The other face of Maverick
James Garner (left) was of course best known to 1960s Western lovers as the entertaining Bret Maverick, the hero who thought cowardice was the better part of valor (but not really) in the show which ran on ABC from September 1957 to July 1962 and then all over the world for very many reruns after that. But in fact he also had a parallel career as a tough Western hombre on the big screen, starting as Randolph Scott’s pal in Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend in 1957, being a gritty Wyatt Earp when John Sturges returned to Tombstone in Hour of the Gun, and being A Man called Sledge in 1970, which was a pretty dire spaghetti western but he was a real tough guy in it. Duel at Diablo falls into this mold.
We know that Hollywood loved Duels. Duel in the Sun, The Duel at Silver Creek, Gun Duel in Durango, duels all over the place. This duel was directed by Ralph Nelson (right), who was really a TV guy but who, Westernwise, would later do the difficult-to-watch Soldier Blue and the dire The Wrath of God. He was far from the best director of Westerns, I fear. Having said that, though, I reckon Diablo was his best.
It opens (after a 60s-trendy knife-slash through the United Artists logo) in a violent way with Jim Garner, sweaty and unshaven and therefore tough, gazing down at a man crucified upside down. Jim proceeds to save a woman from some Apaches. There are snazzy titles and equally snazzy music (Neal Hefti) to get us going. It’s all groovy, man.
He brings the woman, Ellen (Bibi Andersson, a Swedish former member of the Royal Opera, a Bergman regular, in her only Western) back to Fort Creel but there she is shunned by her husband Dennis Weaver because she didn’t have the decency to kill herself when she was taken by the Indians but had the temerity to survive. You can tell Weaver’s character (Willard Grange, merchant) is a bad egg because he wears a fancy silk vest and a suit (he looks quite Maverickish in fact) and is unkind to his wife, whereas Jim’s character, Jess Remsberg, has just been kind to his horse so is obviously a goody. Western semiotics at work, dudes. Weaver, who would also star with Garner in Sledge, was almost as well-known as Garner to fans of the TV Western, having been Matt Dillon’s factotum/deputy Chester for so long in Dodge from the late 50s through into the 60s. Anyway, Ellen knows when she’s not wanted and runs off back to the Apaches.
Merchant Weaver asks for Army protection from 'Scottish' Travers
At the fort a decent Army officer, Lt. Scotty McAllister, who wants to be a general one day and is a friend of Jess’s, gives him a scalp. It was taken from Jess’s presumably now former wife, and Jess is determined to get revenge on the villain who took it. Scotty is played by Englishman Bill Travers, in his only Western (fortunately). Mr. Travers’s ‘Scots’ accent is probably even worse than mine would be. Jess is told that the scalp was got from the marshal in Fort Concho, Clay Dean (John Crawford, frequently a heavy in TV Westerns). This Dean is a mean hombre, a hired gun with a star, but we sense that he will meet his match in Jess Remsberg.
We are now introduced to slick gambler Toller, who has also borrowed one of Maverick’s vests, played by Sidney Poitier, surprisingly good on a horse. Sidney only did two Westerns, this one and Buck and the Preacher. Pity: I thought he was rather good in them. Toller is inveigled into going along with the party setting off through Indian country to Fort Concho, along with Scotty, Jess and the evil Grange and his wagonload of goods. And naturally Ellen will join the party, because it wouldn’t be a Hollywood Western otherwise, would it?
It’s a Chato story, or Chatto if you prefer, though he is called Chata in the credits and is played by John Hoyt. He has broken out of the San Carlos agency and gone marauding. It was his son who had Ellen as a wife and Chato wants to protect his baby grandson. The real Chato (1854 – 1934) was a Chiricahua sub-chief and protégé of Cochise who carried out several raids on settlers in Arizona in the 1870s. This screen Chato/a is very cruel and the movie has a slight Ulzana’s Raid tinge to it (though is not as good as Ulzana’s Raid) in its dealing with the sufferings inflicted by the Apaches on the whites.
Hoyt in the role (looking a bit old for an Apache in his 20s)
Chata has 45 braves, we are told. A lot more than that are shot down in various battles but he still seems to have 45 more. Similarly, the soldiers are mown down in droves but droves remain.
While resourceful Toller takes command and holds off the Apaches in the canyon, brave Jess manages to get to Fort Concho – though on the way there is soft-focus heat to convey his ordeal. He meets the colonel there (producer/director Nelson in a cameo) and a relief force is prepared. Jess just has time to deal (rather roughly) with the wicked marshal in town and find out who gave him his wife’s scalp. The guilty party is… Yet nay, I shall not reveal this, for Jeff Arnold’s West does not deal in spoilers, as you very well know. Still, you may guess.
Love blooms, natch
Only four years later Nelson would make a purportedly pro-Indian picture in which the US Cavalry are the brutal aggressors but in this one he was still going for the old trope of the cavalry arriving at the last minute to save the few survivors (inc. Sidney & Ellen, obviously), so they duly do, Chato surrenders, and Jess ‘n’ Ellen can live h.e.a., presumably with Chato’s grandson adopted by Jim. Oh, that may have been a spoiler.
It was shot in impressive and arid Utah locations by Charles F Wheeler and visually the picture is strong. Garner and Poitier are good too. But it’s a pretty straight, rather old-fashioned oater for the time, spiced up with modern gore. The racial prejudice theme isn’t properly developed. For example, no mention at all is made of Toller’s skin color and no one calls him anything offensive. I wouldn’t go out of your way to see this at all costs, my dear e-pards, though you could give it a view if you were a Garner fan, as, indeed, who is not? I did consider giving it three revolvers, though in the end wisdom prevailed.