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July 04, 2017


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Edward Dmytryk - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

Shalako is an odd western as is pointed out in the commentary by Alex Cox. Most famous for his film, Sid and Nancy, Cox has also written a book on Italian westerns, highly recommended, 10,000 Ways to Die. Shalako is definitely not an Italian western, but it was filmed in Almeria, Spain, the same location as many Italian and Spanish westerns, in this case standing in for New Mexico. The film was produced at the same time as Italian westerns were at their commercial zenith, and a handful of Hollywood filmmakers were looking at trying to infuse new life in the well-worn genre. While some of the violence is a bit more graphic, as Cox mentions several times, Shalako is not the film it could have been had it been filmed with a bit more imagination.

Based on a novel by Louis L'Amour, the inspiration is from the historically noted hunting parties taken by European royalty and celebrities, exploring the western frontier. A group of European royals and a former United States senator and his wife are led into Apache territory by their guide. Former Army colonel Shalako has run into them on the trail. As they have violated a treaty, the hunting party is advised to get out the next morning or risk an Indian attack. Not only is the hunting party attacked, but the guide and his men take food, ammunition and horses, abandoning this aristocratic bunch. Shalako returns to lead the group safely through the desert.

Sean Connery took a million dollar payday to play a cowboy hero. He reportedly showed up with a mustache which was ordered to be shaven, the producers having memories of the 1950 classic, The Gunfighter, not doing well commercially with the blame placed on Gregory Peck's choice to have facial hair as appropriate for the era. The largely European cast included Brigitte Bardot, Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd and Honor Blackman. Boyd gets to sport a mustache, possibly to alert viewers that he's the film's villainous white man. Also on hand are John Ford regular Woody Strode, as an Apache warrior, and former Red Ryder star Donald Barry. Not only was Connery reunited with his Goldfinger costar, but another Bond alumni, Charles Gray, provided the voice for Jack Hawkins, unable to speak his own lines due to the removal of his larynx. Unfortunately for producer Euan Lloyd, this all-star cast was unable to bring in the expected box office gold. Lloyd did continue with two other adaptations of L'Amour novels, and had better box office success with another Bond star, Roger Moore, in The Wild Geese.

The film does start promisingly with a mountain lion trapped in a crevice, unable to climb to safety. Taunted by Stephen Boyd and his crew, we see the barrel of a rifle poking in from the left of the screen, shooting the mountain lion. The shooter is Brigitte Bardot, and with her, the hunting party, all seen wearing top hats. While the hunting party is united by class, there are tensions between the married couples, as well as Peter van Eyck's German aristo unsuccessfully pursuing Bardot's countess. The sense of class and entitlement is displayed by the treatment towards Stephen Boyd and his gang. There's no subtlety involved when everyone is reduced to the same level, and are led through the desert by a man whose real first name is Moses.

The blu-ray was derived from what appears to be a perfect print. This is a film that requires viewing on a big screen to follow some of the action, with the characters quite small, seen faintly in the distance. Some may enjoy Shalako on its own merits. Edward Dymytryk has expressed embarrassment over his work here, and it certainly lacks the visual panache of his black and white thrillers from the Forties and early Fifties. The treatment of the Indians tries to play it both ways, justifying their attacks on the hunting party due to Boyd's trespassing, but also letting the viewers know that the Apache's are hardly gentlemanly with white women. Alex Cox's commentary track is of interest, pointing out how one of the sets was also featured in a couple of other Italian westerns, his own experience in Almeria shooting Straight to Hell (1987), discussing the accuracy of the presentation of the Indians, and thoughts on how Shalako could have been a better film.

What remains unanswered is in a film that hinges on the characters' deprivation of food, water and bullets, how does Brigitte Bardot manage to maintain a seemingly endless supply of eye liner?

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 4, 2017 10:22 AM