The fun part of Western Wednesdays is discovering little gems like Rio Conchos that were lost in the shuffle of giants like John Wayne. Lacking any big stars or cult iconography like Django’s coffin, they just sit on Netflix waiting for someone to dig them up.
Rio Conchos is a slow burn of a movie, more of a Western noir than a real shoot ’em up. Everyone has an agenda, no one can be trusted, and you’re just not sure who is going to screw it all up and make off like a bandit. It also starts off rather typical with the usual trope of “There’s been a raid, a bunch of rifles are missing, and they’re going to wind up in the hands of Apaches!”
Naturally, a disparate bunch of men are assigned the task of tracking down the rifles — a bitter ex-Confederate (Richard Boone), a Buffalo Soldier (Jim Brown), an ambitious Army Captain (Stuart Whitman), and a smooth-talking Mexican mercenary (Tony Franciosa). Of course, they don’t get along. The ex-Confederate makes no secret of his dislike of blue coats or black men, and while they come to a grudging understanding and respect, they never really become friends.
It’s kind of refreshing to see, actually. Modern westerns tend to gloss over the overt racism of the time, and pretend a true man’s man was as color blind then as now, but I sincerely doubt that was the case. We wouldn’t have needed a Civil Rights movement if it had been that easy!
Richard Boone’s performance really anchors the movie. (In some universe, Boone is Tommy Lee Jones’ father.) His family was brutally butchered by Apaches, and he’s on a quest for revenge, hoping to die in the process. He’s still a Rebel at heart, quite similar to Josey Wales or DC’s Jonah Hex, and he’s just as stonily pragmatic.
There’s a chilling scene where the gang happens on a burned out home and two “survivors”, and only Boone has the grit to do what’s humane. But when he’s out of sight of his companions, he collapses in grief. He’s seen it before .
It’s one of those gory, tear-jerking moments that Westerns don’t get enough credit for. They’ve become so synonymous with men who just clench their teeth, squint, or sneer that we’ve brushed them all off as emotionless, robotic stories. They’re not! Even the Wayne and Eastwood offerings had their moments of humor and heartbreak.
Just as you’re ready to dismiss Rio Conchos as a whites-versus-Natives movie, it completely turns the conceit on its head. It turns out that the stolen rifles and the Apaches are only a fraction of what’s really going on down South. I hesitate to reveal it here, as it’s an excellent twist, and it’s set amid some truly eerie set design.
Let’s just describe it as “domestic terrorism” and “terrifying romanticism” and leave it at that. There’s enough clues in this paragraph alone that the clever readers can piece it together.
I’ve made a regrettable habit here of saying this or that Western should be remade, but Rio Conchos is another one that could benefit from a modern remake. It could be quite topical given the way historical rebellions are being appropriated by certain political factions. Then again, it exists quite symbolically on its own. Pair it with The Ox-Bow Incident, and you would have a very meaningful double feature.
(Rio Conchos is available on Netflix Instant Watch, as are almost all the Western Wednesdays before it. Watch them all, or whistle Dixie.)