Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

Barquero (Universal, 1970)

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Injecting new blood?
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.The reverse-engineering that took place in the ‘spaghetti comes to Hollywood’ period of the late 60s and early 70s is interesting, and Barquero is perhaps the most Italian of American Westerns. It has Lee Van Cleef with his curly pipe as cynical tough guy. It has garish color, corpses a-go-go and lots of close-up squints and grimaces. But unlike spaghetti westerns it has good acting, interesting characters, some thoughtful moments, Colorado scenery and tension. It’s actually quite a good Western, which no spaghetti ever was .
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It was to have been directed by Star Trek maestro Robert Sparr but went to interesting director Gordon Douglas instead when Sparr was killed in a plane crash scouting Star Trek locations. Douglas is described by French film boffin Bertrand Tavernier as “a part-time auteur”, by which I think he meant that Douglas, as he himself admitted, cheerfully did a lot of bread-and-butter stuff the studios handed him, putting up with one-take Frank Sinatra and doing many less-than-epic comedies, but he had a vision and occasionally was able to stamp his personality on some quite interesting films. As far as Westerns go, he directed some good ones, such as Fort Dobbs, The Nevadan, The Fiend Who Walked the West or Rio Conchos. 
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In Barquero we have an essentially static plot in which bandido leader Warren Oates (splendidly sliding into madness) wants to cross the river but is stuck because sturdy Lee Van Cleef has the ferry on the other side and won’t bring it back. The lack of movement is compensated for by early action as we see the violent robbery which causes the pursuit that Warren is fleeing from (the army’s behind him and that’s why he needs the barge) and a guerrilla raid as Van Cleef and a perfectly splendid Forrest Tucker as Mountain Phil swim across to rescue a hostage. And in fact the inaction in the rest of it builds the tension.

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Warren and Lee spend some time staring meaningfully at each other across the river, adepts of two rather different kinds of Western. The bandit chief is contemplating his Charon. Marie Gomez is Lee’s cigar-smoking gal, a crack shot with a revolving rifle like Arthur Hunnicutt’s in El Dorado, although that’s where her similarity to Arthur ends, fortunately. Mariette Hartley is good as the wife of the hostage who loves her husband and will do anything to save him but whose lust for Lee also drives her. Some of Warren’s henchmen are also well done, notably Kerwin Mathews as his intelligent and dandified French lieutenant and John Davis Chandler as the unfortunate villain Fair. Forrest takes the biscuit, though. It’s a juicy part.

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Warren smokes dope like Gian-Maria Volontè and shoots the river that he cannot cross. This was one of his best roles.

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Say what you like about the spaghettis (and I do), they did inject some new blood (rather a lot of it, in fact) into the mainstream Western and ‘heroes’ like Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates replaced the noble Pecks and Fondas and Coopers. They weren’t better, but they were different. .

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4 Responses

  1. Glad you liked this one Jeff. One of my favorites because of my personal tastes. I've always been more entertained by Bad vs Evil, as opposed to the traditional Good vs Bad, in all forms of entertainment. I believe you mentioned in one of your Randolph Scott movie reviews, about how often the beginnings of westerns establish that the hero is good, by demonstrating his niceness to children. Lee Van Cleef's character actually tells some nosey kid at the beginning that he scalped children and he's supposed to be the movie's hero.

    I'm surprised this movie isn't a little more well known. With the exception of "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly," I'd say it's better then any of Lee's spaghetti westerns. Granted, the Dollar movies had Clint Eastwood, but Warren Oates isn't exactly a slouch in the western department. His band of grotesque marauders in this movie was one of the best ever assembled in a western imo. Oates's gang, and the plot involving the ferry barge, made me think of the ruthless desperados in the novel 'Blood Meridian,' and the couple of chapters in which they successfully took one over.

    I just get a big smile on my face whenever I watch this, and the scene where a psychotic, batshit crazy Oates shouts across the river at Van Cleef like a madman, and Lee just gives him back that trademark evil, sinister smile of his.

    Like you said in your review of Valdez Is Coming, this is how spaghetti westerns should have been.

  2. After you mentioned this one in your retrospective on non-American Westerns I tracked it down – I’d never heard of it before. And it’s a dandy! I don’t think there’s a bad performance in the whole film, except maybe the little boy in the beginning who Van Cleef freaks out with his rough talk about scalping – I swear he was dubbed by veteran voice actor June Foray (the voice of Rocket J. Squirrel) but I can’t find any evidence to prove it.

    About my only negative criticism would be the lack of any real story elements built around the storekeeper/preacher character – it feels like there should’ve been something more to come from him and his actions – but more of him might have meant less of Forrest Tucker, which would’ve been a shame. More of Marie Gomez and Mariette Hartley would’ve been nice too but they did well with what they were given, other than I thought Hartley’s speech after she “paid” Van Cleef for saving her husband felt a bit anachronistic. The unspoken business between her, Gomez and Van Cleef more than made up for the preceding speech – modern movie writers take note, this is how you show rather than tell, movies ARE a visual medium after all. Good acting trumps snarky dialogue every time.

    A tidy story, just enough depth to the main characters – I like how they kept Van Cleef’s character a bit mysterious, his actions really told us all we needed to know about him, Oates got the too cool sepia toned backstory flashback – a definite helping of “spaghetti sauce” with the Dominic Frontiere score, the shoot ‘em all up action (heck of a body count!) and the sweaty close ups. If only the Italians could’ve had writing and acting this good.

    And Van Cleef’s tiger stripe maple long rifle was an awesome bit of old-school for the era coolness!

    1. An astute appreciation, and I entirely agree with you that “Good acting trumps snarky dialogue every time”.

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