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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Comancheros

May 15th, 2011

The Comancheros - Blu-ray - Buy from Amazon

The Comancheros stars John Wayne, who is one of the most iconic Western actors of all time. It was the final film directed by Michael Curtiz, who earned four Oscar nominations, including a win for Casablanca. The Comancheros isn't among the biggest hits for either men, but how well will it stand up 50 years after it was first released.

The Movie

The film starts with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) killing a man in a duel over the attentions of a woman. The other man issued the challenge and Paul was only aiming to wound, but the dead man was the son of a judge, so it will be the death penalty for him and his only option is to run. The word goes out and lawmen all over the western frontier are on the lookout.

The first to get to Paul is Capt. Jake Cutter of the Texas Rangers, actually, the first to get to him is Pilar Graile (played by Ina Balin), but despite knowing who he is, she appears to be only interested in sex. While Paul is cautiously happy with this turn of events, it leaves him ill-prepared the next morning and Jake Cutter captures him with ease. On the way back, the pair stop at Jake's old ranch, but it was hit by an Indian raid recently and all of the ranch hands were killed. Jake mentions that when he was running the ranch, the Indians in the area were peaceful, but something has riled them up the past couple of years. They bury the dead, but this gives Paul the opening he needs and after delivering a blow to the Jake's head, he takes off in search of his mysterious woman.

Back at the Texas Ranges fort, Jake takes a bit of good-natured ribbing from his fellow Rangers before learning from the Major that his suspicions might be right. They recently caught a gun-runner with a wagon load of stolen Texas Rangers' guns. He was supposed to take the guns to Sweetwater where he was to be contacted, but now Jake will take his place in hopes of finding the men he was going to sell them to. That man is Tully Crow, one of the Comancheros, a gang running guns and alcohol to the Comanches. They bond as partners anyway as manly men would do, by getting drunk, punching each other a few times, eating a couple steaks, and getting involved in some poker. But guess who else is at this poker game? Paul Regret. Jake has to maintain his cover as Ed McBain, so Paul's safe for now. But when Tully gets a little too upset at losing, Jake's forced to kill him. With the undercover mission a failure, he arrests Paul.

That man has no luck.

On the way back, Jake and Paul visit a grain farm run by friends of Jake's where the Texas Rangers are temporarily stationed while they ride out and warn the local ranchers about the increased Comanches attacks. Speaking of which, just after the Rangers leave, the Comanches and the Comancheros attack the ranch. Paul is given a gun to fight, but while the attackers regroup, he runs off. This doesn't surprise Jake too much, but when Paul returns with reinforcements, it does. Still, an oath is an oath and Jake has to take Paul into custody once again. But his luck finally changes for the better and thanks to his valor, the Rangers lie under oath and swear he's been in Texas as a Ranger for the past couple years, and therefore couldn't have killed a man in Louisiana.

Now that Paul is a lawmen, he and Jake must still deal with the Comanches / Comancheros problem. And then there's Pilar, but that gets us into unacceptable spoiler territory.

The Comancheros is a good Western, but not a great one. John Wayne and Stuart Whitman have good chemistry together and the story of the fugitive and the lawman becoming friends works. Lee Marvin's performance adds life to the film and his chemistry with John Wayne, while different than John Wayne's chemistry with Stuart Whitman, is equally important to the success of the film. The story involving the titular Comancheros is less effective and lurches forward at times and drags as others. Pilar as a character adds some problems to the movie, as she's introduced very early on in a scene that makes her very mysterious, but not all of these mysteries are not adequately dealt with in the end.

Overall The Comancheros sticks too closely to the standard western formula. It's competently made, but it doesn't do enough to stand out.

The Extras

Extras start with an audio commentary track with Ned Romero, who gives tidbits in-between interview clips with Stuart Whitman, Nehemiah Persoff, Michael Ansara, and Patrick Wayne. The Comancheros and the Battle for the American Southwest is a 24-minute featurette no the real life history of the Comanches and their interactions with Europeans. The Duke At Fox is a two-part, 40-minute featurette about John Wayne's career at 20th Century Fox. You can read the original comic book adaptation of the film with the original ending. There's an audio only interview with Stuart Whitman, and finally archival newsreel. Some of these extras are new, some are from the previous DVD, and some are apparently from the laserdisc. It's great to have them all collected in one place.

The digibook has images, a plot synopsis, essays on the cast, etc., which it comes with a couple mini-posters.

Moving onto the film's technical presentation, there's good news and bad news. The video has some real strengths, including very vivid colors, even if the sharpness of the picture and the detail level tend to vary. Contrast is good while the blacks are deep and for a film that's 50 years old, there's nothing major to complain about. The audio is solid, but don't expect that same type of dynamic audio you would get in a modern film.

On a side note, sometimes the picture quality Blu-ray can offer works against the movie. When Lee Marvin shows up as Tully Crow, I spent several minutes trying to figure out what that strange thing on his head was. (It's scar tissue from when the Comanches tried to scalp him the first time he encountered them.) The detail you get on Blu-ray just highlights how much special effects makeup has come in 50 years.

The Verdict

The Comancheros is not the biggest or best films in the careers of either John Wayne or Michael Curtiz. However, if you like Westerns in general or John Wayne specifically, then it is worth checking out. Meanwhile, the Blu-ray has a good collection of extras, both old and new, and looks and sounds about as strong as one could expect for a film that's 50 years old. It all adds up to a solid purchase.

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