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Comancheros, The (Blu-ray Review)

6 Jun, 2011 By: Mike Clark

$34.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Ina Balin, Lee Marvin.

John Wayne’s second notably relaxed outing in as many years for 20th Century Fox placed him early in the final chapter of his Western career — the one where he got a lot of fun out of intimidating a tenderfoot. But this said, Wayne had gruffly taken youngsters or relative youngsters under his wing on screen as far back as Red River and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon in the late 1940s — though at that point in time, Wayne was playing characters older than he was in real life, which is not where he found himself in a dozen years later.

For some reason, Wayne at 52 had seemed totally natural with Angie Dickinson (then 27) in 1959’s Rio Bravo, possibly because in that film, Angie — and yes, I know that on one obvious level, this ranks among the looniest pronouncements ever — came off as “one of the boys” in that box office hit eventually turned classic. Wayne had even been convincing enough courting Capucine in Fox’s rambunctious North to Alaska in 1960, where he’d also given some choice older-man’s lip to pop star Fabian (who, in a somewhat undervalued comic performance, was almost as funny as his singing always was). But in The Comancheros, we’re definitely in a new era. Stuart Whitman’s co-protagonist is the one who’s smitten with femme lead Ina Balin — while Wayne’s Texas Ranger (a widower) stands off to the side and repeatedly refers to natty gambler Whitman as “mon-sewer.”

The two make a terrific male duo, a teaming that’s inspired enough to carry a Western — or, if you like, an 1840 “Texan” — that Wayne himself directed to substantial degree (a little less than half, according to Whitman in the Blu-ray bonus section). This is because the former Warner Bros. ace house director — Michael Curtiz of Casablanca and a long string of other household names — was dying of cancer and not up to finishing what would end up being his swan song.

Fox has given this easy-to-take escapism more than half-hearted Blu-ray treatment, but there are times when it looks as if those unstable DeLuxe Color negatives have struck again. The result doesn’t look bad, but it’s a little on the muddy side, and were it possible to see The Comancheros next to non-existent Blu-rays of two movies Wayne made shortly thereafter in major league Paramount Technicolor (Hatari! and Donovan’s Reef), you would note a monster difference. But make no mistake: Fox deserves credit for taking the high road by issuing The Comancheros in high-def. By contrast, I can think of only four vintage Blu-ray titles Paramount has issued in the past six months.

The single best thing Fox has done with this release is to revive the great pieced-together commentary with Whitman, Wayne’s actor son Patrick (who takes an Indian arrow in the back here) and two actors who play heavies: Nehemiah Persoff and Michael Ansara. Originally assembled for the 1994 laserdisc release, it’s one of my favorite commentaries ever — but was left off the standard Comancheros DVD, to my considerable disappointment at the time.

Other bonuses include, but are not limited to, a historical backgrounder about the title traders to Indians (who apparently weren’t always as reprehensible as the bad breed of merchants here) and one on Wayne’s two tenures at the studio, separated by about 30 years. As we see, the actor began at plain old Fox as John Ford’s prop boy/bit player in the days before the 1935 merger with 20th Century Pictures — even starring and then flopping in 1930’s temporarily career-killing The Big Trail (which now looks like one of the best Hollywood movies of that year). After a humungous breather, Wayne returned to work substantially for the studio from 1958-62 — a beneficial union if you don’t count a rocky opening salvo. The most interesting part of this 40-minute bonus — and here, we even have third wife Pilar Wayne telling much of the story — deals with the personal animosity between Wayne and director John Huston when they were in Japan filming The Barbarian and the Geisha.

The two apparently even came to blows — obviously a serious occurrence when it happens off screen. On screen, punch-outs amounted to standard operating procedure between Wayne and Lee Marvin — a relationship that spanned three movies in three consecutive years, of which The Comancheros came first. Cast as a rifle transporter and onetime scalping victim who’s viewed as an unstable hire even by top-dog Comanchero Persoff, Marvin has a glorified cameo of three or four scenes (all good). So as not to engage in spoilers, let’s just say that the Wayne-Marvin relationship here is only marginally warmer than it would be in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This mean that by default, their warmest and fuzziest union would have to be in Donovan’s Reef — where they merely break chairs on each other’s skulls and throw beer bottles at each other before temporarily settling down for the greatest Nativity Scene in the history of the screen.

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