"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, March 23, 2020

Shalako (CRC, 1968)


007 and BB home on the range




 
 
People have not been kind to Shalako. It got pretty bad reviews at the time and has been denigrated since. Your own Jeff, however, is not one of the detractors.

Or at least not much. I’m not saying it’s a great Western, far from it. Few such pictures shot in Spain in the late 60s were high quality, and many were downright trashy. Furthermore, many if not most of the Shalako cast were hardly professional ‘Western’ actors. Most weren’t even American.

Still, though, the picture has its merits.


One thing I don’t hold against it is the fact that it’s a ‘British Western’. It is true that some of the production companies were based in the UK, and much of the cast was definitely British. But so what?

A German film studies person, Marcus Stiglegger, (external link to his blog) says: 

Although Great Britain is the homeland of many pilgrims emigrating to North America in the beginning, there has never been a primary British interest in the ultimate and mythical American genre: the western. The frontier myth – so eminently important for North American identity politics – is not a suitable key metaphor within British cinema.

This seems to me quite wrong. The British ‘Western’ was made countless times, in the shape of all those films about the North Western frontier and fights against Afghans or Zulus or followers of the Mahdi, in wild, far-away places, which featured brave heroes fighting natives and the wild terrain (with a sub-text, like the American Western, of a mission to ‘civilize’). It was an entirely suitable metaphor.
 
A Western by any other name

What’s more, the British have always had an abiding interest in the true Western, stories set in the late nineteenth century American West. Who made the first ever color Western? Why, the Brits. It was Fate, in 1911, and the British, like the French and Germans made many early silent-movie Westerns. And interest in the Western has continued ever since.

Of course what a British Western actually is can be debated. Is it one financed by British companies, or set in the UK, or with British cast and/or crew, or written by a Brit? For example, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, an entertaining picture, had a few scenes shot in England. The British had passed an astute if protectionist law that forbade foreign film companies to export the profits of any movies made in their country. As a result, Fox had money tied up in the UK that it could only use making another film there and so in some (financially unlearned) execs’ eyes, Fractured Jaw would be essentially free. It starred a well-known British actor of the time, Kenneth More. Is it therefore British? It was a Fox picture, directed by Raoul Walsh, and second-, third- and fourth-billing went to Jayne Mansfield, Henry Hull and Bruce Cabot. Hard to call Fractured Jaw a British Western. But even if it is…

I can think of some darn good Westerns that could be defined as British (or not).

Michael Winterbottom directed the very fine The Claim in 2000, a remake in Western key of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Roger Deakins, from Torquay, England, is one of the finest cinematographers around today, as his work on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and the Coen brothers’ True Grit will attest. Alan Sharp (1935 - 2013) was a superb writer and The Hired Hand (1971) and Ulzana’s Raid (1972) are as good as anything an American wrote. His stuff reminds me of Elmore Leonard’s; it’s that good. As for British actors in Westerns, think of Stewart Granger or Ray Milland, or more recently Christian Bale in the latest 3:10 to Yuma. It was astonishing that the young lad who played the posh colonial public schoolboy in Empire of the Sun could make a convincing Civil War veteran Arizona farmer with grit. But he did.

Of course the British Western has not been immune from the turkey. The Singer Not The Song, directed by Roy Ward Baker in 1961, starring august John Mills and a leather-clad, rather camp Dirk Bogarde, really wasn’t very good, and Catlow in 1971 with Yul Brynner was a sort of British spaghetti - not a happy combination. Some movies have been downright awful. Liverpool-born comedian Arthur Askey starred in the perfectly dreadful Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956). There was even a ‘Carry On’ Western: Carry On Cowboy (1966), like Ramsbottom excruciatingly, toe-curlingly bad. I also have little time for the British team of director Michael Winner and writer Gerald Wilson who were frankly hopeless and, even worse, disrespectful to the genre. They were responsible for Lawman (1971) and Chato’s Land (1972), both very poor, despite the first having fine (American) Western stars in the shape of Robert Ryan and Burt Lancaster. Winner & Wilson just didn't get it, at all, and should have stuck to commercial Death Wish-type pulp. So no, ‘British’ Westerns weren’t all good. But whose were?

