Rio Conchos: 50 Furious Westerns Series
Every now and then we at Furious Cinema turn to one of our favorite classic genres, the western. We’ve previously posted a list of 50 Furious Westerns, and to build on that, we’re launching a series of in-depth looks at some classics of the genre. No rules. This is the second guest post in the series by Simon Gelten (one of the most active writers on The Spaghetti Western Database), make sure you also read the previous article on Shane.
Cast: Stuart Whitman (Capt. Haven), Richard Boone (Lassiter), Tony Franciosa (Rodriguez), Jim Brown (Sgt. Franklyn), Wende Wagner (Apache girl), Warner Anderson (Col. Wagner), Rodolfo Acosta (Bloodshirt), Edmund O’Brien (Pardee)
One of the surprising things about Rio Conchos, is that it was made in 1964. It has all the intensity and violence of the westerns Hollywood would shoot, half a decade later, in Spain, following the example of the spaghetti westerns. Even the opening scene, a white man cold-bloodedly shooting Indians from a distance, tells us that we’ve entered a new stage in the history of the western: this is a dirty western. Note that the warriors shot from a distance in the opening scene were burying one their own.
Richard Boone plays Jim Lassiter, an ex-Confederate officer who has turned into an Apache killer after the tribe has tortured his wife and children to death. He’s arrested by the U.S. Army because he’s in possession of a rifle that is part of a cache of U.S. Army rifles, stolen by a group of southern renegades. Their leader, Pardee, wants to continue his war by arming the Apaches. Pardee and his men now live south of the border, and Lassiter is offered a chance to regain his freedom if he’s willing to lead an illegal search party into Mexico. Apart from Lassiter, the only two other members are an officer and his black sergeant. To ‘balance’ the group, Lassiter appoints his own ‘sergeant’, an knife-wielding and womanizing Mexican adventurer called Rodriguez, who was about to be hanged by the Army.
Although Stuart Whitman is top-billed, the film belongs to Richard Boone. He’s the heart and soul of the movie, and the other characters basically take shape in contrast to his tenacious, obsessed Apache killer. Whitman plays the officer who accompanies Lassiter into Mexico. He’s also the one who was responsible for the shipment of weapons in the first place. Like Lassiter he is tenacious, persistent, but while Lassiter is also vigorous and energetic, the captain is a more calculating, even hesitating type of person. Rodriguez (played by Tony Franciosa) is as vigorous as Lassiter, but while Lassiter is loyal to a friend, Rodriguez is selfish. The film also marks former football star Jim Brown’s acting debut. He has only a few lines, but his laidback acting style and monolithic presence are very effective. There’s also a small but pivotal role for Wende Wagner as a woman warrior who understands that the very weapons administered to her people by Pardee, will eventually lead to their downfall.
Rio Conchos bears some resemblance to the 1961 John Wayne vehicle The Comancheros. Two common factors are Stuart Whitman, who appears in both movies, and screenwriter Clair Huffaker, who contributed to both scripts. But the movies were adaptations of different novels, one by Paul Wellman (The Comancheros), the other by Huffaker himself (Guns of Rio Conchos). Another John Wayne western that must have influenced Rio Conchos, is John Ford’s The Searchers. There’s a crucial scene echoing the famous scene in The Searchers, in which Ethan Edwards kills as many buffaloes as possible, so that ‘no Indian will have them’. The corresponding scene in Rio Conchos is far more brutal. When Boone and Brown (the black army sergeant) are watching an Apache warrior burn to death, a laughing Boone yells:
“Let ‘m burn! Let ‘m burn!
But Brown releases the man from his sufferings, and noticing laconically:
“Doin’ like they do, don’t make it right”
Sturdily built, with a rugged face, Boone was the ideal actor to play a man full of hatred, who may explode any minute. He actually explodes when he’s confronted with the Apache chief Bloodshirt (Rodolpho Acosta in a small but essential role), who recognizes him as the famous ‘murderer of his people’. In other words: the men are each others counterparts, direct opponents, but not that different. Bloodshirt is the murderer of Boone’s family, Lassiter is the murderer of Bloodshirt’s people.
Apart from Lassiter the most important character in the movie is Pardee, the renegade Confederate officer, an obsessed man, living in an improvised southern mansion, no more than a façade an a couple of supporting walls. If Bloodshirt was Lassiter’s direct counterpart, Pardee is his reflection in a distorted mirror, laughable in his monomania. It’s likely that Pardee was based on the character Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness (turned into a Vietnam movie by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now). Like Kurtz, Pardee only appears in the final stages of the narrative, but the idea of the renegade in his mansion, is always there, and when Lassiter is finally confronted with him, it becomes clear that the journey has been a sort of purification rite: the man who was slowly turning mad, now looks in the face of utter madness.