Monday, March 7, 2016

The Revengers (1972) review


William Holden (John Benedict), Ernest Borgnine (Hoop), Woody Strode (Job), Roger Hanin (Quiberon), Rene Koldehoff (Zweig), Jorge Luke (Chamaco), Jorge Martinez De Hoyos (Cholo), Arthur Hunnicutt (Free), Warren Vanders (Tarp), Larry Pennell (Arny), John Kelly (Whitcomb), Scott Holden (Lt. Mercer), Susan Hayward (Elizabeth)

Directed by Daniel Mann

"Mr. Benedict, you have appealed to the honor of men who have no honor!"

The Short Version: Two of THE WILD BUNCH (1969) reunite for this slightly grittier traditional style oater that tries, and mostly fails, to lasso the brutality of Peckinpah's blood-spattered classic. The blase script glosses over scenes of great importance--like the opening massacre--giving the audience a weak protagonist (Holden doesn't act at all like somebody who has lost his family) and an even weaker villain as a result. There's always the action, which is well-staged; but whatever minuscule advantages THE REVENGERS accrues it blows them sky high with one of the most pointless endings imaginable. Borgnine steals the movie at every turn amidst a poor music score and a lot of silliness that bushwhacks the darker tone the film originally strives for. THE REVENGERS is so full of ideas that none of them are satisfactory in their presentation. Mann's movie wants to be the Jack of All Westerns but ends up master of none of them.

Rancher John Benedict is out hunting a mountain lion when his homestead is attacked by a murderous gang of Comancheros, rustlers and renegade Indians who massacre his entire family. Swearing vengeance, Benedict orders his property closed and cattle sold and immediately sets out in pursuit of the gang led by Tarp, a bandit with one white eye. Crossing the border into Mexico, he buys the freedom of six ruthless convicts under the pretense they will work on a mining job. Upon learning what the true mission is, the criminals double-cross Benedict, but eventually come around to helping him find his family's killers.

Daniel Mann's ambitious failure wants to be as epic as John Ford's THE SEARCHERS (1956), Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) and Robert Aldrich's THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967). Sadly, it never reaches those heights. Combining those film's plots, you'd wonder how such an enterprise could flunk out. It isn't just the plot that's botched, but a myriad number of things that coalesce to form a chain with more than a single weak link. Wendell Mayes' (DEATH WISH [1974]) script is wide-reaching in scope, but middling in execution. One of the greatest offenders is the handling of its central protagonist and antagonist.

The saying that "a hero is only as good as his villain" is, unfortunately, mis-characterized in THE REVENGERS; neither of them engage the audience. William Holden comes off the worst since the entire movie is built around him. What passes for an antagonist is so badly written you forget the film even has one; and the film tries hard to make you forget since Tarp is only seen twice. Without a believable presentation of good vs. evil, you don't have much of a movie to get behind. Looking at the two men.... 

William Holden's John Benedict may have looked great on paper, but onscreen, his motivations are sloppily handled. Matters aren't helped by the filmmakers failing to give us a powerful opening, a 'Raze the Ranch' sequence, if you will, to identify with Holden's character. Considering how little screen time Tarp gets, seeing him commit such a horrific act would not only have created a formidable opponent for Benedict, but allowed the audience plenty of room to empathize. We never see the attack, only the gang riding away and the aftermath. Holden is never convincing as the tortured soul he's supposed to be. Within the span of five minutes Benedict's family are all dead and he's suddenly off on his vengeance trail without batting an eye. Meanwhile, Pino Calvi's misplaced music refuses to allow a downbeat atmosphere to take over.

Later in the movie, the time frame jumps ahead by a year as Benedict and his pseudo-Wild Bunch are still searching for Tarp. There's a tease that the long road to vengeance has taken a toll on him; that he may have regressed from a mild-mannered rancher to an outlaw prone to poor hygiene--but we're denied this too. Instead, Benedict is afforded a romantic side as he's nursed back to health by a kindly Irish woman, Elizabeth Reilly played by Oscar winner, Susan Hayward. How Benedict came to be under her care is the one area of exposition that held the most promise....

