I tend to divide westerns in a similar manner to the Bible - Django and Unforgiven are strictly Old Testament stories of revenge and retribution. The Searchers, despite Wayne threatening to rain down fire and brimstone throughout, is resolved with an act of love, thereby making it a New Testament western. As is Rio Bravo where it's Wayne's forgiveness of Dean Martin's drunk that gives them a chance in the shootout.
Of course, before any western fans feel the need to outline the shortcomings of such a system, let me say that Warlock got there first. It's an intriguing film with something of the epic about it - in length, the timelessness of the story and the beauty of the landscapes - but comes down to whether a man's past matters. The man in question is Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark), a one-time road agent who, as the film opens, looks to be considering giving it all up for an honest and peaceful life in the town of Warlock. The gang of which he was a member is, however, not planning on running and having rid Warlock of its sheriff, lawlessness, to Gannon's disgust, quickly sets in. His displeasure only increases when his brother, Billy Gannon (Frank Gorshin), continues to run with the gang.
Those that remain in the town hire a Marshall, Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda), who shows up with his partner Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn). Together, the pair have garnered a reputation for quickly dealing with trouble and Warlock is no exception - within days the road agents are holed up in a farm out of town reduced to the odd, unsuccessful shot at the Marshall. What Warlock realises, however, is that all they've done is to replace one problem with another and a visiting sheriff appeals to the citizens of the town to appoint a deputy who can maintain order whilst working, unlike Blaisdell and Morgan, within the law. When Johnny Gannon steps forward, Blaisdell and Morgan, not to mention the people of Warlock, must reconcile his past as a road agent with his determination to pursue peace only through the application of the law. But with his brother still running with the road agents and no one in a mood to forgive, least of all Morgan, Gannon has a difficult fight.
Into this troubled town comes Lilly Dollar (Dorothy Malone) whose husband was shot dead by Morgan some years before. Travelling on the coach in the company of her dead husband's brother, Dollar gets an early taste of the tensions in Warlock when, during an ambush out of town, Morgan adds her brother-in-law to his tally, which tears at the relationship that he has with Blaisdell. Unfortunately for Morgan, that friendship is all that he has and, before long, Warlock will be the stage for a resolution to all their conflicts.
It takes some time to explain fully the plot of Warlock, which is a reflection of the complexities within the film, not that this is obvious from the start. Indeed, Warlock opens in unimpressive form with the road agents running the town's sheriff out into the desert having threatened to hang him. When the townspeople elect to hire a Marshall, which is followed by the arrival of Blaisdell and Morgan, I expected Warlock to turn out as a rather run-of-the-mill western in which the Marshall cleared the town of the road agents, finishing with a shootout on the main street. But an hour or so into the film, Blaisdell and Morgan refuse to back down when faced with Billy Gannon, who stands out from his partners in the gang of road agents through not only a big mouth and a trigger-happy finger but also immaturity and foolishness. At that point, with roughly an hour left to go, the film poses its most interesting question - how easy is it to forgive a man.
The most obvious candidate for forgiveness is, of course, Johnny Gannon who, even as the film opens, is looking forward to rebuilding his life outside of the road agents. It is Gannon's position within the town that drives the film - in being accepted as quickly as he is, the townspeople are effectively and wordlessly telling Blaisdell and Morgan that their time has come and that they ought to move on. Unfortunately, Morgan doesn't quite see things in those terms.
Similarly, there is Clay Blaisdell's wish to settle down in Warlock with Jessie Marlow (Dolores Michaels), which leaves him considering whether to give up his guns in favour of love and family. Lastly, there is the vengeance sought by Lilly Dollar for the murder by Morgan of her husband and his brother. All of her notions of revenge are tested when she begins a relationship with Johnny Gannon whose priorities are now for law and order leaving her to decide whether her past or current affair takes priority.
At the root of all of these relationships is Tom Morgan, who strains even his bond with Blaisdell during the course of the film. In his review of the Region 2 release of Warlock, Anthony Nield noted that, "the Fonda-Quinn relationship is an unusual one, and one that fully stands up to a gay reading." Certainly, it's entirely possible to read their relationship as being a homosexual one with their love of drapes and silk sheets, not to mention Morgan's domestic fussing, being, one assumes, references to homosexuality in censorious 1959. It can even be read as the effect that unrequited love has on a man with Morgan's self-loathing and resentment of his feelings for Blaisdell coming to the fore when Jessie Marlow begins an affair with Blaisdell. This culminates in Morgan taking his revenge on all of Warlock in a scene so bleak and unforgiving that Clint Eastwood must have referenced it when preparing for the final scenes of Unforgiven.
With respect to Anthony's view, which is a fair reading of the film, I don't think the relationship between Morgan and Blaisdell is necessarily a homosexual one, more that it is a reflection of how one man, Morgan, desperately needs another to get by. It is largely a rewriting of the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday pairing, with the club-footed Morgan standing in for the tuberculosis-stricken Holliday with the level-headed Blaisdell taking the Earp role. Anyone familiar with the pairing from, say, Tombstone, should feel immediately at home with Warlock, with Anthony Quinn's preening and obvious care for Henry Fonda being a precursor of the Val Kilmer/Kurt Russell relationship.
Without spoiling it, Warlock ends magnificently, with all of the hatred, loathing and despair in the town coming to the fore in a single night even when, at sunset, the troubles of the town looked to be over. If the film ends with a ride off into the sunrise, such a peaceful last scene is no reflection of the turmoil of the previous night, in which both vengeance and forgiveness found a home in the town.
The transfer is good but verges on the soft, particularly in distance shots out of town and of the stunning scenery. Otherwise, though, the colours are rich and are handled well by the transfer and the image is perfectly stable. And, although this is more of a nod to the original cinematography, Warlock looks wonderful on a big television screen.
As well as the original English mono soundtrack, which is very good and the best of the available audio tracks, Fox have also provided a stereo track that, as I have found elsewhere, lacks the warmth of the mono track. These stereo tracks seem to lack middle and come over as having too much at the top and bottom end but not enough substance, sounding thin as a result.
There are English and Spanish subtitles on the main feature but not on the bonus features.
Old West Theater: Fox has included a number of trailers for its other western releases, including The Bravados (2m19s), Broken Arrow (1m57s), Broken Lance (2m38s), Forty Guns (2m07s), Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (3m01s) and Drums Along The Mohawk (2m17s).
Original Theatrical Trailer (2m47s): Introduced by Henry Fonda, who promises an excitement that, "you won't want to miss", this is a series of highlights from the film that does a good job of portraying its major themes.
Movietone News Footage (59s): At first, you may be wondering how the presence of Queen Frederika being the guest of honour at a Beverly Hills ball is connected to Warlock. Hang in there and narrator Joe King picks Henry Fonda, who had just finished Warlock, out of the crowd.
It may have been because of Edward Dmytryk's testimony before the HUAC (House Committee on Un-American Activities) after he had spent some time in prison that has left his films rather unloved but Warlock does not deserve to be forgotten. The film would have been interesting enough were it only to feature the Fonda and Widmark characters but with Anthony Quinn threatening to destroy everything before he does so to himself, it becomes a great film. The extras are largely unnecessary but the transfer is good, leaving this a fine film on a good disc.