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Monday, May 25, 2015

Barquero (1970) review


Lee Van Cleef (Travis), Warren Oates (Remy), Forrest Tucker (Mountain Phil), Kerwin Mathews (Marquette), Mariette Hartley (Anna), Marie Gomez (Nola), Armando Silvestre (Sawyer), John Davis Chandler (Fair)

Directed by Gordon Douglas

The Short Version: It's a Fistful of Sweat featuring an unusually oiled up Lee Van Cleef as a pipe-smoking ferryman butting heads with Warren Oates essaying a rousingly sadistic, pot-smoking outlaw. Massacring an entire town, Oates wants to cross the river to Mexico before the army arrives. Van Cleef is the title boatman who refuses to cooperate. Highly machoistic, both Van Cleef and Oates take turns gobbling up the scenery while Forrest Tucker, as an ant-eating, pseudo demented mountain man steals a few of his own before the two leads complete their celluloid mastication. 

Jake Remy and his dirty band of sadists rob a town of its money and 360 repeater rifles to start a revolution in Mexico. Killing everybody in the process, the only thing between them and the border is a river. Wishing to cross over before the Army catches up with them, Remy doesn't count on Travis, the bargeman. He refuses to give them passage to the other side, setting into motion a war of wills that builds to a showdown between the two men. 

Made in the middle of his European western tenure, Lee Van Cleef is all American beef in BARQUERO (1970). Confident, brutish, and often smoking a pipe, Lee's sweat glands get a major workout as Travis, the burly barquero (Spanish for ferryman), and potential front cover of Macho Monthly. Short-changed in the characterization department, Van Cleef gets more mileage out of his brawny disposition in this movie whose major selling point is LVC versus Warren Oates. 

Beginning and ending with a bang, the middle portion is centered more on the psychological warfare of the two lead combatants and their interplay with the supporting cast.

Douglas starts things off in a similarly paced style to Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) just prior to all hell breaking loose. We first meet the nastiest of villains, Remy, in bed with this Mexican woman who asks far too many questions--none of which will do anything for her life expectancy. Once the time is right, Remy's gang of bandits ride in and proceed to massacre anything that moves, male or female. This rambunctious shootout tries, and largely succeeds in matching the BUNCH on the violence meter, only without the numerous shades of red splattering the screen.

As for the movie itself, BARQUERO never outguns the Peckinpah classic (released a year earlier), yet the tight editing, particularly of this opening action sequence, packs a lot of firepower. Moreover, it goes a long way in visualizing the sort of cold-blooded bastard Remy (Oates) is without the use of much dialog. As buildings blow up, bullets and bodies fly all over the place, Remy has his morning coffee; this is interspersed with his shooting whoever crosses his path--his own men slacking off on the job, and the occasional woman who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film probably should have been titled 'Remy' since Oates's pot-smoking psychopath gets the bulk of the screen time while the Barquero spends more time toking on his pipe.

Speaking of which, on the other side of the river is Travis (Van Cleef), the rugged boatman whom we learn little about since the script is more interested in teasing details than giving them. What we do know is Van Cleef loves his barge, loves it more than anything. He cares less about the citizenry of the town he has saved, and more with the fact that Remy intends to burn his boat--killing him, and everyone else should he get hold of it. He cares for Anna (Hartley), too, but only so far as getting her out of her clothes. When he does, he doesn't proceed like he's realizing an ambition, he treats it as a conquest. Travis apparently likes it rough. Van Cleef's charisma carries his character where the exposition tries and fails. His expression seldom changes, and he's always one step ahead of Remy--which drives Remy even more insane than he already is. 

At one point, Remy becomes so enraged at "That damn bargeman", he wastes his bullets by firing them into the water--the source of his problems, as well as the vessel through which his enemy consistently shows him up. Based on these two men alone, regardless of how haphazard the script is in handling them, attitude keeps their characters afloat. Western fans are in for a treat.

Forrest Tucker nearly robs both men of their macho bravado as Mountain Phil, this half-crazed cowboy who is constantly in a cheerful mood whether he's killing bandits with his knife, or eating a handful of ants. He gets all of the funny scenes and the movie would be a lot less enjoyable without him. A month earlier Tucker played Lawrence Murphy, the main heavy who brawls with The Duke in the classic, CHISUM (1970). 

Kerwin Mathews, late of THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and THE 3 WORLDS OF GULLIVER (1960), and JACK THE GIANT KILLER (1962), is almost unrecognizable as Frenchman, Marquette. Remy's closest partner, he's the sane conscious that (barely) holds the man together. Without Marquette, Remy likely wouldn't have lasted as long as he has. We see how the two met in a vague flashback during one of Remy's pot sessions.

The lengthy stretch in the middle is where BARQUERO is dead in the water. There's some great moments spread out as Remy attempts to barter with Travis, but it's when the plot tries to expand on the supplementary cast members that it loses momentum. Mariette Hartley is among these casualties. She's beautiful to look at, but has very little of a role to chew on. Marie Gomez as Nola, on the other hand, is even less fleshed out (despite possessing ample flesh) as Travis's fiery, rifle-toting lover, but we get a better feel for her Hispanic Annie Oakley character via her mannerisms. There's a hint of a possible cat fight brewing between the two ladies (Anna refers to Nola as half a man!), but this never surfaces.

Aside from its explosive beginning and middling middle, BARQUERO closes things out on a less bombastic, but no less enthralling finish. Probably the only western to feature a gunfight on a body of water, Remy finally builds his own makeshift boats in a last ditch attempt to procure the barge he's obsessed over for the better of 90 minutes. It's frustrating to see these guys surrounded by so much wood and rope and nobody ever comes up with the idea to build a raft till the very end. With most all the supporting cast with holes in them, things are wrapped up with a gun duel between our not-so-hero and villain.

Of all the R rated westerns from this time period (late 60s-early 70s), BARQUERO is one that is conspicuous in its Italian roots. The name alone sounds like it would fit right in with the Django's, the Cjamango's, and the Garringo's. Further, Dominic Frontiere's score has its American beats, but at times shows its heart lies in Italy. One of the cues will be recognizable to kung fu movie fans, as it was reworked in a number of Hong Kong fist and kick films.

Douglas helmed some fine westerns such as the dusty, muddy, road oater RIO CONCHOS (1964) and the character heavy CHUKA (1967); but is probably best known for the SciFi classic THEM! (1954) about mankind threatened by giant ants. Among his other credits include spy flick IN LIKE FLINT (1967), the obscure SciFi-Adventure SKULLDUGGERY (1970), and black action favorite SLAUGHTER'S BIG RIP-OFF (1973).

It doesn't ride with the best westerns, but it's not for a lack of trying. BARQUERO stands out for the grimacing, macho posturing of Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates; and for its watery setting and dynamite opening and closing sequences. Oozing with machismo and drenched in sweat, fans of Van Cleef's Italian six-shooter cinema should see him in one of his few Stateside western lead roles.

This review is representative of the Kino Classics blu-ray. Extras and Specs: 1080p 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen; original trailer. running tim: 1:49:23 (box states 115 minutes).


Hal said...

One of my faves, and was really glad to see it finally released on DVD and BluRay. Great review.

venoms5 said...

Thanks. I'd seen it before and wasn't all that taken with it, but seeing it again recently on the Western channel left a different impression that led to me purchasing the recent blu.

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