Benedict lost his son at the beginning of the movie, finding him hanging upside down in a barn with his throat cut. One of the convicts he enlists, Chamaco, is around his son's age. There's a brief flirtation of a father-son arc between the two that ends in the film's single shocking moment and the one breadth of originality it possesses. It's another example of wasted potential of a consistently fumbling script failing to capitalize on momentum once more.

Warren Vanders, a regular in the western genre, is arguably one of the worst interpretations of an antagonist ever seen. No fault of his acting (he might have three lines total), he's only seen twice and is never visually shown doing anything remotely evil. Both times we see him, he's either running away or captured. THE REVENGERS may as well not even have a bad guy. This goes back to the brief flirtation of turning Benedict into a villain, thereby subjugating his whole reason for seeking out Tarp. Instead, the script stays its by-the-numbers course till it throw the audience a curve-ball in the last few minutes. 

Failed characterizations aside, Gabriel Torres's photography is beauty to the eye. His camera captures some eye-catching sights, often dwarfing the characters while nature's splendor shines in the background. The film may lose its grip everywhere else but it definitely has a handle on settings and seasonal transition. We do get a sense that an epic is unfolding even if it's about as thrilling as jumping into a cactus patch. In relation to this is the film's other cardinal sin... its ending. If you don't wish to know what that is, you may want to skip the next paragraph. 

With so much attention paid to Benedict's journey to find Tarp, when he finally catches up to him (after an explosive assault on a fort by Tarp's militia to free him) he suddenly loses the desire for payback. He just stands there, turns and walks away as his Revengers chime in; "that don't make no sense", says Job (Woody Strode). Of course it doesn't! Cholo, as confused as I was, proclaims, "You have lived to kill this man. And we have lived with you for THIS! WHY?! Why, Senor?!" I wondered the same thing as I sat in disbelief the film was ending this way. Hoop retorts, "Cuz he's got squiggly worms in his head, that's why!" Benedict, as if he's alerting everybody what a cruel joke he's played on us all with a grin forming on his face answers, "I've had worms in my heart, Mr. Hoop. That's been my trouble". Benedict, in an apparent on-the-spot epiphany, decides revenge isn't all it's cracked up to be, gets on his horse and rides off as everybody just laughs and fires their guns into the air while Pino Calvi's undistinguished score heralds the end credits.

Actually, Benedict's sudden lapse of vengeance is foreshadowed back when he briefly romances Susan Hayward's character. She relates a story about her father losing his desire of a similar revenge after a sappy monologue from his father softened his bloodlust; and the same sentimental sermon that deprives the viewer of a satisfying climax. 

One of the other few bright spots, and arguably the film's sole saving grace, is the spirited, lovably unhinged performance by Ernest Borgnine playing the convict named William P. Hoop. 

Initially, Van Heflin (SHANE [1953], 3:10 TO YUMA [1957], THE RUTHLESS FOUR [1968]) was signed to play the role. He would have already started filming in 1971 if William Holden hadn't gotten African Jungle Fever, forcing the production to be postponed for a few months. Heflin died from a heart attack in the interim.

In Borgnine's autobiography he stated that when he came aboard to replace Heflin he had difficulties defining his character. Going through some serious marital issues with his 4th wife at that time, he struck on the idea of portraying Hoop as if he were his wife; he had no problems after that. He's easily the most memorable of The Revengers.

Shot in Parras, Mexico, the same place where THE WILD BUNCH (1969) had filmed, there was obviously a concerted effort to recapture that feeling of Peckinpah's movie, but Daniel Mann (who had just finished WILLARD [1971]), comes up half-empty. The plethora of funny dialog and low-key comedic moments hogtie any attempt at matching Peckinpah's grittiness. Terribly unremarkable, THE REVENGERS is about as average of an oater as you can get. It has so many opportunities to ride with the best of the west, but instead it settles for disorder across the border.

This review is representative of the Kino Lorber bluray. Specs and Extras: anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen; theatrical trailer; running time: 1:48:27.
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