"The Comancheros" was John Wayne's 62nd feature film after "Stagecoach," the 1939 Western that made him a star. This 1961 horse opera turned out to be the last film for director Michael Curtiz ("The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Casablanca"), who was dying of cancer and so ill some days that The Duke had to take over for him. That wasn't much of a stretch, since Wayne had directed and bankrolled "The Alamo" the previous year.
Westerns are often sprawling, but there's a difference between that and rambling. Just as a few scenes tended to wear out their welcome in "The Alamo," they do here as well. Although "The Comancheros" clocks in at a mere 107 minutes, it feels longer. It's not as tight as it could have been, and while there are moments when this Deluxe CinemaScope movie really grabs you by the scalp (so to speak), there are other times when you're fidgeting or thinking about going to the kitchen to stir the beans.
A few regulars from John Wayne films turn up--like son Patrick, who plays a Texas Ranger, and Bruce Cabot, as the Texas Ranger commanding officer--but there's an infusion of new faces as well. Wayne plays Texas Ranger Jake Cutter, with Stuart Whitman getting second billing as Paul Regret, an apparent southern aristocrat who kills a man in a duel and has to flee Louisiana to avoid the hangman. I say "apparent" because, despite an overly long opening sequence, we really don't get much in the way of information about Regret's back story or even basic information. When he and his opponent square off, one of them addresses the other as "Monsieur," though the two men sound about as French as I do. Later, Capt. Cutter keeps calling Regret "mon-sewer," but again, there isn't a hint of accent anywhere. Is it distracting? A little. Same with Ina Balin's faux Spanish accent. Once you get past those, there are only a few other head-snappers, mostly during skirmishes between the Rangers and Comancheros / Comanches, where some curiously staged things occur. Of course, it wouldn't be a Western unless you thought you saw the same Indian get shot off the same horse multiple times, but there are also tremendous trick shots here. Like, three men shoot at the same time and three Indians riding away from them drop simultaneously--pretty amazing, since no one communicated as to which one they were aiming for. Then, when the Comancheros and Comanches regroup and make a second charge, the guy who shouts "They're coming again" is kneeling on top of the sandbags with his rifle, rather than standing behind them like everyone else. As soon as you see him take aim from that precarious position you know he's a goner.
Those sorts of things are more than offset by some pretty realistic images and sequences, like the condition of the settlers found murdered by the raiders, and the men hanging upside down for a slow Comancheros' death. "The Comancheros" depends upon two cases of secret identity (with one person recognizing them in each case) for a dramatic structure beyond the missions themselves, and that, plus the whole idea of Comancheros and that little empire they're running, is enough to tweak the genre to make the film something that sticks with you.
The plot is both simple and slightly convoluted. Cutter is assigned to go fetch Regret and bring him back to Ranger headquarters, where a marshal from Louisiana will pick him up. But Regret gives him the slip. Next, the commanding officer tells Cutter his theory about the raiding Indians being linked to whites just got a boost because of a man they just captured. After a brief "interrogation," Cutter goes to work undercover as the man and comes in contact with the always-rugged Lee Marvin as Crow. Before long, in this episodic narrative, he's taken his gun wagon to a small town where circumstances bring Cutter and Regret together again. Later, people introduced in the Louisiana segment also surface. But by far the most interesting segments are those involving Wayne and Whitman, Wayne and Marvin, and the sequences set in the Comancheros' camp, where character actor Nehemiah Persoff plays the leader. Other familiar faces turn up, like Jack Elam as a Comanchero named "Horseface," Michael Ansara ("Broken Arrow") as another Comanchero, and Edgar Buchanan (TV's "Petticoat Junction") as a judge.
The excellent cinematography, which relies heavily on long shots and unobtrusive medium shots, is by Oscar nominee William H. Clothier, who did some uncredited camerawork for "Fort Apache" (1948). Clothier got behind the camera for 11 more John Wayne films besides this one: "The Horse Soldiers" (1959), "The Alamo" (1960), "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1961), "Donovan's Reef" (1963), "McLintock!" (1963), "The War Wagon" (1967), "Hellfighters" (1968), "Chisum" (1970), "Rio Lobo" (1970), "Big Jake" (1971), and "The Train Robbers" (1973).
"The Comancheros" is not rated, but other than the typical Western violence there's nothing here that's objectionable.
"The Searchers" is still the John Wayne Western that's the gold standard for Blu-rays, and "The Comancheros" isn't on that level. But it's in the vicinity. Edge delineation is consistently strong, and there's a pleasing sense of 3-dimensionality, especially in the interior shots. The level of detail is pretty good, too, and you can see it on their faces and on Marvin's interesting "haircut." Skin tones are accurate, and bright shots never look washed out. I noticed no imperfections or artifacts, and so Fox must have both cleaned up the film a bit and did a good job on the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50-gig disc. "The Comancheros" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The audio isn't immersive, but the lossless English DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is an improvement over the original Dolby Digital 4.0 (also included here). There's a nice rich sound, and the new mix does a nice job of channeling ambient sounds so that they fill the room. I wouldn't say it's a booming bass, but there's enough in the low range to give the battle sounds and horses' hooves a little presence. Don't look for a lot of rear-speaker involvement, but what's here is well done. Additional audio options are Spanish and French Dolby Digital Mono, with subtitles in English and Spanish.
The 50th Anniversary Blu-ray comes in Digibook packaging, with a 24-page slick, two-color booklet including black-and-white photos and a brief uncredited summary of the film, followed by cast and director write-ups and a mini-essay on "The Duke's Legacies." As with "The Hustler," another Fox 50th Anniversary Blu-ray release, the disc gets tucked into a space on the back inside cover. It's a little tough getting it out without touching the bottom, but returning it to the pocket is easier. I have to say, though, that I wish the discs snapped on, as the discs tend to slip out when you don't want them to if you turn the book a certain way or jostle it just a bit.
Two ultra-thin full-color coated-stock replica posters (one U.S., the other French) are included. As for the digital features, Fox came up with three new Blu-ray exclusive features, the best of which is "The Duke at Fox," a 40-minute bonus feature that traces Wayne's films and life at Fox, intercut with talking heads that are mostly film historians but also including one of Wayne's sons. Another nice new feature will be appreciated by fans of the Paul Wellman novel. Wellman wrote a lot about the Republic of Texas history, but we only get hints of it in the film. "The Comancheros and the Battle for the American Southwest" situates the film in a broader context of that missing history. The third HD feature is a comic-book version of the film that came out in 1961, and it's reproduced and presented digitally. It's kind of a fun, nostalgic curiosity.
A commentary track featuring Whitman, Persoff, Ansara, and Patrick Wayne is pretty basic, but fans of John Wayne will be pleased because everything comes back to The Duke. Lots of anecdotes here, along with memories of filming.
Rounding out the bonus features are an audio-only conversation with Whitman walking down memory lane, a brief Fox Movietone News clip featuring Claude King and Tillman Franks receiving awards for music, and a pair of trailers in standard definition (one in English, the other in Spanish).
As a Western and as a John Wayne film, "The Comancheros" falls into lower part of the second tier. Yet, for all that seems wrong with this film, it's one that sticks with you, when other films that seem more accomplished fade from memory. That has to count for something, and this Blu-ray is a fantastic upgrade for collectors.