Bandolero was made in 1968, a tricky year for Westerns. The genre was caught between two stools – camp and revisionism. On the one hand, films like Cat Ballou were sending up the genre outright, while supposedly straight Western offerings like The War Wagon were almost as camp as the intentional comedies. On the other, the harsh realism of films such as Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, Will Penny and, to some extent, Howard Hawks’ El Dorado were indicating that the realities of the Wild West were considerably less attractive than the Hollywood stereotype. That’s simplifying the issue of course – as far back as the 1940s, John Ford had indicated in films like My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache that fact and legend were frequently a breed apart – but the trend for telling it in crimson-laden detail was in the ascendant by the late 1960s. A year after this, Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch would forever define the revisionist Western. But a film starring James Stewart and Dean Martin in 1968 was never likely to be anything particularly startling in terms of breaking stereotypes and in many ways Bandolero is a throwback to a rather more innocent time. That this time was never going to come back is evident in the surprisingly brutal violence and the concessions to contemporary sexual mores.
The film begins in the Texas town of Val Verde, run by an honest sheriff (Kennedy) who foils an attempt by the Bishop gang, led by Dee (Martin), to rob the bank. They are convicted and sentenced to hang but they escape when Dee’s brother Mace (Stewart) masquerades as the hangman. Mace subsequently robs the bank himself and rides off to help his brother and the rest of the outlaws escape the posse riding after them. As insurance, the gang have kidnapped a grieving widow named Mrs Stoner (Welch), a woman much beloved of the sheriff. But their seemingly straightforward trip over the Mexican border is marred by the appearance of a group of Bandoleros, vicious Mexican bandits.
None of this is what you’d call unusual and in some respects it echoes some of the Anthony Mann / James Stewart collaborations from the 1950s, without any of the fine psychological nuances that seemed to rise effortlessly out of those wonderful films. But it is well paced and written, by James Lee Barrett, with some skill – the opening forty minutes displays considerable wit, although this diminishes once the film turns into a chase. This first half is worth considering in more detail. It begins with a tense stand-off in a bank between the law and the Bishop gang and then moves into picaresque territory with a nicely judged encounter between James Stewart, at his most rustic, and the loquacious hangman – whose catchphrase is “Nothin’ worse than a sloppy hanging!” The turn of events which leads to Stewart robbing the bank and riding off to meet his brother is a textbook example of good professional craftsmanship, raising a fair head of suspense and adding some amusing touches. Stewart’s delivery is characteristically laid-back – more so than Dean Martin’s, if that’s possible - and I love his disarmingly polite bank robbery – “Do everything I say and ..aarrrrr... you’ll stay, erm, healthy ...errrr... and ...arrr... everything, erm, will be alright...” There’s a sharp sense of black comedy here which is surprisingly effective and manages to avoid too many camp overtones. The abortive hanging scene is interesting too, raising a few questions about the essentially theatrical nature of such an occasion without finding anything as provocative as the astonishing ‘hanging circus’ scene in Ted Post’s contemporary Hang Em High.
However, something strange happens to the film once the gang have escaped and kidnapped Mrs Stoner. Suddenly the hell-for-leather pace established in the opening drops to a crawl and an awful mess is made of establishing the simple narrative exposition by which Martin and Stewart are revealed to be brothers. The charmingly unusual and well-mannered Sheriff created by George Kennedy becomes predictably tyrannical and obsessive, a plot turn that is disappointing and detracts from his character. Then the appearance of the Bandoleros seems nothing more than an attempt by a desperate screenwriter to create some more tension when he can’t get any going with the story elements that he’s got. Worst of all, the last fifteen minutes brings us a downbeat ending and some completely inappropriate sincerity. It’s almost like the first half of one film has become confused with the second half of another.
