks up his criminal empire and how he built it up from nothing to the big criminal operation it became. The story ends up with a big shootout at the Comancheros' headquarters, which is a lot like the headquarters of the Hole in the Wall Gang, a secluded canyon. All in all, it is a good western with solid acting, a great musical score wonderful cinematography and beautiful desert scenery (it wasn't shot in Texas, but mostly in Southern Utah, some in Arizona, where many westerns were filmed because the scenery there is spectacular). This film rates a B.
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