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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Desperados (1969) review


Jack Palance (Josiah Galt), Vince Edwards (David Galt), Sylvia Syms (Laura Gant), Benjamin Edney (Pauly Gant), Sheila Burrell (Emily Galt), George Maharis (Jacob Galt), Kate O'Mara (Adah), Neville Brand (Marshal Andy Kilpatrick)

Directed by Henry Levin

The Short Version: Sweeping camerawork and a rousing score by the underrated composer David Whitaker enhance this violent, if unintentionally hilarious precursor to the downer western sub-genre, a style of oater that found prominence in the post-WILD BUNCH era. Jack Palance, in probably his most ferociously unhinged performance, is basically playing William Quantrill, the infamous Confederate leader of a band of cutthroats in the 1860s. Shot in Spain, this US-British co-production is graced with a lot of polish and ambition but fails mightily from sloppy editing. On the good side, Levin arms his film with energetic action sequences, buckets of tragedy and biblical connotations. Elsewhere there's a great storyline underneath the thick, succulent, thespian glaze of Jack Palance's high dollar ham.

After his wife is killed during the Civil War, a renegade priest, his sons, and a band of murderous plunderers massacre all the border towns they come across. One of the Confederate sons, Davey Galt, shocked at the massacre of the entire town, rebels and is sentenced to death by his father. David manages to escape and goes into hiding. A few years pass and the war is over; David has made a new life for himself in Texas. He changes his last name to Gant, gets married, has a son, and manages a peaceful existence till his crazed father and brothers come looking for him. Recalling the prophetic message of his dying mother, David realizes a showdown with his deranged father is inevitable.

Essentially a loose historical account of Quantrill's Raiders, a bloodthirsty bunch of Reb guerrilla fighters led by rampaging murderer William Clarke Quantrill, the movie is big on action and light on details. The plot is one with great appeal, already explored in similar fashion in earlier westerns such as 1958s QUANTRILL'S RAIDERS (with one of cinema's most prolific and recognizable Tough Guys, Leo Gordon, playing the title Reb); and more recent examples in the box office misfire RIDE WITH THE DEVIL (1999). Italian westerns with similar characterizations of Quantrill are seen in THE TRAMPLERS (1965) and THE HELLBENDERS (1967), both starring Joseph Cotten, and both films based on Will Cook's 1958 novel 'Guns of North Texas'. Walter Brough's script seems to be partially based on Cook's book while turning Palance's Josiah Galt into a more overt version of Quantrill.

Unfortunately, Brough's script is paralyzed from the waist down due to cannonball-sized holes in the narrative. These gaps suggest either terrible editing decisions or the production ran out of money and they had to scrap the shooting of certain sequences. One of these narrative chasms comes just before a jailbreak sequence. One minute David (Edwards) and Kilpatrick (played by a bloated Neville Brand) are getting drunk together and moments later they're suddenly sober, their dinner interrupted by an explosion leading to the escape of the two captive Galt brothers.

Another scene that doesn't make a whole lot of sense is David and Marshal Kilpatrick being captured and taken to Josiah's encampment. David feigns turning on the Marshal, making his two brothers believe he's returned to them. To prove his loyalty, Josiah orders him to slice up the Marshal but then David and Kilpatrick get the upper hand. Instead of taking Josiah or one of his brothers hostage they simply escape and get into a gunfight.

Doing a more accurate motion picture about Quantrill could have been an epic undertaking. That segment of the Civil War is of major historical significance in that his propensity for pillaging occurred in the few years leading up to Lincoln's assassination. Director Levin's movie, however, is as much Greek tragedy as it is a tumbleweed tale. It uses the real mad guerrilla leader and changes his name, turning him into a bible-spouting lunatic. Some of the Confederate Bushwhacker's murderous exploits are implemented to propel the storyline, though. 

For example, the film begins with a re-enactment of the Lawrence, Kansas Massacre of 1863. Changing the name to St. Thomas, Kansas, Josiah and his gang decimate the population from 1,645 to zero in a matter of minutes. Later in the movie an action scene aboard a train is reworked from an incident that occurred shortly after the infamous Kansas slaughter. The filmmakers up the ante by having a fight atop the train just prior to it catching fire, and derailing for no discernible reason.

