Though not considered one his classic Westerns, The Comancheros is an enjoyable picture in John Wayne’s filmography, though I wouldn’t argue with any Native Americans who disagreed, but more about that later.
The film opens in New Orleans 1843. Gambler Paul Regret (Stuart Hamilton) wins a duel by unintentionally killing his opponent who steps into the bullet. Though there are rules regarding such matters, the deceased was a judge’s son, so Regret has to take flight to escape murder charges. On a riverboat, a beautiful young woman named Pilar (Ina Balin) takes great interest in Regret. Though how great is not entirely shown, enough clues are dropped that she was intimately interested that evening. The next morning, though I wasn’t clear how he got the information, Captain Jake Cutter (John Wayne) of the Texas Ranger finds Regret on the boat and arrests him. Regret tries to plead his case, but Cutter is just doing his job. When the opportunity arises, Regret escapes.
Back at the Ranger station, Cutter is assigned to pose as Ed McBain, a gunrunner taking a stash of rifles to the Comancheros, who are supplying the guns to the Comanche Indians. The Comanches need them because they don’t take kindly to the continual advance of the white man though the movie offers no insight to their plight. Lee Marvin plays the wild drunkard Crow, point man for the Comancheros, with crazed abandon. Cutter paints the town red with Crow and stumbles across Regret. Though Regret doesn’t blow his cover, Cutter arrests him again after dealing with Crow.
Cutter and Regret stop at the Scofield grain farm which is also serving as a Texas Ranger base. After a number of the Rangers head out and while the Scofields prepare for the birth of a baby, a large force of Comanches and Comancheros attack the farm. The sequence is completely ridiculous because it’s hard to believe what little damage Wayne and his men take against such overwhelming numbers of armed men.
Cutter and Regret attempt to infiltrate the Comancheros, who live in an isolated area. Not sure how intentional it was by screenwriters James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker or author Paul Wellman whose novel the film was based on, but the bad guys bring to mind Communist countries. The people live poorly while their wheelchair-bound leader Graile (Nehemiah Persoff) rules over them with an iron fist and in a fancy house, yet we are told they have everything they need. Things get complicated for our heroes when Regret is recognized by one of Graile’s men, who traveled with Graile’s daughter, Pilar.
Filled with action, adventure, romance, and some laughs, The Comancheros offers a nice bit of escapism entertainment. Though he refused credit, John Wayne co-directed the film when ailing Michael Curtiz, who died soon after its release, was not up to the task. Wayne also deserves credit for being aware of his age and allowing another actor to “get the girl,” which many stars don’t.
The film’s only problem is the treatment of the Native Americans. I am not surprised to find a Western from 1961 having Indians are faceless villians. Unfortunately the two scenes where there is interaction with them, fire water is their main focus. The scene with drunken Chief Iron Shirt (George J. Lewis) is particularly cringe inducing.
The video is given a 1080p / MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at 2.35:1 and it wonderfully captures the Cinemascope presentation. Colors are very strong, from the bright red opening credits to Wayne’s bright baby blues. The earth tones of the Utah locations look natural and the colorful sets and costumes on the riverboat stand out.
Blacks are solid. The image looks very clean, but still retain natural grain. Details are sharp as seen in the clothing textures. The only issue is rear projection and matte shots are obvious to the point of distraction due to the clarity the high definition offers.
The audio is available as a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track as well as the original 4.0 Dolby Surround. The DTS track sounds clean and free of defect. Objects are well positioned across the front channels, which is where most of the activity is. Dialogue is clear, though the ADR is obvious and sounds hollow. Also, coming off flat are the sounds of Crow’s whip cracking and and a cork popping. There’s not a great deal of bass and the surrounds are limited to delivering Elmer Bernstein’s score and slight ambiance, most notably the rainstorm.
The extras include an audio commentary featuring actors Stuart Whitman, Nehemiah Persoff, Michael Ansara and Patrick Wayne. They are recorded individually but the content is not usually related to what’s happening on the screen, so while the information is interesting, it’s not really commentary.
History buffs will enjoy “The Comancheros and the Battle for the American Southwest” (HD, 24 min) as historians discuss this time in North America. Fans of Wayne and classic Hollywood will love the two-part feature “The Duke at Fox “(HD, 40 min), which covers Duke and his tenure at the studio. Quite an assortment of film clips is included.
At the time 20th Century Fox commissioned Dell Comics to adapt the film. “Vintage Comancheros Comic Book” (HD)presents the book in a gallery of 95 impressive-looking stills. It was created during the film’s pre-production so it includes the original ending.
”A Conversation with Stuart Whitman (Audio Only, 12 min)finds him providing a brief history about himself and his acting career. “Fox Movietone News: Claude King and Tillman Franks Receive Award” (SD, 1 min)is the newsreel of the two men receiving citations from the Shreveport mayor. Also included are the theatrical trailer (SD, 3 min) and the Spanish version (SD, 3 min)
20th Century Fox has done a good job with The Comancheros Blu-ray. The video/audio presentation is pleasing and fans should not only appreciate the upgrade but the extras that augment the film. It is housed in a digibook case and is accompanied by two miniature poster reproductions.