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Blu-ray Review: The Comancheros

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I once read a thread in the IMDb forum wherein several folks around the world compared The Comancheros to that of a modern action film. The very thought seems preposterous — especially for a John Wayne film. But, when you think about how action films really didn’t exist in the fashion we have become accustomed to way back in 1961, the whole “contemporary” concept present in The Comancheros is definitely present. At times, it’s like a International espionage thriller somewhat akin to the 007 franchise; albeit set entirely in the vast state of Texas during the Old West — a world unto itself at the time. Other times, it’s like a “buddy” flick wherein two guys, poles apart from each other in every respect, forge an unlikely alliance to emerge victorious amidst a whole heap of bad guys.

Why, The Comancheros comes across as being a lot like the epically-awful Chuck Norris/Louis Gossett, Jr. vehicle Firewalker — only it’s good. It’s also chockfull with several familiar faces from Hollywood’s past and future alike, including Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Patrick Wayne, Bruce Cabot, Jack Elam, Michael Ansara, Richard Devon, Edgar Buchanan, and even classic B-Western star, Bob Steele — most of whom pop up long enough to make the trained classic moviegoer go “Hey, it’s that guy,” but whose individual auras add just the right amount of spice to their respective scenes nonetheless.

The story here opens with gambler/wanderer Paul Regret (a young Stuart Whitman) gunning down a jealous opponent (Gregg Palmer) in a duel. When informed (by an aged Henry Daniell) that the man he just killed is the son of a local Louisiana judge — and he will surely have a death sentence on his head as a result — Regret hightails it to Texas, where he meets a mysterious young beauty (Ina Balin) on a gambling boat, whom he has a brief romantic encounter with. It’s also there that he meets up with a immovable veteran Texas Ranger by the name of Jake Cutter (John Wayne), whom he does not have a brief romantic encounter with, fortunately. Big Jake (as he’s called) is determined to haul Regret off to the slammer so that he can keep his inadvertent appointment with the gallows.

Unfortunately, as Big Jake learns, Regret is a pretty wily feller: one who continuously shows the elder lawman a thing or two about how persistence can pay off — especially when you don’t want to die! Soon after, their paths cross once again, this time in the company of a half-scalped, half-sane gunrunner named Crow (Lee Marvin, whose fame had not yet been realized, but whose performance is one of the best in the film). This time ‘round, Big Jake is working under the covers as an old-fashioned arms dealer (of sorts) with Crow in order to infiltrate a vicious, near-legendary tribe of white men riding alongside the equally-ferocious Comanche Indians: the titular Comancheros.

When things with Crow go awry (and another wonderful bit player in the film cashes in his paycheck and goes bye-bye), Regret winds up becoming Jake’s partner in his covert government operation (referring to him as “mon-sewer” all the way though — a joke that only gets funnier each time the deliberately mispronounced word is uttered). Upon making the acquaintance of The Comancheros, our heroes are captured, tortured, and then set free by the aforementioned mysterious woman. The woman, as it turns out, is actually the daughter of the compound’s terrorist-like leader (Nehemiah Persoff), who in-turn invites the men to join their little community — or be executed in some very inhospitable way, as is the custom of the awkward little society they have built up.

Will the boys (and girl) escape from the bad guys? Will their covers get blown? More importantly, will the Calvary (or, in this case, the other Texas Rangers) show up in time? Well, the fact that it’s a John Wayne film should give you some sort of inkling as to what kind of note the story ends on, eh?

Although it most assuredly paved the way for several subgenres of moving pictures to come, The Comancheros definitely has that “epic ‘60s American western” feel to it. It almost seems too big for its britches. Anyone who has even the most basic knowledge of 1840s America may grit their teeth over the movie’s many anachronisms (many of the clothing styles and weapons did not appear until several decades later). Additionally, those who have read Paul Wellman’s original novel of the same name might find themselves rolling their eyes over the fact that John Wayne and his larger-than-life character take center stage, whilst reducing the character of Paul Regret — who was the main protagonist in the original literary incarnation — to that of a secondary figure.