THE DESPERADOS was released in November of 1969, a few months after THE WILD BUNCH (1969). Bearing an 'M' rating (the equivalent of a PG), it's often violent, but has none of the bloody squibs that raised eyebrows in the aforementioned Peckinpah classic. In place of blood spatter, Levin's movie wears a dark tone that never lets up, all the way to the shocking ending. Still, the cheerless atmosphere wages its own war with the scenery gobbling main star...

....An intense, comically over the top performance by Jack "GOOOOODAAAAMN YOOOOUUU!!!" Palance. To call his portrayal as the maniacal patriarch unhinged is being mild. In nearly all his scenes, Palance threatens to burst a vein in his head, ranting, raving and screaming his lines as if he's standing on a floor full of nails. Frequently gritting his teeth, growling, talking with his hands, and contorting his face in bizarre ways, Palance is a marvel to behold; the role demands a manic portrayal, only the esteemed actor goes far beyond the boundaries of being taken seriously. Moreover, it's exactly because of this irrational depiction that keeps THE DESPERADOS interesting. Director Levin came from a theater background, so possibly he encouraged Palance to put his acting into overdrive; or, considering Palance once said many of his movies were complete garbage, his onscreen mania may have been an extension of his displeasure with appearing in this movie.

Vince Edwards as the brooding Galt/Gant is about as reserved a hero as you can get. Essentially a tormented character in the mold of the biblical Cain, Edward's rarely emotes; even his screaming matches with Palance barely registers a slight tremor. We don't get a sufficient amount of time with him to garner much sympathy since the exposition is sabotaged every few minutes by Palance's mesmerizing mugging and the numerous, energetic, stunt-filled shootouts. Edwards went from the lead in the popular medical drama TV series BEN CASEY (1961-1966), to the high profile war picture THE DEVIL'S BRIGADE (1968) to this. He did some exploitation pictures like the Violent Cop thriller THE MAD BOMBER (1973), the Roger Corman produced cheapie SPACE RAIDERS (1983), and lots of television.

Hammer hottie Kate O'Mara is one of the Carlin's Entertainers, a wagon cart full o' whores. Sporting a lame leg, O'Mara gets about as much dialog and onscreen presence as she does in her horror pictures. She figures into the climax in a minor, but noticeable way. Prior to that, she's just a background face.

Another asset that ultimately works against the picture is the score by the underrated composer David Whitaker. Containing all the bombast any action film could ask for, Whitaker's cues sometimes feel out of place, better suited for a war movie. Still, his compositions are never slow, always on the move; and by the end, veer off into tense, almost uncomfortable areas. The opening theme, for example, is a soaring piece; but considering the depressing tone the film quickly adopts, Whitaker's orchestral opulence feels like it's wandered in from some other production.

Bearing the short-lived 'M' rating (suggested for Mature audiences) during its theatrical run, THE DESPERADOS lost some of its violent content. One scene occurs during the opening town massacre. Josiah has several men lined up along a wall and shoots them all in the back one by one. In the movie you only hear a single bullet fire. The scene is included on the promotional materials. There's some brief shots of partial nudity that may have been more risque before the picture was edited for content.

THE DESPERADOS has yet to turn up on any digital format in the United States. Sony released it on VHS back in 1992. Both France and Spain have released the picture on DVD, although the latter appears to be missing approximately ten minutes if the listed running time is accurate. The satellite airing that is the source of this review runs 1:30:32.

An ambitious failure, every time THE DESPERADOS gains momentum it puts it against the wall and shoots it in the back. Impressive aerial shots, thematic subtext and action lose steam to careless editing choices and merciless overacting by Jack Palance. For some, Palance's deranged line delivery will be a benefit rather than a hindrance. He certainly makes the picture a memorable experience; your point of view will determine whether that's in a good or bad way. It's an entertainingly trashy 90 minutes, indicative of where the western genre was headed in the 1970s.

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