Murieta saves the day
In 1969 Ricardo Montalban’s Montalban Enterprises put together a project to produce a TV movie with Fox, and The Desperate Mission was screened by NBC in 1971 as a result. Montalban had been in Westerns since 1948 when he had a bit part as a dancer in Frank Sinatra’s The Kissing Bandit (fame indeed) but he had been second-billed to Clark Gable in Across the Wide Missouri and then topped the bill in 1951 in The Mark of the Renegade. After that, whenever TV casting directors wanted a tame Mexican they had Ricardo’s number in their Rolodexes. He was also Little Wolf for John Ford in Cheyenne Autumn (there was a Hollywood tradition of using Mexicans for Indians) but big-screen outings were rare. He was mostly a TV guy. I always thought he was rather good.
This is a Joaquin Murieta story, or at least nominally. Actually, it’s a generic Western and the hero could have been anyone but the Murieta name probably gave it appeal. As you probably know, Murieta (or Murrieta or Murietta) was a famous figure during the California gold rush in the 1850s – either a common bandit or a Mexican hero, depending on your point of view. He was supposed to be the inspiration for Zorro (actually, Ricardo would have been a good Zorro). Walter Noble Burns wrote a sensational biography of Murieta in 1932. Historian Susan Lee Johnson wrote:
So many tales have grown up around Murrieta that it is hard to disentangle the fabulous from the factual. There seems to be a consensus that Anglos drove him from a rich mining claim, and that, in rapid succession, his wife was raped, his half-brother lynched, and Murrieta himself horse-whipped. He may have worked as a monte dealer for a time; then, according to whichever version one accepts, he became either a horse trader and occasional horse thief, or a bandit.
This lack of hard historical fact is a good thing, though, as far as Hollywood Westerns are concerned because producers and writers have carte blanche to make up any preposterous tale they wanted – after all, it could have happened.
Warner Baxter played him in the 1936 MGM film Robin Hood of El Dorado directed by William A Wellman and based on the Burns bio. Murieta also features in the 1953 Randolph Scott Western The Man Behind the Gun, played by Robert Cabal. Jeffrey Hunter was Murieta in Warner Brothers’ 1965 picture Murieta, directed by George Sherman. So this wasn’t his first screen outing.
Ricardo as Murieta
The story of The Desperate Mission (it’s not all that desperate, actually) is set in the late 1840s, though of course this does not stop the characters having 1870s Winchesters and wearing 1870s (or rather 1960s) Stetsons. Murieta has been dispossessed of his property, his wife murdered and his hacienda burnt. He sets out as an adventurer to make back his fortune. He meets up with an Anglo outlaw, Shad Clay (Earl Holliman) and joins Clay and his men on a mission, charged by Don Miguel (Anthony Caruso, hooray) with taking Señora Ruiz (Ina Balin) to San Francisco to catch a boat back to Spain for safety – you see California is suffering at the hands of marauders.
But then there is a rather Vera Cruzy plot in which Murieta discovers that the Señora’s carriage is carrying a hidden solid gold statue of the Madonna. Obviously, the bandits now want this – to hell with taking the lady to Frisco – but there are also sundry other ne’er-do-wells who want that gold, notably a gang of badmen bossed by Robert J Wilke (an even bigger hoorah).
Earl Holliman is rather good as the outlaw boss. Holliman did s hood number of A-Westerns, notably Broken Lance, Gunfight at the OK Corral (in which he was Charlie Bassett) and The Sons of Katie Elder, in which he was Matt Elder. And in this one he has a good gang. Slim Pickens is in full coonskin-cap-and-buckskin mode as Three-Finger Jack (a shooting accident saw to the other two). Roosevelt Grier is the strong man who can lift up a laden wagon on his back (though he can’t raise the señora’s carriage when it loses a wheel; that’s what alerts Murieta to the fact that it is carrying a heavy secret cargo). Grier was a regular on Daniel Boone on TV but never did a big-screen Western.
A youngish Jim McMullan is Arkansaw, another gang member. McMullan often appeared in Western TV shows but only did two big-screen oaters, as an unconvincing Buffalo Bill in The Raiders in 1963 and as one of James Stewart’s sons in Shenandoah sons in ’65. He’s OK as Arkansaw, the unwilling outlaw.
Love interest is provided not by the scheming señora but by her beautiful maid Claudina (Miriam Colon) who believes the Madonna can do miracles and persuades Murieta to take it back to the village.
There’s a sort of sub-Magnificent Seven final attack on this village and, naturally, a Holliman-Montalban showdown shoot-out – no prizes for guessing who wins that one.
At the end Murieta rides off to roam the West righting wrongs and a child asks his mother when he will return. “When we need him,” she replies in a Lone Rangery way.
The cinematography of Durango, Mexico locations was by Jorge Stahl Jr and the music by Robert Drasnin. It’s all decently done. I didn’t mind it.