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Sometimes one runs into a movie that is more of a "deal" than a movie. Every large-scale independent production is a for-profit gambit, with a producer enticing investment in a PTCL (Project That Can't Lose). But some deal movies are more obvious than others, especially when they've been packaged to satisfy the demands of international exhibition. The deciding factor is often artistic input. Italian Spaghetti westerns came in all flavors, but many were directed by men with real ambitions to do something special in the genre.
The U.S.-produced, Mexico-filmed The Revengers is a commercial effort all the way, packaged by ex-studio pros trying to make some money. Martin Rackin had produced several westerns, including the weak remake of Stagecoach and the ersatz Spaghetti effort Two Mules for Sister Sara. Rackin had a knack for recruiting top talent -- Gordon Douglas, Don Siegel, etc. -- and for The Revengers he nailed top star William Holden and a screenplay by Wendell Mayes, the noted screenwriter of such disparate hits as Anatomy of a Murder, Von Ryan's Express and The Hanging Tree. Rackin got his money's worth with actor Holden, but the finished film doesn't reflect well on Mayes' screenplay.
The story is a goulash of ideas from earlier westerns. New Mexico rancher John Benedict's family is wiped out in a raid by Indians led by pirate-like white Comancheros. Abandoning his property, John hires the toughest men he can from a local prison, which is actually a mining slave labor camp. All are cutthroats desperate to escape. The patronizingly named Cholo (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) is an interpreter. Frenchman Quiberon (Roger Hanin of Breathless and Rocco and his Brothers) is a womanizer and escape artist. German Zweig (Reinhard Koldehoff of Playtime and Soldier of Orange) is a hulking brute. Peasant bandit Chamaco (Jorge Luke of Ulzana's Raid) longs for his lost family. Former Comanchero Hoop (Ernest Borgnine) is an incorrigible liar and turncoat. Ex-slave Job (Woody Strode) wants both his liberty and his dignity, and has no intention of following anyone's orders.
John Benedict's new gang takes his money and runs off at the first opportunity. But they soon return, drawn to John's mission to kill Tarp (Warren Vanders), the murderer of his family. They engage in battles, split up and regroup, and in no time at all are themselves behaving like just another band of outlaws. John is left for dead after Chamaco shoots him in a burst of emotion. Nursed back to health by the widow doctor Elizabeth Reilly (Susan Hayward), John begins to doubt his unsatisfying quest for revenge.
American audiences accepted The Revengers even as critics dismissed it as a weak attempt to cash-in on the thrills of The Wild Bunch. At this time William Holden would come out of semi-retirement in Africa only when a producer could meet his price. Here he dresses just like Pike Bishop from the Sam Peckinpah picture, minus the moustache. Director Daniel Mann made his name in stage adaptations in the 1950s but wasn't the man for an action film. His Our Man Flint appears to have been a happy accident tidied up by classy second unit and stunt direction; in this picture the dialogue scenes are just plain hackwork, leaving Mann with little to work with.
The prologue establishingJohn Benedict's happy domestic situation plays like a tepid Andrew V. McLaglen movie, only worse. As it's obvious that it's a The Searchers-like setup for a massacre, we don't bother to get involved with any of the characters. We're now amused to see John's blonde son, whose big ambition is to go to West Point, played by James Daughton of Animal House, where he's none other than Greg Marmalard, the snob fraternity BMOC. Even John Landis didn't feel it necessary to string Daughton up with his throat cut, though.
John's adventures with his gang of internationally diverse prisoner scum is a direct takeoff of The Dirty Dozen. There are no surprises. Ernest Borgnine gets to overact, sometimes screwing up his face so it looks like a Halloween pumpkin. Woody Strode is noble and intensely loyal despite claiming the opposite; the character reinforces the The Alamo's retrograde notion that ex-slaves really want to find a white boss to tell them what to do. Reinhard Koldehoff and Roger Hanin are shortchanged somewhat, but Jorge Martínez de Hoyos is given the choicest put-down lines (he's supposed to be a man of letters). Jorge Luke has the only character in search of some real development: his Chamaco tries to connect with John Benedict, as he believes that John might actually be his father. Except for a couple of (not bad) quips in the middle of action, John mostly tells the punk to mind his own business.
The screenplay may have undergone a lot of changes, as time lapses in the story are awkwardly handled. One is covered by expository voiceovers as the Revengers ride in long shot. John Benedict's tregua with Susan Hayward slows the movie down long enough to introduce a sentimental aspect before the big finish. Hayward's Irish accent disappears after her first couple of lines or so, but Daniel Mann is more in his element with her scenes of intimate emotions -- the lady doctor's offer of a new home for John seems sincere. This was Susan Hayward's last feature film and she was diagnosed with brain cancer not long before its release. Her weary appearance makes us aware that The Revengers doesn't acknowledge the passing of a generation of big stars. The normally ultra-glamorous Hayward purposely wears little makeup, so it's not fair to say that she doesn't look well.
Considering his hard-drinking lifestyle William Holden looks great -- until we realize that he's only 54 years old, one year younger than Susan. The surprise is seeing Woody Strode looking so long in the tooth. Several years older than his fellow stars, Woody had spent fifteen years playing African natives, and had to return many times to silent gladiator roles before getting seriously noticed around 1960. Woody no longer cuts the perfect physical silhouette, the trade-off being that he now has much more experience with dialogue. As a real reminder of past western glories, Arthur Hunnicutt has a nice, if brief small role that begins with the film's first line of dialogue.
The Mexican locations around Parral also remind us of The Wild Bunch, as we see the familiar sand dunes and the river that stands in for the Rio Grande. The Mexican prison camp is set in the same dry arroyo where the big confrontation between the Bunch and Alfonso Arau's Lieutanant took place. Among the second unit experts arranging the action scenes is the noted director Ray Kellogg. There's nothing particularly distinguished about the film's shootouts and battles, but they are frequent and loud. Audiences will receive more than their minimum daily requirement of gun-downs and dynamite explosions.
Explosive Media's Blu-ray of The Revengers is listed as Region B but is actually an All-Region disc. It also says that the Blu-ray is in the PAL format, which is of course not possible.
Originally released by Cinema Center Films, the show has been handsomely encoded for Blu-ray. The vast majority of scenes are brightly lit day exteriors in attractive desert scenery, all sharp and brightly colored; the widescreen image is far better than old pan-scanned TV prints. The soundtrack score by Italian Pino Calvi is unfortunately quite weak. The rock-inflected main theme would be a better fit for a TV movie or a car commercial.
The German disc packaging and insert folder is of course written in German, but a cursory look at the liner notes by Steffen Wulf (Steffen Wulf? HmmÉ) shows me that he's placing The Revengers in a context of international commercial filmmaking, just as do I. The disc contains a tall stack of trailers indicating that Explosive Media has a lot more western action on the way, and a handsome gallery of ad images and stills for the film. A memorable poster shot shows Holden and his 'revengers' posing for an old-time photo, much as The Wild Bunch had in some ad art for the Peckinpah film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Revengers Blu-ray rates:
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.