On the surface, The Deadly Trackers begins as a straightforward western. Sheriff Sean Kilpatrick, played by Richard Harris, wrestles with his desire for pacifism in a violent time. In the opening scenes, he is instructing his son to use intelligence over violence and what it really means to be a man. When a posse of thieves attempt to rob his small town of Santa Rosa, Kilpatrick doesn't use violence to get the upper hand, he uses his wits. Ultimately, the film descends into more of a classic seventies revenge picture like Rolling Thunder or Death Wish without any real sense of redemption for Kilpatrick, or the society he lives in.
Originally based off the screenplay Riata by Sam Fuller and meant for Fuller to direct, Deadly Trackers stars a number of known character actor veterans such as Rod Taylor (Frank Brand), Al Lettieri (Gutierrez, Mexican Policeman), Neville Brand (Choo Choo), Big Bill Smith (Schoolboy), Isela Vega (Maria), and Paul Benjamin (Jacob).
Apparently, Fuller and star Richard Harris had creative disagreements early on in production and Fuller was fired. They brought in television director Barry Shear (Across 110th Street) and writer Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen). Allegedly some scenes were even re-written by co-stars Richard Harris and Rod Taylor.
"They completely lobotomized my story, yet left my name on that piece of garbage as a co-writer." - According to Fuller in the book Hang ‘Em High (Bob Herzog)
It's hard to deny that some of the uneven aspects of the film do feel as though perhaps the "lunatics were running the asylum." Harris made this film after A Man Called Horse and Man in the Wilderness and was considered a star of the genre and appropriate to headline a new western. It's also a time where Harris was reported by some to be difficult to work with. It could be that Sam Fuller was a casualty of this. More likely it was a case where both their egos clashed and at this moment Harris was more bankable and able to have his way.
Barry Shear and Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Torres perform admirable work behind the camera. The blocking is nice and the shots match the look of a Peckinpah-style western. Really great production design: the costumes, sets and landscapes manage to be stunning and maintain a certain worn-in charm. Rated PG, the film has the violence of Spaghetti westerns or other revenge fueled narratives of the time, punctuated with bright red paint-colored blood that was popular in films of the sixties.
Harris' performance as Kilpatrick alternates between blustery theatrical bravado and Brando-style mumblings to the point where subtitles would be helpful for some moments. Harris' somewhat Shakespearean take on the character today feels a bit overwrought and even laughable at times. Though I'm sure it was well-intentioned and arguably in tune with certain acting styles popular in the period. I found myself mostly not relating to his character. The scenes espousing ideals struck me as tiresome in their simplicity and baffling for their seeming lack of connection to his actions. An irony that appears to be lost on Harris or if it was intentional, lacks the subtlety to balance the tension. For instance, the character particularly lost me when he starts beating Maria for information about Brand. She comes across as an innocent character and for such a "thinking man" Kilpatrick never even considers apologizing for needlessly slapping her around.
As Kilpatrick is about to take out one of the posse with a rifle from a high position, he is stopped by a Mexican policemen named Gutierrez (Lettieri). Gutierrez continues to be around through the rest of the film, serving as a reminder of Kilpatrick's conscience or the man he once was as well as representing the bureaucracy of law. Arguably next to Rod Taylor who seems perfectly cast as the villain, Lettieri gives the best performance in the film. Gutierrez's adherence to non-violence creates an interesting narrative discussion, but with he and Kilpatrick's moralistic ramblings there is too much literacy brought to the conversation. The Mexican policeman as the main espouser of American lawman ideals seems misplaced. This reversal of the usual cliché may have been a good idea on paper, but somehow doesn't ring true in the final film.
One of the best scenes is when Frank Brand (Rod Taylor) meets his young daughter Louise at the nunnery, where he subsequently has a showdown with Kilpatrick. We get a shocking new dimension of Brand's character. For every other scene in the movie, Brand is a bigot, a bully and a murdering thief who shows no remorse for his actions. Suddenly upon seeing his daughter, tears fill his eyes and we meet a man that hopes to be redeemed in the eyes of this little girl. When she won't hug him, you feel both of their emotional pain. Strangely, the little girl that plays Louise isn't listed on internet movie database which is a shame as she turns in a phenomenal performance, bringing reality and charged emotion to her scenes.
1080p presented in the original aspect ratio of 1:78:1. Looks great. Appears to be a new transfer created for this release. Maintains a healthy amount of film grain. Overall a clean print. I've never seen a previous release but I'd imagine this is as good as the film could look. The image is free from tiny debris or any noticeable print damage.
The sound is encoded as DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 from an original mono track. It seems well represented here. Not impressive, but solid. Sometimes the dialogue could be clearer, but this may be more from the actor's line readings than an improper mix. Included are optional subtitles in English for the hearing impaired as well as French and Spanish language subtitles.
Trailer for The Deadly Trackers
The Deadly Trackers boasts a fine roster of character actors and a solid pedigree of talent behind the camera, but sometimes the movie gods don't bestow their favor on a production.
Although displaying wonderful moments and compelling ideas, the overall execution doesn't entirely work cohesively. The concept of good moral men of the west falling into near nihilistic revenge and destruction is better captured three years earlier in Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. However, if you've seen the film and it works for you, this is another great print from the Warner Archives.