When you think of John Wayne one of two images comes to mind, military John Wayne, and cowboy John Wayne. In nearly every one of his iconic American movies he played one of those two roles; a cowboy in The Searchers, Rio Bravo, and True Grit, the role that won him an Academy Award in 1969; while he played military men of various persuasions in films like Sands of Iwo Jima, In Harm’s Way, and The Green Berets. In The Comancheros, now available in a special edition 50th anniversary Blu-ray Book, the Duke takes his cowboy persona out for a spin, though the result is a standard, middle of the road western affair.
Wayne plays Captain Jake Cutter, and no-nonsense Texas Ranger, which, you have to admit, is comfortably within the man’s range. He tracks down Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a smooth-talking gambler who killed a man in a duel and fled the states to avoid an unwanted trip to the gallows. Cutter takes Regret into custody a couple of times, though he always manages to escape. Eventually the two unlikely companions team up to go undercover and take down the Comancheros, a gang of white gunrunners who ride with, and supply guns to the local band of hostile Comanche Indians.
In between all of the action, Cutter longs for his dead wife, and Regret pines for Pilar (Ina Balin), a sultry, strong-willed woman he shared a passionate weekend with on a riverboat. Cutter and Regret wax poetic on all manner of subjects, from love, lust, and desire, to what it means to take an oath and live by the words that you speak. Regret is from New Orleans, and there is a definite city vs. country dynamic between the two, and Cutter continually drops backhanded jabs at Regret’s affectations, habits, and lack of frontier-born knowledge.
Lee Marvin shows up as a rugged, and I mean rugged arms dealer, who was partially scalped by the Comanche, and he and Cutter have a night of intoxicated buffoonery mixed with moments of tense standoff. It’s a fun turn, but in the grand scheme of things, doesn’t accomplish much within the movie other than to show that Cutter is quick on the draw, a fact that is established elsewhere.
This is indicative of the biggest problem with the narrative of the The Comancheros. The plot is not focused enough. The film meanders this way and that for the first hour before finally settling on a direction. Wayne and Whitman have a nice chemistry and develop a quick back and forth banter, but it drags, and if you’ve seen many westerns, the plot becomes woefully predictable. As a result, The Comancheros is just a so-so example of a western.
In true genre form, the Comanche are depicted as little more than whooping, murderous alcoholics who primarily exist as cannon fodder and comic relief. However, the film does make a point to illustrate the role that settlers, outlaws, and westward expansion in general, played in the perpetuating the violent streak in the natives. In The Comancheros, the Comanche are a people who have been corrupted and exploited by shady forces who use them as protection and to make money. These ideas aren’t fully developed, nor are they explored in any great depth, but they are prominent enough that you can tell they were intentional, and intended to promote examination of the dominant western mythos.
That is the best part about The Comancheros Blu-ray Book, the bonus material that places the film in a historical context. There’s an extensive feature that delves into the details of real life comancheros, chronicling the impact they had, specifically on Texas, and thus the world of the film, but also how it played into the larger frontier experience as a whole. According to the historians, archeologists, and anthropologists interviewed, the Comanche could never have come to power like they did if it wasn’t for the guns and horses introduced by the encroaching Europeans. They adapted to the new technology faster and more completely than other tribes, and gained a significant military advantage throughout the American Southwest.
Indeed, his release comes with an impressive collection of extras. There are 40 minutes of retrospective material that traces Wayne’s career. It begins with his days as a football player at USC to his ultimate status as an American icon, with a special emphasis placed on his time at Fox Studios. Family, friends, and coworkers recount his tumultuous relationship with John Ford, the roles that made him a star, and eventually discuss to The Comancheros, which Wayne wound up directing a large portion of due to the failing health of director Michael Curtiz.
There’s a commentary track that’s more of a collage of the films stars, like Whitman, Michael Ansara, Nehemiah Persoff, and Patrick Wayne, the Duke’s son, talking about their experiences. Whitman also gives a 12 minute audio interview where he reveals how he caught the acting bug and when from an Army boxer to a movie star. Then there’s the book itself, 24 pages that include essays about The Comancheros; quick bios of Wayne, Balin, Marvin, and Curtiz; and one about Wayne’s enduring legacy in film as well as popular culture. The extras complete the package, and turn what would otherwise be an ordinary movie watching experience into something more meaningful and interesting.