Western Wednesdays (Special Thursday Edition): ‘The Comancheros’

john-wayne-comancheros

It’s taken five weeks of Western Wednesdays, but The Duke has finally arrived. I haven’t meant to neglect him. In fact, half the reason I took on this feature is because my knowledge of Wayne is so very poor. He’s all over my Netflix queue, but I kept putting him off simply because he’s a bit daunting. He has cast such a long shadow over this genre that I thought I ought to watch films he wasn’t in in order to better appreciate his stature.

This week, I had decided that the last column 2009 had to go out with Wayne. As divine providence would have it, Justin Gray suggested The Comancheros. Gray has wonderful taste in film, and he’s the co-author of DC’s Jonah Hex which gives him Eastwood stature. When he suggests a Western, you watch it immediately.

The Comancheros is a great, great Western that avoids a lot of the pitfalls of the genre. It’s a big movie, but it’s tightly plotted, and never gets lost in the sprawl of the desert. There isn’t a single character you meet that doesn’t have something to do with the storyline.

I’m so used to throwaway scenes that when the film started in New Orleans, I was very skeptical it would make it to the Republic of Texas in any way that was believable. But it does! And it’s so fun to watch it make it’s way that I’ll only give you the barest of summaries:

Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) is a Louisiana dandy who begins the film as only one cocky half of a New Orleans duel.  He kills his opponent, and is threatened with the hangman’s noose because this particular honor-seeker happened to be a judge’s son. He flees Louisiana, but the lawman’s arm is long, and he’s finally nabbed by Ranger Capt. Jake Cutter (John Wayne). But that’s only the beginning of the adventure, and you’ll have to watch to find out if Regret ever makes it to the hangman’s noose.

With a title like The Comancheros, you know it’s not really about that New Orleans dandy but will probably feature some uncomfortable plotline about Native Americans.  While it indulges in a lot of poor stereotypes (the redskins like whiskey!), this film isn’t too far off the mark. The Comanches were the terror of the Southwest, and were famed for their livestock raids.  They were at war with just about everyone.  So, while you’d like a little more depth out of these raiders (particularly as the film does make them the puppet of another party), it’s actually based on some historical fact.

I confess, I always go into Western movies expecting pure fiction when it comes to the relationship between whites and natives.  I’m always happy to be proved wrong. The important thing to remember with American history is that it’s still recent enough for the historiography to fling itself into black and white areas.

Right now, we’re still in that period that believes the Native Americans were passive people who bad things happened to, and who were unfairly villainized by whites. While that’s certainly true to some extent, it’s also true that not all tribes were peaceful. Atrocities were committed on both sides.

But that’s getting into serious territory, and The Comancheros doesn’t really cross that border. This is an adventure movie that doesn’t have time to ponder anything but how much ammunition is left.  If you’re a fan of Joss Whedon’s Firefly, and find yourself reaching for Serenity for the umpeenth time, put this on instead. The structure and style is so similar to your favorite show that you’ll be in heaven … and you’ll even meet an ancestor of Jayne Cobb.

While there’s action galore, it’s the relationship between Regret and Cutter that makes this film shine.  The Comancheros is one of the rare Westerns with really delightful dialogue, delivered with just the right of sardonic wit by Wayne and Whitman. Their prickly relationship is actually funny, lacks a trace of camp, and is manly enough to avoid that squishy bromance label.

It’s definitely one of Wayne’s most charismatic performances. Without the right script, he’s not the most interesting of actors to watch (he’s always the staunchly honorable John Wayne whether he’s a Texas Ranger or an outlaw), but this is one of the films that’ll make you appreciate just why he’s an icon.

(The Comancheros is available on Netflix Instant Watch, just like all the previous Western Wednesday installments. Watch them today!)

  • The McVitty Brothers
    February 20, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Nice review. BUT: “Comancheros” is not a synonym for “Comanches.” Comancheros were lawlwss whites and Mexicans who ran guns and liquor to American Indians, frequently of the Comanche persuasion. Many vintage TV Western series had episodes involving Comancheros; Gunsmoke had at least two.

    I like Drake’s addendum with its list of other Wayne films; another one I’d recommend is Ford’s Fort Apache, with Wayne cast somewhat surprisingly as the “liberal” (though in a local, non-bureaucratic way) cavalry officer who understands the Apaches, with Henry Fonda as Duke’s by-the-book commanding officer whose failure to understand the local dynamics costs many lives, including… well I won’t spoil it.

  • Drake Mallard
    December 31, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    The Comancheros is pretty good,and I’m glad you’re exited to see more of Wayne’s work.Recommendation time!

    Obviously there’s The Searchers, but like The Quiet Man, everyone’s seen it and knows it’s wonderful. I only mention it in the off chance you haven’t had the pleasure.The same goes for The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance, and Rooster Cogburn.

    Red River- A great tension builder with Wayne playing the villain.

    3 Godfathers- What at first appears to be “Three Outlaws and a Baby”, turns into something touching and powerful.

    Rio Bravo and El Dorado- I list these together because they’re very similar, very enjoyable, and illustrate the same thing about Wayne.That being the way that,although he was such a big star, could still step aside and let the supporting cast shine.

    North To Alaska- Not a “Western” per se, but a fun parody of them ,and a way for Wayne to poke fun at himself.

    The Shootist- Porbably the most fitting final performance in film history.Just so very bittersweet and sentimental.

    • Drake Mallard
      December 31, 2009 at 7:50 pm

      Probably even…

    • Elisabeth Rappe
      January 7, 2010 at 2:48 am

      Hey Drake!

      Thanks for the suggestions! I’ll definitely add them to the list. I’ve seen The 3 Godfathers and Red River and loved them both. As you say, “Godfathers” starts off as such a farce and ends up becoming such a heartwarming, sad story. Beautiful camera work too.

      While I’ve seen True Grit, I’ve never seen Rooster Cogburn and I’m dying to, particularly since it costars Katharine Hepburn.

      They’ll go on the list … keep them coming! 🙂 Recommendations make this game even more fun than it already is.

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