The movie was made during the peak of Spaghetti Western, but those were concurrent with big Hollywood Westerns, as well as West and East German Westerns, and convoluted Euro-Westerns of multinational origin. Shalako falls into the latter category. Though based on American L'Amour's story and directed by Hollywood veteran Edward Dmytryk, Scottish, French, Irish, and German actors play the four main characters. Most of the key crewmembers were British, but it was shot, like innumerable Spaghettis, in Almería, Spain.
As Shalako's pre-credits prologue, credited to L'Amour, points out, the story is based on real history, that during the 1880s Europe's aristocrats and colorful celebrities would sometimes travel to the old west for "American safaris." The story is set in New Mexico in 1880, on Apache reservation land, where an elite, arrogant European hunting party blithely ignores repeated warnings that they are in danger of an imminent Indian attack, led by the ruthless Chato (Woody Strode, playing the same character Charles Bronson essayed in Chato's Land). Based at the ruins of an adobe fortress, frontiersman Shalako (Connery, his Scottish accent intact) does his best to prepare the ignorant, unworried 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 (and Fulton makes off with the aristocrats' valuables), Shalako returns in a desperate attempt to lead the (mostly) Europeans through perilous Indian country to safety.
Shalako is excellent on several levels, tempered by a several big flaws. On the plus side, Sean Connery is superb in role that both complements and contrasts his then concurrent outings as James Bond. He's a seasoned frontiersman but mostly his part consists of reacting to behavior of those around him, particularly the initially stubborn Baron Frederick von Hallstadt (Peter van Eyck, billed fifth but really the second lead). Much of J.J. Griffith and Hal Hooper's screenplay revolves around the Baron's sudden awareness of his foolhardy behavior, and how he gradually allows himself to learn from uncultured Shalako's experience while putting a bit of his own expertise to good use.
Connery, a fan of Western movies himself, makes a fine cowboy savior in the Shane (or maybe more precisely, Karl May's Shatterhand) mold. He underplays here with the same, often unrecognized skill one associates with Robert Mitchum, indeed so subtly that it was almost invisible in the earlier, inferior DVD version but is perceptible on Blu-ray.
The Zulu-like siege 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.
The almost perverse sight of a Downton Abbey-like luxuriousness, complete with stereotypically officious butler (Eric Sykes, all but a flesh and blood Parker from TV's Thunderbirds), is fascinating, though the screenwriters don't take full advantage of the unusual arrangement. The cowboys in Fulton's employ and Fulton himself find their guests' pretentiousness amusing and ridiculous, while the hunting party naturally looks down on the help. 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 and outlaws. Like Martin Ritt's similar Hombre (1967), Shalako is believably, at times shockingly, brutal.
What's not so believable is Brigitte Bardot. As the French countess Irina Lazaar, who takes Shalako's warnings seriously from the start, Bardot is quite good as an actress, but the filmmakers either encouraged or permitted Bardot to retain her contemporary glamour: her anachronistic hairstyle and especially her late-‘60s style eye makeup (eyeliner and shadow so thick and black she resembles a raccoon in drag), and a wardrobe that never smudges or rips, despite an arduous trek through the desert and up a steep, rocky mountain.
Dmytryk generally does a good job with the actors and some of the action, but his limitations become very apparent during the climatic fight between Shalako and Chato, Strode's casting inevitably drawing comparisons to his far better directed duel with Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960), which this all too obviously emulates.
Adding to the weakness of that and other scenes is the score by Canadian composer and trumpet player Robert Farnon. With its annoying title song ("ShalaKO! ShalaKO!") and underscoring often at odds with what's onscreen, it does little to help the film. He had a wholly unimpressive list of credits until The Disappearance (1977), a criminally underrated, unique Canadian film boasting a wonderfully complementary score.
Connery's influence on the picture probably extended to members of the cast and crew drawn from earlier Bond outings: Honor Blackman (Goldfinger) as pragmatic Lady Daggett; Alexander Knox (You Only Live Twice) as an obscure but pompous ex-Senator; and, behind the scenes, cinematographer Ted Moore and stunt director Bob Simmons.
Video & Audio
MGM's DVD from many years back was a big disappointment, in 4:3 letterboxed format, as were all of the widescreen Disney-owned titles licensed for home video through MGM. Like that release, the 1080p Blu-ray has opening titles that look simply terrible and which are strangely cropped on the top and bottom. Fortunately, the rest of this Franscope (2.35:1) production generally looks very good, though even here some of the dissolves and other opticals show signs of damage. This release appears sourced from the British version. The DTS-HD Master Audio is okay and English subtitles are offered on this region "A" disc. No Extra Features.
While some aspects of the picture don't work, generally Shalako is an intriguing, original Western, whose one-of-a-kind cast add additional interest. Highly Recommended.