Taking time out from his run of Spaghetti Westerns, Lee Van Cleef returned to Colorado locations to take the title role and play the good guy opposite the black clad Warren Oates as the heavy in this Gordon Douglas directed shoot’em up now available on blu ray thanks to the folks at Kino Lorber.
Van Cleef plays an outcast who happens to run a barge that crosses a large river that separates the U.S. and Mexico. For a fee he’ll transport passengers from one side to other. On the U.S. side a town is springing up with newcomers and Mariette Hartley. Not far off is a group of carpetbaggers on a murderous rampage led by the one and only Warren Oates.
For this outing, Oates was coming off the western classic, The Wild Bunch. His name would finally be more prominently displayed on posters and the credit lists of his future films. This time out he has second billing to Van Cleef yet when you watch the film he definitely has more screen time. At the head of his large outlaw gang, they enter the film laying siege to a town and killing anyone within sight. Setting the tone for his villainous character, Warren dispatches the prostitute he has just bedded with his six shooter never batting an eye. Compassion isn’t something his outlaw in black displays.
“Men. Guns. Power. An Empire” Oates boasts to his second in command and gentleman, Kerwin Mathews. If Oates is to attain these things, he’ll need to get his men across the river into Mexico with an unseen army of blue bellies on his trail. He sends three scouts ahead led by John Davis Chandler to hold Van Cleef at gunpoint and secure the river barge. What the trio doesn’t expect is mountain man Forrest Tucker to show up and save Van Cleef from certain death.
Tucker is the film’s highlight as he goes about teasing and prodding his captive Chandler into sharing information. This prompts Van Cleef to evacuate the small settlement/town and move them to the Mexico side of the river. By doing so he leaves the town to Oates and with the river in front of him and the approaching army behind him, Oates is running out of time.
The plot will then play itself out over the final hour that pits the two leads against each other and Oates coming unwound at the thought of being defeated by the river man. Interestingly, both men will have to fend off mutinies from the men or in Van Cleef’s case, men and women on their respective sides of the river. Oates’ men want their cut of the loot and to split before the army arrives while the townsfolk want to return to their homes thinking Oates can be trusted to go on his way should they give him the barge.
Both leading men are always of interest but sadly this film keeps them apart far too often instead of giving them more scenes together. Admittedly, I feel somewhat cheated by this. At least Tucker shares the majority of his scenes with Van Cleef injecting scene stealing humor into every one of them.
Like his Col. Douglas Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More, Van Cleef prominently has a pipe in his mouth. Since he’s a river man, it also allowed him to remain shirtless for much of the film showing off his considerable physique before today’s era when a six pack is a requirement for any action hero. For a fun look at Lee Van’s series of tough guy commercials, click here.
If anything, this so-so western may be the first time that a cowboy picture gives us a drug smoking outlaw. Oates’s outlaw leader is frequently smoking pot and experiencing hallucinations. He valiantly wades out into the river and begins firing at his reflection. “I shot the river.” he tells Mathews. For more on the Warren Oates factor, give a look here.
Kerwin Mathews is a bit of an odd duck to see in a western but does a good job with the scenes that he has. He’s a French gentleman who dispalys a touch of class despite riding with a band of cutthroats. Film history shows that Mathews was more accustomed to sword fighting and fending off the creations of Ray Harryhausen as opposed to western gunfights.
On the trivia angle, director Douglas (Mara Maru) was a last minute replacement when the film’s original director, Robert Sparr was killed in a small plane crash while scouting locations for the upcoming shoot. Three of the actors, Oates, Hartley and Davis Chandler all played supporting roles in the western classic Ride the High Country back in 1962.
The original film poster offers us a lie. Van Cleef is the key player on it but he’s wearing Oates outfit and hat?????
Best line in the film for Van Cleef comes when he’s had enough of a nosy kid with never ending questions. In regards to his rifle the boy asks, “how many Indians did you kill with it?”
Van Cleef responds, “None. But I shot and scalped a lot of freckle-faced kids.”