For some reason I hadn't heard of this classic Western until recently. Stumbling across it and reading the enthusiastic reviews I decided to give it a go, and I have to say that I was not disappointed. It's a classic film, and a roaringly good 100 minutes of solid entertainment with a brain and a heart behind it.
Made in 1966, this falls between the psychological westerns of Anthony Mann and the deconstructive revisionism of Peckinpah and Leone. The story and characters are clearly influenced by the Mann template, and the way in which the west is depicted is clearly paving the way for Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and Wild Bunch.
It's a story of four men, men of violence who are very proficient and very professional. Hired by a rich Texan magnate to rescue his wife, kidnapped and taken to Mexico by an evil bandit. The four men set out across the desert, and along the journey we find out about them, their history and reasons for being where they are. The leaders of the group, Lee Marvin's impassive Rico Fardan and Burt Lancaster's roguish but heroic Bill Dolworth have been to Mexico before, and have a history with Jack Palance's bandit Jesus Raza. Throughout the journey, rescue and inevitable race back to the Texan border chased by murderous bandits loyalties are tested, friendships strained and they find out what is really important to them, leading to an ending that I really didn't see coming and was perfectly suited to the film.
It's a film shot in colour, but with many shades of grey. There are no clear cut heroes and villains, just men and women who today find themselves on opposite sides of the war, but tomorrow might be fighting alongside each other if circumstances so dictate. The study of the main characters is fascinating. There is also some nice philosophising, especially from Raza, that gets you thinking. Along with all the deep stuff there is plenty of action as the professionals get into and out of a variety of scrapes and fights. Burt Lancaster is especially impressive here, getting to show off his athleticism on various bits of scenery.
There is just one point in which the film fails a little. Robert Ryan's Erhengard and Woody Strode's Jake are essential characters, but are not explored to their full potential, especially Woody Strode, who is given little opportunity to do anything interesting.
In all it's a film that works on many levels. For those looking for straightforward gunfights and chases, they're here in spades. For those looking for a film with character development, interesting characterisation and a bit of brain behind it then you're in luck. And on top of all that there is a typically cool and magnetic performance from Lee Marvin, and Claudia Cardinale looking quite beautiful as the damsel in distress (just don't analyse her wandering accent too much...)
5 stars for this impressive Western.