Bandolero! (you always feel producers or studios added the exclamation points to titles when the movies were lackluster in an attempt to pep them up) was a late-60s Western produced by Robert L Jacks, who put together nine feature Westerns including two good ones, The Proud Ones and Man from Del Rio. This wasn’t good, though.
The picture headlined glitzy stars James Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch. Two of these were experienced in Westerns but their performances this time were not exactly passionate.
Stewart did the picture between two Western pairings with his friend Henry Fonda, Firecreek and The Cheyenne Social Club. Jimmy had started at the top as far as Westerns go: after Universal’s Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich in 1939, he did, after the war, a series of fine pictures with Anthony Mann and established himself as one of the leading Westerns actors. But his late Western career was disappointing. His performance in the huge but clunky How the West was Won was embarrassingly bad. He worked with John Ford but too late in the old man’s career. Only Liberty Valance in ’62 had Fordian quality; Two Rode Together and Cheyenne Autumn were pretty weak. And other Westerns Stewart did had distinctly average directors: three of them were helmed by Andrew McLaglen. In Bandolero! Stewart is good – he always was – and in fact he saves Dean Martin from hanging but also from falling prey to the dialogue.
Martin, as we have been seeing lately on this blog, was capable of very good performances in Westerns – as the bad guy in Rough Night in Jericho, on the episode of Rawhide he did and of course as the alcoholic deputy in Rio Bravo. But he also did some junk, notably those trashy pictures with his pal Frank Sinatra. He also had a tendency to act on autopilot, or sleepwalk through roles; it was just a job and you had to make a buck. The same year as Bandolero! he did 5 Card Stud with Robert Mitchum, another sleepwalker, but at least that one was directed by Henry Hathaway, not one to suffer bad actors gladly. In Bandolero!, Dean’s character says he is tired in the script and he does kinda act accordingly.
As for third-billed Ms Welch, she has often been accused of a lack of acting talent and it has been suggested that she was in some pictures for other endowments she possessed. Actually, myself, I don’t think she was particularly wooden as an actress, though her ‘Mexican’ accent in this one is pretty bad. This was her first feature Western but she went on to do 100 Rifles and Hannie Caulder, and in Hannie Caulder at least she was pretty good, I thought, as the abused woman seeking revenge.
There are many good actors in supporting roles and one might mention especially Will Geer as a horrible old bandit, Denver Pyle bossing people about in town, and Harry Carey Jr is there too. So is low-budget Western star in decline, Don ‘Red’ Barry. TV Western stalwart Jock Mahoney (Yancy Derringer, Laramie, Rawhide, you name it, and 77 episodes of The Range Rider) is there as Raquel Welch’s husband but he gets shot in the bank in the first reel.
Bandolero!’s writing and direction were weak. The screenplay was by James Lee Barrett from a story by Stanley Hough. Barrett was a favorite writer of AV McLaglen – four of Barrett’s five feature Westerns were McLaglen pictures – and he also worked with Stewart, writing three pictures for him (but weaker ones) and he also wrote Something Big (another McLaglen dud) for Dean Martin. It was quite a coterie.
McLaglen himself, the son of favorite John Ford actor Victor McLaglen, was part of the Ford/Wayne/Stewart clan and in fact did mostly Westerns. He is probably best known for TV oaters: he directed 116 episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel and 96 of Gunsmoke. But the big-screen Westerns he did were pretty ordinary (to say the best of it). Some were really quite bad. One obituary called him an “inexhaustible director of series television and undemanding movies: reliable rather than stylish” which about sums it up. In my view he just hadn’t got the talent for a feature Western.
Bandolero! was at least shot in Panavision color by the great William Clothier in nice Texas, Arizona and Utah locations, so the look of it is good. There is that. Even here, though, it also has an awful lot of dull motivational talking on a sound stage.
The Jerry Goldsmith music is OK.
The plot owes more than a little to The Bravados of ten years previously. James Stewart pulls the same false hangman trick and lets his brother Dean Martin (yes, I’m afraid Stewart and Martin are supposed to be brothers) escape the noose. Only before, there was a magnificent Gregory Peck to hunt the escapees down implacably, while here we have George Kennedy at his most stolid, not to say stodgy. He pursues the ne’er-do-wells as they head for the border.
Roger Ebert in his review of the time said, “It’s hard to be sure just why Raquel came along, unless that was the only way to get a girl into the script.”
Curiously, Kennedy plays Sheriff July Johnson who has Roscoe as his deputy (Andrew Prine). This was twenty years before Lonesome Dove, by which time July has got younger and moved to Fort Smith while Roscoe has been, er, resurrected.
Bandolero! is not a terribly bad Western (it’s miles better than the McLaglen/Stewart The Rare Breed, for example) and it has its moments, but it never really recovers from the hokey script and plodding directing. There is a long, too slow chase as July pursues the gang into Mexico. Things hot up a bit with a high body-count shoot-out at the end as endless Mexican bandits fall, Magnificent Seven-like, to the guns of the Americans. All in all, though, been there, done that.
The critics weren’t too kind. AH Weiler in The New York Times said “James Stewart and Dean Martin suffer more from lackluster efforts to make this Western adult than from the gunfire that finally fells them.” He added that the action was “constantly halted by murky, motivational palaver that is more often dull than adult.” Variety was pithy and succinct: “Bandolero! is a dull western meller. Though competently produced, film suffers from distended scripting, routine direction and overlength.”
It did surprisingly commercially well, though, making $11m at the box-office, easily beating out Hang ‘em High ($6.8m) in the Western department, and that wasn’t bad on a $4.4m budget.
So evidently the cast and crew got something right.