We probably could have done without that one

It is grossly unfair to suggest, as Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns has, that Britain’s contribution to the Western has been on a par with that of Switzerland’s to naval warfare.

There's a double-decker bus leavin' town at noon, Herr Stiglegger. Be on it.

But back to Shalako.

The picture was a big production. It starred three famous British stars of the time: Sean Connery, taking a break between being James Bond in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever; Honor Blackman, Cathy Gale of 43 Avengers episodes who had also been Pussy Galore to Connery’s Bond in Goldfinger; and classic posh Brit Jack Hawkins (1910 – 1973), star of countless films where an English gentleman was required. Even Bosky Fulton the baddy was one of Her Majesty's subjects, from Northern Ireland, Stephen Boyd, and the butler was played by popular and famous English comic Eric Sykes. The film's producer, Euan Lloyd, was English and went on to make Catlow and A Man Called Noon in ’73. Like Shalako, both were based on Louis L’Amour novels.


Shalako (1962) was in fact one of Louis L'Amour's best books.

Good novel

Seven of Louis L’Amour’s Western novels were set in New Mexico. He wrote tightly-constructed little Western tales which, I think, got better and better. They had an authentic ring to them as well. No wonder many were made into movies. Hondo, The Tall Stranger, Crossfire Trail, The Sacketts, Catlow, Guns of the Timberland, Apache Territory, The Burning Hills, among several others, were turned into Western movies, sometimes low-budget oaters or TV shows but sometimes big studio productions with top stars.

The story of Shalako concerns a hunting party of rich Europeans that has come out to New Mexico in 1882, just when Chato and his Apaches are on the rampage. This is distinctly realistic because by the 80s many such parties were out in the West touring and hunting and wanting to see the ‘authentic’ Wild West, even if they did it with servants and linen tablecloths loaded with silver and crystal. This party is led by severe Prussian Baron General von Hallstadt and his fiancée, Irina, Lady Carnarvon, a British aristo. They are accompanied by a US Senator’s daughter, a diplomat and his wife and a French soldier. They have, however, hired disreputable, low-life guides and crew.

Shalako Carlin is riding alone up from Sonora on rarely-used trails. He is one of those proper Western heroes who rides alone. He seems more than half Apache himself because he knows their ways and their language and their survival skills. He is tough and brave, and he is the famous ‘man who knows Indians’.

But L’Amour drops little hints here and there that Shalako isn’t just a rude Westerner. He has read the great military texts and his conversation, spare as it is, contains the occasional classical allusion. There’s more to Shalako than meets the eye…
 

We are told that he takes his name from the Zuni rain god because whenever he appeared among them, it bucketed and those Indians laughingly gave him the soubriquet.

Well, of course the Apaches attack and of course Shalako saves the dumb Europeans, though by no means all survive. And Shalako has a final clifftop duel with the feared warrior Tats-ah-das-ay-go or Quick Killer, the deadliest of all the Apaches. One of them wins.

And guess what, Shalako and the noble Irina hit it off.

Chato, or Chatto, I’m sure you know, was a real person. He was a Chiricahua Apache warrior, a protégé of Cochise, who carried out several raids on settlers in Arizona in the 1870s. He surrendered in 1872 and was confined to the San Carlos reservation where he became an Army scout.

Woody as Chato, and the real one

But in 1882 he broke out and with others settled in Mexico. However, General George Crook attacked his rancho in June 1883 and Chato surrendered, with Geronimo, to Crook. He then served under Crook as a scout, including the subsequent expedition into the Sierra Madre after his erstwhile ally Geronimo in 1886.

