Charlton Heston vs. James Coburn ………………… Only One Will Survive
That according to the film’s trailer in what could be billed as a heavyweight tilt when these two tangle in Andrew V. McLaglen’s adaptation of Brian Garfield’s western novel, Gundown.
Coburn is the bad guy here. It might even be the long time leading man’s most vicious role on screen. He’s been in prison far too long and guess who put him there. Retired Marshal Chuck Heston. While out on a chain gang detail, Coburn uses his wits to murders two guards and free his fellow inmates including the loyal Jorge Rivero, a young Larry Wilcox and the familiar faces of screen heavies John Quade and Robert Donner. It’s a certified Wild Bunch with less scruples and honor then Holden’s Bunch had.
Coburn has only one thing in mind. Revenge. He and his minions are on their way to Tuscon so he can kill Marshall Samuel Brigade. When Heston gets news of the break out, he lets the new marshal, Michael Parks, know he’s running this operation and promptly goes about setting a trap for the incoming vermin. Before he can do that, the script introduces us to Heston’s daughter played by Barbara Hershey who looks after her widowed father and fondly reminisces that Mom used to call you. “the tallest man in the territory.” Feeds into that on screen Heston ego doesn’t it?
As Coburn slowly makes his way to his date with Heston, he’s leaving bodies on the trail. To prove his point of just how he rules his gang, he sets one up that is perhaps less trustworthy then the rest with a knife blade in his back. The others fall into line knowing just who rules the gang. Once the cool and calculating Coburn approaches Heston’s territory and clearly laid out trap, he outsmarts the waiting Chuck by avoiding a gold shipment and instead taking something more precious to Heston than life itself, he kidnaps Hershey.
“I’ll track and kill every s.o.b. with him.” Heston tells Parks in no uncertain terms.
Joining Heston on the ride to vengeance is Hershey’s greenhorn of a suitor, Christopher Mitchum. Heston isn’t sure he’s man enough to tough it out but might be in for a surprise by the fade out.
Being an old hand at shoot outs and westerns, director McLaglen gives us a suitably engaging finale between our two main combatants and allowing all of Coburn’s troops the chance to die at the hands of our big screen hero. The final clash between the two iconic tough guys is violent and leaves little doubt as to who is a little more craftier than the other.
I’ve seen this film numerous times since it’s playing on TV in the 80’s and have generally always enjoyed it. Heston and Coburn have always been high on my list of faves. Still there is one scene in this movie which is needlessly cruel involving Hershey. It upsets the tone of the film for me and each time I watch this I just wish it had been snipped and left on the cutting room floor. I don’t think it serves any great purpose in the end. Heston still hates Coburn and vice versa.
Jerry Goldsmith is credited with the soundtrack and at times it’s stirring and appropriate. According to IMDB, the score is made up of musical pieces from some of his other credited western scores. Seems like the producers took a short cut on that one.
Heston was by this time a fading commodity at the box office but had he said yes to a young man making a film about a giant shark, who knows what might have come in the years ahead for the former Moses. Still, he headlined the big budget Midway that was also in theaters in 1976. Along for that war epic was James Coburn as well. The duo shared the screen for the first time in 65’s Peckinpah flick, Major Dundee and would reunite for a pair of telefilms in the mid 90’s.
Icy cool and not to be crossed, Coburn more or less steals the film as the headlining villain. More then any other reason, it’s Coburn that is likely why I’ve always enjoyed this film. Every now and again he lets that’s steely grin appear from the depths of his scowling killer of no remorse. Aside from his Oscar winning father from hell in Affliction, this has to be his downright nastiest portrayal.
On the fun side of movies and connecting the dots, one can easily see that Michael Parks as the young marshal here was obviously in training under Mr. Heston for his long running Sheriff Earl McGraw character that is featured in many of the Tarantino scripts and films.
In closing, Heston and Coburn on the same film poster …… gotta have it.