Nevertheless, all those bits and pieces accumulated from years of nitpicking from fans all over aside, it should never be said that The Comancheros doesn’t succeed in entertaining its audience. It’s a wonderful western/action/comedy film, directed by Casablanca’s Michael Curtiz and John Wayne himself (the latter of whom stepped in when the failing health of Curtiz — who passed away early the following year — prevented him from calling the shots). Wayne and Whitman’s chemistry is a marvelous mixture indeed; and the two tough guys give it their all here.

Hell, this is one of those rare “epic ‘60s American westerns” wherein everyone that was at play here — from cast to crew alike — appeared to have given the entire project their all!

More often than naught, these older movies don’t always get a fair treatment when they’re transferred to the Ray of Blu. This is sometimes attributable to print damage (or just plain negligence, perhaps). But, in the case of 20th Century Fox’s “50th Anniversary Edition” of The Comancheros, the 1080p/AVC presentation is practically perfect. Not only did the studio clean up the source material significantly for this release (especially if you compare it to the SD-DVD from 2003), but they also appeared to have laid back considerably on the act of Digital Noise Reduction (DNR), so the entire film has that “natural” feel to it. Colors are extremely vivid here, with there being a fine amount of detail to boot (Lee Marvin’s poor make-up job really stands out now). The CinemaScope classic is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Audio-wise, The Comancheros boasts a new 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track in addition to the original 4-Channel mix. While purists may no doubt prefer to watch the film with its first aural mix accompanying it, the new 5.1 DTS-HD audio is nothing to complain about. The first thing I noticed was that Elmer Bernstein’s “epic ‘60s American western” score and sound effects have been given a big boost, reducing their slightly-tinny resonance that is so typical of those older audio tracks. While the rear speakers don’t get a chance to fully spread their aural wings (so to speak) with this setup, the overall change in quality is apparent when you compare the two dominant English-language tracks, and I commend the boys and girls behind the new audio here for doing such a fine job. Spanish and French Mono soundtracks are also included, as are English (SDH) and Spanish subtitles.

Special Features? You bet! Unlike certain other, newer Blu-ray editions of catalogue titles that usually skip out on the inclusion of bonus materials, each of the folks behind Fox’s “50th Anniversary Edition” of The Comancheros must all have had a soft spot in their heart for this title — and chose to honor it accordingly. The Blu-ray Digibook release houses two new documentaries: “The Comancheros And The Battle for the American Southwest,” an informative twenty-four-minute look at the various real-life factions of folks depicted in the film; and “The Duke At Fox,” a forty-minute two-part look at how the careers of John Wayne and Fox Studios interacted throughout the years.

An full-length audio commentary with several of the film’s stars (Stuart Whitman, Nehemiah Persoff, Michael Ansara and Patrick Wayne) contains some fun recollections from its participants, as well as details about the movie itself. Alas, this is one of those cut-and-paste jobs wherein all the contributors were recorded individually and subsequently re-edited and assembled to play with the main feature. Still, it’s a good listen. Additional goodies include a look at Dell’s slightly-different comic book adaptation (that sold for a whoppin’ 15¢ in the ‘60s) which has been scanned into High-Def for future generations to enjoy, an audio-only interview with Stuart “One-Brow” Whitman himself; a clip from a vintage Fox Movietone News reel, and two vintage trailers (one in English, the other in Spanish).

Two tangible extras built-in with the Digibook include a 24-page booklet and two reproductions of the film’s original artwork.

The bottom line here: The Comancheros is one highly recommended movie. You owe it to yourself to see this one, “mon-sewer.” And, should you already have the regular ol’ DVD version of the film, you surely owe it to yourself to pick up this magnificent Blu-ray release.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.
  • Anonymous

    Good review, but one point make me sick:
    “The Comancheros comes across as being a lot like the epically-awful Chuck Norris/Louis Gossett, Jr. vehicle Firewalker”

    Epically-awful? It was an epically-entertaining!! period.

  • http://insomniacentertainment.com Luigi Bastardo

    Hey now, don’t think for one moment that I’m not a fan of the movie: I used to watch it all the time when it first hit VHS, and the DVD is in my personal collection. :)