For reasons easy enough to guess, Bandolero! (1968) is not well thought of among fans and scholars of Western movies. Made by journeymen like director Andrew V. MacLaglen and DP William H. Clothier, and starring James Stewart and Dean Martin at the tail end of their starring careers, Bandolero! had the earmarks of mediocrity and seemed anachronistic in the era of Leone and Peckinpah. In fact, the picture is something of a minor revelation, a solidly crafted tale full of surprises and rich in character, right down to its unexpectedly moving final minutes.
The DVD is being sold as one of a set of Raquel Welch movies, though she's third-billed in what is definitely a supporting role. The story begins almost as a mystery, with Mace (60-year-old Stewart) assuming the identity of a hangman and riding into the town of Val Verde. There, members of The Bishop Gang, including Dee (Martin), are sentenced to hang after a botched hold-up. It soon becomes clear Mace knows Dee, and plans to do something, though exactly what and what his relationship is to Dee is initially unclear. (It does generate considerable suspense and interest, however.)
Spoliers Eventually, Mace is revealed as Mace's older brother, and he succeeds in freeing Dee and his gang, though a posse led by Sheriff "July" Johnson (George Kennedy) and Deputy Roscoe Bookbinder (Andrew Prine) are hot on their trail. Along the way, the gang kidnap Maria Stoner (Welch), a former Mexican whore turned rich widow after Bishop's men killed her husband during the robbery. As the gang and their pursuers cross the border into Mexico, they're faced with yet another obstacle, roaming gangs of machete-wielding bandoleros.
While John Wayne spent the 1960s playing up his iconic status and began easing into elegiac Westerns, Stewart appeared lost in the genre without Anthony Mann or John Ford. Both Shenandoah (1965), an odd quasi-Western with Stewart trying to keep his sons from enlisting during the Civil War, and The Rare Breed (1966), about the introduction of a new breed of cattle into the West, were humdrum family films of little interest. Firecreek (1968) was a nice try, pitting Stewart against real-life friend Henry Fonda, but after 1971 it was TV shows and "guest star" movie roles for the fading star. Dean Martin, after scoring big as a drunk who makes good helping John Wayne in Rio Bravo (1959) returned to genre only to make hay of it with his fellow Rat Packers. Having already played Wayne's absurdly unlikely brother in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), it wasn't that much more of a stretch to play Stewart's here. Like that film, their personal story revolves around a mother who died disappointed by her wayward son.
More than anything, what makes Bandolero! work is Stewart's delightful performance, playing one of several characters in the picture that are somewhat unusual for a Western. Stewart's is partly gentleman bandit, con artist, and wistful older brother. His early scenes are played for laughs, with Stewart amusingly hamming it up masquerading as an over-enthusiastic hangman. (The script carefully sets this up, with Stewart meeting and gaining basic knowledge from the real hangman, played by familiar character actor Guy Raymond.) Though Martin and Stewart don't look anything alike, they have a natural rapport as brothers, particularly in a fine scene where Mace tries to convince Dee to escape with him to Montana. Stewart was unmatched in his ability expressing starry-eyed American Dreams, as Martin keeps interrupting him with concerns about Indians. Funny stuff. Once the stakes are raised, however, the film turns a corner into weightier matters of lost opportunities and second chances. The film stops being funny, and ends quite differently than its early scenes would suggest.
Hulking George Kennedy, fresh off his Oscar win for Cool Hand Luke is surprisingly shy and low key as a sheriff determined to rescue Maria because he's in love with her, and their scenes have a tender awkwardness that's likewise askew for such films. Welch, meanwhile, seems to have modeled her character after Katy Jurado, not a bad source for inspiration, actually. She's not bad, though the script seems to go out of its way to avoid giving her long pages of accented dialogue.
Video & Audio
Despite scattered instances of edge enhancement, Fox's 16:9 anamorphic presentation is otherwise excellent, with a bright and clear image. The English Stereo track does justice to Jerry Goldsmith's excellent score, and is full of directional dialogue and sound effects. Mono French and Spanish audio tracks are offered, along with subtitles in all three languages.
The only real extras are a pair of trailers, one in 1.85:1 format, the other a 'scope trailer for the Spanish market. Both trailers are enhanced. As with the other Welch titles, 16:9 trailers for the three new releases, plus ugly 4:3 ones for Fantastic Voyage and Fathom are included.
Within ten years of when it was made, Westerns like Bandolero! would themselves become extinct. Near the end of their long runs as leading men, it's heartening to see Martin and Stewart in a late-period oater that isnft tired at all but rather a genuine surprise, if a modest one. Though not quite a classic, Bandolero! is highly recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.