In 1894 Chato and his family moved to Fort Sill, in Oklahoma, and in 1913 they opted to go out to the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico. In 1934 Chato died in an auto accident when his Model T went off the road.

Like Shalako and Tats-ah-das-ay-go on that clifftop, the novel does occasionally just teeter on the brink of pulp.

Lean as a famine wolf but wide and thick in the shoulder, the man called Shalako was a brooding man, a wary man, a man who trusted to no fate, no predicted destiny, nor to any luck. He trusted to nothing but his weapons, his horse, and the caution with which he rode.

Well, maybe not pulp exactly but slightly melodramatic stuff.

I’m not sure modern feminist readers would like it too much either. In 1962 feminism doesn’t seem to have yet had much of an impact on certain Western writers. 

- You love your horse.

- Horse is like a woman. Keep a strong hand on the bridle and pet ‘em a mite and they’ll stand up to most anything. Just let them get the bit in their teeth and they’ll make themselves miserable and a man too.

Yes, well.

There’s the occasional historical reference, such as Shalako’s to the Fetterman fight of December 21, 1866, to illustrate the dangers of underestimating Indian foe.

A false note is struck towards the end when Shalako’s shirt is torn with knife cuts in the fight and is then in rags, to be torn off, just like all those sub-Indiana Jones or Tarzan serials of the 40s and 50s. An interesting example of movie imagery feeding back into novels.

But these are cavils. All in all, Shalako is a fun read and a good 165-page paperback with which to pass an enjoyable afternoon (in self-isolation).

And in 1968 it became a movie.

An interesting and amusing fact: James Griffith worked on the screenplay. We all remember Mr. Griffith as the rather cadaverous bad guy in many a Western but like another Western badman we were talking about recently, Leo Gordon, Griffith also wrote Western screenplays.

James was even John Wesley Hardin once
 
Edward Dmytryk directed. Canadian-born Dmytryk’s very first picture, The Hawk in 1935, had been a Western, and Shalako was his last oater. In between he is well known for helming three, Broken Lance in 1954, Warlock in 1959 and Alvarez Kelly in 1966. He knew what he was doing and Shalako moves along briskly despite much of it being a ‘siege Western’ and therefore a priori static.

His last Western

Sean Connery was a huge star at the time. Shalako was his only foray into the Western genre but he made a good stab at it. He rides well (when not being stunt-doubled). His laconic, slightly Bondish tough-guy approach suits and he does a good job with L’Amour’s hero. Quite surprisingly perhaps, he 'had it' where Western lead roles were concerned. Pity he didn’t do more. He doesn’t essay an American accent, just talks Bondishly. There was a rumor that Henry Fonda was going to play Shalako. I suppose he was too busy that year with Firecreek and Once Upon a Time in the West. It might have been interesting. But Connery does it well, I must say. And I’m not sure the audiences would have thrilled quite so much to Hank making love to BB.

Very big stars

Co-star Brigitte Bardot looks, now, dated to the point of ridicule. Her 60s eye make-up (applied with a trowel, I reckon) and bouffant blonde hairdo are hilarious. But there’s no denying the fact that she was gorgeous and of course she too was a megastar at the time. In fact Connery and Bardot were probably the sexpots of the late sixties. She did actually do Westerns, after a fashion. This one came between Viva Maria! and Frenchie King. In Shalako BB gets a topless scene, of course, though only seen tastefully from the back.


Perhaps there was more magic off-camera than on

She is one of the more sympathetic of a pretty repellent party of rich people out to hunt wild beasts in New Mexico. In fact the movie opens with wild beasts, seen with their faces in spaghetti-ish ultra-close-up, and these animals (they are human) mercilessly surround and taunt a splendid mountain lion until one of the morons, it’s BB in fact, kills it with a rifle shot, and the others all applaud.