In so far as the film remains worth seeing, its largely due to three elements. Firstly, the stunning Scope cinematography by the underrated William Clothier. Secondly, the quirky, Morricone-inspired music score by Jerry Goldsmith. Thirdly, and most importantly, the cast. James Stewart made an awful lot of Westerns in the 1960s, several of them with Andrew V. McLaglen as director, and a lot of them aren’t much cop. But he’s always fun to watch, even in unsatisfying movies, and he obviously enjoys the variations which this character allows him to play. The same doesn’t entirely go for Dean Martin. At his best, he’s wonderful – in films like Rio Bravo and Some Came Running - but when he’s coasting it can be embarrassing to watch the way he tries to rely on his old tricks and fails to make them work for him. Thankfully, this is one of his more animated performances. He manages to make Bishop seem a more complex and thoughtful character than he probably was in the script and he makes a good partner to Stewart. A third good performance comes from George Kennedy, an actor who has been a welcome presence in many films that didn’t deserve him. He surprises by making the Sheriff a bashful and rather sweet lawman who refuses to surrender to the temptations of corruption. He can’t do anything with the second half character change but I don’t think any actor could have done better. We also get nice moments from Will Geer and familiar faces like Dub Taylor and the great Harry Carey. However, Raquel Welch is a problem. It’s not her acting, which – despite the Mexican accent - isn’t any worse than you’d expect. It’s the character of Mrs Stoner. She’s required to serve several functions. On the one hand, she’s a proud widow in the tradition of Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon A Time In The West. On the other, she’s a repressed woman who can only find her sexual freedom when kidnapped by real men. Then she’s a screaming object for the unwelcome attentions of thuggish men and, finally, a tough gal with a knack for firearms. It’s a terrible character to have to play – sort of Hawksian woman meets Peckinpah female cipher – and Welch can’t make it work. She’s landed with lots of dialogue, much of it unnecessary, and two attempted rape scenes which are staged to give us the maximum amount of cleavage allowable for the family audience.
More frustrating is the reactionary turn that the narrative makes. After the first hour, the real bad guys appear and, guess what, they’re Mexican bandits. These bandits are presented as slightly more objectionable than the Vietcong in The Green Berets and they are as slimy and cunning as the Japanese in all those war movies from the 1940s. There’s no attempt to examine why the Mexican Bandoleros might have felt at risk from Americans – and they had considerable reason to by 1887 – and they are simply an excuse for a big final gunfight and lots of needless sadism. Add to this the usual bullshit about real men being defined in terms of their ability to kill someone and rob a bank. None of this is surprising but for a film which begins with such blackly comic jollity it is disappointing. Andrew V.McLaglen was the son of Victor McLaglen, John Ford’s favourite actor, and he grew up surrounded by the myths created around Ford and his compatriots. His Westerns often aim for a kind of Fordian mythic grandeur but tend to fall well short. Worse, his collaborations with John Wayne indulge Wayne’s own far-right wing politics in a manner which Ford – who shared some of Wayne’s political convictions – would have found distasteful. Bandolero is relatively restrained in this department but it ultimately doesn’t have much conviction of any kind, political or otherwise.
Although Bandolero isn’t exactly a shining jewel in Fox’s back catalogue, they have gifted it with an eye-poppingly gorgeous transfer.
The film is presented in its original 2.35:1 ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is a beautiful visual presentation with loads of fine detail, few problems with artefacting, no unsightly excess of grain and spectacular colours. Occasional print damage is evident but otherwise this is a transfer which would compare favourably to the best releases from the Fox Studio Classics division.
The English soundtrack is supposedly Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Actually, it’s a mono track which has been messed around to supply some expansion over the front channels. This sounds as unnatural as you’d expect but is occasionally effective during the gunfights. Dialogue is largely placed in the centre channel. The music score comes across best of all. To be honest though, I’d prefer the original mono soundtrack without the unnecessary tweaking.
The extras are all trailers. There are English and Spanish trailers for this film and additional previews for other films in the Raquel Welch Collection - Fathom, Mother Jugs and Speed, One Million Years BC and Myra Breckenridge. All of these have been reviewed for DVD Times during the past few days.
The first half of Bandolero is such good fun that it’s disappointing that it becomes so conventional and reactionary towards the end. This DVD makes it look like a million dollars and gives it more weight than it probably deserves.