John Wayne's entrance in The Comancheros is accompanied by his opening credit--"JOHN WAYNE in," blasted across the screen in big red type, the Duke behind his name, larger than life on horseback in front of a picturesque view of the Utah mountains. That, friends, is how you herald a movie star, and The Comancheros is a top-notch Wayne vehicle--boisterous, energetic, splendidly photographed and vigorously entertaining.
The story begins in New Orleans, circa 1843. Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a dandy in a top hat and $300 suit, kills another man in a duel. He does so fair and square, but his victim is the son of Louisiana judge, and soon Regret is wanted throughout the South. Enter Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (Wayne)--occasionally called Big Jake, even--who finds Regret on a riverboat, where he has struck a spark with Pilar (Ina Balin). Regret escapes before Cutter can return him to Louisiana, though they cross paths again when Cutter goes undercover to infiltrate the "comancheros": white gun and whiskey smugglers working with the Comanche. Regret ends up helping the Rangers fend off a Comanche attack, so a kind of respect and admiration grows between the two men--a story arc not unknown in the Wayne canon.
The Comancheros was the final directorial credit for the great Michael Curtiz, whose films included Casablanca, White Christmas, and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He fell ill about halfway through the production, so Wayne (who had made his directorial debut with The Alamo the previous year) took over; the transition is seamless, as both men work in a charmingly old-fashioned style. Action sequences are well-executed, and the character beats are energetic, thanks to a cast of reliable old hands including Jack Elam, Bruce Cabot, Edgar Buchanan (wonderful as Judge Breen, who memorably defines perjury as "a big dumb blasted lie"), and Wayne's son Patrick.
And then there's Lee Marvin, who drops into the film like a lit stick of dynamite. As Tully Crow, the contact man for Cutter's undercover operation (Cutter assumes the identity of a gun runner named--amusingly enough--Ed McBain), Marvin is simply electrifying--and he boosts the energy of Wayne, who knows a potential scene-stealer when he sees one. Their byplay is entertaining, reckless and unpredictable, veering from back-slapping revelry to open hostility in a blink; Marvin is gone too soon from the picture.
The Comancheros is occasionally discomforting, as it (expectedly) contains the usual troublesome perspective of Native Americans ("Comanche... Indians?" Regret asks a kid a the Rangers camp. "Sure, the worst kind!" the kid replies, cheerfully), and watching them get wiped out in the film's triumphant final battle is as difficult as ever. But one has to recognize that those attitudes were par for the course, at that particular time; if one can look past that unfortunate truth, there are some complexities to the film, particularly in the somewhat sympathetic portrayals of those at the comanchero outpost.
The Comancheros hits Blu-ray in a lovely 24-page Digibook, filled with promo copies, bios, and (surprisingly) black and white photos. The book also includes a pair of miniature full-color one-sheet reproductions.
The folks at Fox have really outdone themselves with this gorgeous MPEG-4 AVC transfer, restoring the color Cinemascope Western to its full glory. The Utah vistas are ravishing, and the colors really pop--the picture occasionally has that somewhat-garish color saturation that appeared in many 1960s and 1970s Westerns, but the bright, playful look of the riverboat gambling sequence or Wayne's abbreviated encounter with a pair of showgirls is quite pleasing. Grain is handsomely cinematic, and there are few noticeable signs of the film's age--if there's dirt or scratches on this print, I didn't see them. The image is so clear, in fact, that it renders the make-up job on Marvin's scalp laughably phony. One of the pleasures of Blu-ray is the ace restoration work done on some of the great old Westerns; this one is no exception.
The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track isn't nearly as overwhelming; it's not a bad mix, but it's got some problems. Dialogue is sometimes a bit hollow (I noticed this particularly during Cutter and Regret's scene leaving the riverboat), while the big action sequences--the closing battle, or the Comanche attack near the 45-minute mark--stay disappointingly in the front channels. The primary purpose, as far as this viewer is concerned, of remixing for surround is to immerse home audiences in those action beats, but the rear channels remain quiet; they only seem to come to life for Elmer Bernstein's big, boisterous score. It sounds great, and dialogue reproduction (aside from those occasional instances) is mostly strong. The track just feels a bit like a missed opportunity.
The disc also includes an English 4.0 Dolby Surround track, as well as Spanish and French mono mixes. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are also included.
The disc includes an Audio Commentary with actors Stuart Whitman, Nehemiah Persoff, Michael Ansara, and Patrick Wayne. The four are recorded separately and edited together; it's a good track, with some memorable anecdotes and background information.
"The Comancheros and the Battle for the American Southwest" (24:13) provides extensive historical context for the film, via interviews with historians and experts (complimented by clips from several Wayne films). Next up is the featurette "The Duke at Fox," in two parts (40:28 total): "The Early Years" and "The Hero Returns." It's an excellent overview of Wayne's career at the Fox studio, as told by film clips and interviews with film historians (particularly screenwriter Courtney Joyner and Rick Jewell of USC) and family. The Comancheros gets some attention (Whitman is interviewed, as is Samantha Clair Huffaker, daughter of screenwriter Clair Huffaker), but several of his other Fox vehicles--particularly The Barbarian and the Geisha, The Longest Day, The Undefeated and The Alamo--are also explored in detail.
The disc also includes a viewer-navigated digital version of the tie-in Vintage Comancheros Comic Book, with a brief video introduction; it's an interesting addition, particularly since it features a different ending than the final film. The audio-only "Conversation with Stuart Whitman" (12:07) follows, and it's a real treat; Whitman has a folksy, laid-back charm, and tells some engaging stories about his good ol' days.
The disc also includes the original Theatrical Trailer (2:47) and its Spanish Version (likewise 2:47), in addition to a Fox Movietone News clip (0:52) of Claude King and Tillman Franks receiving awards "for outstanding motion picture achievements" and distributing records of the film's title song.
Above all, The Comancheros is a John Wayne picture, and it's a good one. Screenwriters James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker (adapting Paul Wellman's novel) give Duke some good lines (offered a bribe by Regret, he intones, "I've got what you might consider a weakness: I'm honest"), and the way he calls Regret "mon-sewer" is a small pleasure, but an indelible one. The film's only serious issue is that it needs more Lee Marvin. But seriously, what film doesn't?
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.