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Based on a Louis L'Amour novel, Shalako is set in New Mexico, on Apache reservation land, where an elite European hunting party blithely ignores repeated warnings that they are in danger of an imminent Indian attack. Based at the ruins of an adobe fortress, American frontiersman Shalako (Connery, his Scottish accent intact) does his best to prepare the arrogant and ignorant bourgeoisie. He then leaves them to guide Fulton (Stephen Boyd), Shalako hoping to reach an army outpost and return with soldiers before the white hunters are wiped out. However, when the situation at the fortress deteriorates, Shalako returns in a desperate attempt to lead the Europeans through perilous Indian country to safety.
In the wake of successful Spanish, German, and especially Italian Westerns earlier in the decade, bigger-budgeted Euro-Westerns became inevitable. The inherent nature of such continental oaters is offset with a story that plays right into the international flavor of such pictures. Shalako has an American director (Edward Dmytryk), Scottish, French and German leads, Spanish exteriors and British interiors. English-language credits identify this as a British production, though German and possibly French moneys may have been involved, too. Though such cinematic smorgasbords often end in disaster, Shalako works quite well. The dichotomy of wealthy, immaculately dressed Europeans, with their formal wear, fine china, and jewelry, makes an interesting contrast to the grubby, uncouth American cowboys.
The Zulu-like seige of the fortress is well directed, full of action and believable suspense. Probably owing to L'Amour's influence, the film has an eye for little realistic details. Connery's frontiersman has a subtle eye for tracking and eluding trackers, and his strategies against the Apaches are logical given his skill and experience. The picture opens with an interesting forward, noting the many famous Europeans who came to the American West in search of excitement, as well as a few of their famous guides, adding verisimilitude to its basic premise.
What seemed to have disappointed 1968 audiences was the lack of sparks between Connery and co-star Brigitte Bardot, who plays a countess who falls for Shalako. Bardot, entering her pasty-faced animal activist period, has singularly anachronistic hair and makeup, including mascara apparently applied with a big black Sharpie. Similarly, Honor Blackman, whose Lady Julia is married to a British Lord deep in debt (Jack Hawkins, his cancer-scarred voice dubbed by an uncredited Charles Gray), has a romance with ne'er-do-well Fulton. Neither subplot is of much interest, but then again neither dominates the film.
Connery is fine in the title role, bringing to it a confidence and touches of the sardonic humor he brought to his James Bond movies. The rest of the cast is very good. Boyd, often hammy in other films (as in The Oscar, this reviewer's vote for the worst leading performance in the history of motion pictures), is low-key and edgy. Particularly good is Peter van Eyck (The Wages of Fear), another actor prone to hamminess but in fine form here. As an arrogant Baron, there's some solid tension with Connery's Shalako ("If you had any breeding, I'd kill you," the Baron tells him at one point), and the Baron's believable, crisis-driven transformation is one of the picture's best assets. Good too is Alexander Knox's U.S. senator, a politician whose glory days in Washington (where he almost became Lincoln's VP in 1860) are long past. Woody Strode has a small part as the same Indian warrior Charles Bronson would soon play in Chato's Land (1972).
Connery's influence may have extended to bringing in some of his James Bond cohorts, including DP Ted Moore, stuntman Bob Simmons, and co-stars Blackman (Goldfinger) and Knox (You Only Live Twice).
Video & Audio
Sadly, Shalako is yet another Disney-owned title (originally an ABC Pictures Corp. pick-up, released through Cinerama Releasing Corporation) shabbily fobbed off to MGM, which had to make do with a much inferior, eye-straining 4:3 letterboxed transfer. The image is soft with considerable edge enhancement, especially obvious in landscape shots. The Franscope 2.35:1 image appears over-cropped on the top and bottom, judging by an opening title which cuts into the words "Art Director" at the top of the frame. The thin mono sound is likewise unimpressive. The one improvement over the Anchor Bay version is the addition of optional subtitles, in English, French, and Spanish. There are no Extra Features: no trailer, and the menu is so basic to make one wonder if Disney even provided MGM with adequate still photographs.
While some aspects of the picture don't work -- the romance, a duel between Connery and Woody Strode that weakly imitates the latter's famous fight with Kirk Douglas in Spartacus -- but generally Shalako is an intriguing, original Western, whose one of a kind cast carry it through its weaker ideas. Too bad the DVD isn't up to the level of the film.
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.