Thursday, 25 December 2014

Bandolero! (1968)

In 1968 the western was a genre in a state of transition. In Hollywood the classic western was about to give way to the revisionist western (a tedious sub-genre and ultimately rather pointless since John Ford had been making revisionist westerns like Fort Apache since the late 1940s). The spaghetti western seemed like it might breathe new life into the genre although the spaghetti western itself would quickly become an overly politicised dead end. 

Bandolero! shows a certain degree of spaghetti western influence and also in some ways anticipates the revisionist western but without the pretentiousness.

Bandolero! belongs to a different sub-genre, the quirky offbeat western. It’s never quite sure how seriously it wants to take itself. It would make rather a good double feature with a movie like Shalako.

Bandolero! was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, arguably the best action movie  director of his era (with terrific movies like The Wild Geese and ffolkes to his credit), and it boasts an interesting cast headlined by James Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch.

The movie hits the ground running with a bank robbery that goes spectacularly wrong. Dee Bishop (Dean Martin) and his gang are soon behind bars and are awaiting the arrival of a traveling hangman. The hangman arrives but he’s not what he seems to be and Dee and his cronies have cheated death, not for the first time.

Sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy) does not take kindly to seeing outlaws escaping from under his nose and he vows to pursue them even if his pursuit takes him into neighbouring Mexico. In fact he is determined to continue the pursuit indefinitely. This might sound like the sheriff is a dedicated if somewhat obsessed lawman but that’s only part of the truth. The main reason for his relentless pursuit is that Dee Bishop has taken wealthy Mexican widow Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch) as a hostage. And the sheriff is suffering from a severe case on unrequited love as far as the Widow Stoner is concerned.

Playing a rather ambiguous part in these events is Dee Bishop’s brother Mace (James Stewart). Mace is the sensible, law-abiding older brother. At least that’s what everyone always assumed. It turns out Mace is a bit more complicated than people thought.

The chase into Mexico takes both pursuers and pursued deep into bandit country. And these are bandits who enjoy killing gringos even more than they enjoy killing the locals. Both Dee’s gang and Sheriff Johnson and his posse will soon have their hands full.

Dean Martin spent of his film career either just going through the motions or gleefully sending himself up (as he does in the wonderful Matt Helm movies like The Wrecking Crew). On the rare occasions when he actually took a rôle seriously he delivered some unexpectedly fine performances, none finer than his turn as the reformed alcoholic sheriff’s deputy in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. He takes his rôle in Bandolero fairly seriously. It offers him the opportunity to display some emotional depth while at the same time having some tongue-in-cheek fun.

James Stewart made something of a specialty of complicated western heroes and Bandolero! allows him to be complicated whilst also indulging himself in a bit of fun. The movie does not make too many demands on Raquel Welch’s acting abilities and she does a more than competent job. 

Andrew V. McLaglen was an exceptionally good action director and he pulls off some fairly impressive visual set-pieces. McLaglen always understood the importance of pacing and he keeps things moving in a very satisfactory manner.

This movie’s biggest problem is its tone. At times it seems to want to be dark and edgy and at other times it want to be light-hearted and witty and tongue-in-cheek. It’s at its best when it’s being gently amusing. Sadly the nihilism and cynicism that were eating away at the vitals of American cinema like a cancer manage to push this movie too much into pointless despair territory.

Notwithstanding this unfortunate circumstance Bandolero! still has much to recommend it. It’s fast-paced and stylish, it boasts some impressive location shooting, it’s well-acted and the action sequences work well.  

Bandolero! is included in the Raquel Welch Collection DVD boxed set. The set also includes Fathom (a fun caper movie), The Lady in Cement (a noirish crime thriller in which he co-stars with Frank Sinatra) and the 1966 science fiction classic Fantastic Voyage

The set illustrates rather well the surprising diversity of her career and all four movies are worth seeing. I highly recommend the boxed set. And despite some minor reservations Bandolero! is also recommended.

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