The posh party is led by Baron Frederick Von Hallstatt, played by Peter van Eyck, an anti-Nazi who fled to the US but who got typecast in Nazi officer roles. Westernwise, though, you may also remember him from The Rawhide Years.

Van Eyck is the Prussian baron
(Getty Images)

Sir Charles and Lady Daggett are the British members of the group. He was Jack Hawkins, a top name of the British stage and screen. After surgery for throat cancer in 1966 Hawkins’s roles were dubbed by Charles Gray, who had a very Hawkins-like voice. Ms. Blackman played his rather disreputable wife, who eventually leaves Sir Charles for the scoundrel Bosky Fulton.

Also in the party are an alcoholic American senator and his wife (Alexander Knox – the smoothy rancher bad guy in Man in the Saddle - and Valerie French – Mae in Jubal). Apparently Karl Malden was the producer’s first choice but luckily he didn’t take the part (he was an awful actor in Westerns). There  are also various hangers-on. The snobbish butler, serving chilled champagne in the desert, is Eric Sykes, very popular at the time in British comic sit-coms. He's quite amusing, actually.

And all those Europeans out in New Mexico were entirely believable. Eurocrats did come out to the West in large numbers on extravagant hunting parties and, like Trollope, Dickens and Wilde, to tour, make money and learn about the culture of the wild frontier.

Bosky Fulton, the ratty leader of the support staff, as it were, was played by Stephen Boyd, third-billed, who had had a small part in The Bravados and would later appear in Hannie Caulder. Among his entourage is the crusty old Buffalo, played by Don ‘Red’ Barry, still going strong, or still going, anyway. He was taking whatever parts he could get, mostly on TV, but managed three big-screen assignments in 1968. I think in Shalako he was going for the same vibe that Ward Bond had in Hondo, a small role but larger than life. And actually Ward’s character had been called Buffalo too. Perhaps L'Amour meant it to be the same person. Sadly, Don didn’t have quite the charisma (or height) as Ward. Still he makes the most of it.

Don is Buffalo. He wears the color of shirt that reminds people he is Red.

Bosky makes a play for Lady Daggett

Julian Matéos is the loyal Mexican Rojas. You may remember him from Return of the Seven.

As for the Apaches, Woody Strode of all people is Chato. Actually he is quite convincing. His dad, the sage statesman to Chato’s firebrand, is played by Rodd Redwing, about whom I was talking the other day. Rodd was also technical advisor on the picture. There’s no Tats-ah-das-ay-go.

The music is by Canadian Robert Farnon and conducted by a Scot, Muir Matheson, a big wheel in the British film-music business. It’s earnest modern-classical stuff, and quite serious, though disfigured every time Shalako appears because it’s one of those sub- (very sub-) Wagnerian scores that give the character his own theme. That would be OK but unfortunately, the tune concerned is mindless drivel, being the title ballad (“Shalako! Shalako! He’s been down in Mexico!”) crooned over the opening titles by a certain Jim Dale, apparently a 50s British pop singer (I’m afraid I don’t have all his albums) who became an actor and part of the ‘Carry On’ stock company.

He does a good job

The cinematographer, Ted Moore, was South African, and he did his best to make Almeria look like New Mexico. The terrain is suitably harsh and pitiless. The Techniscope widescreen helps.

Producer Euan Lloyd announced that Stephen Boyd would reprise his role in this movie in a sequel to be called Bosky. Nothing ever came of it. Probably just as well.

I am told that
there is a sort of comic book adaptation of this movie in Italy. It's an episode of Zagor, the famous hero created by Sergio Bonelli (son of Tex’s creator). This graphic novel was published in the US by Epicenter comics under the title Red Sand. “One of the best episodes in the series, and a must-read for Western fans,” gushes the Trivia page on IMDb. I wouldn’t know, I’m afraid.


Bof.

Film critic Roger Ebert was not complimentary about Shalako. He said that “The plot, once it's introduced, turns out to be pretty unoriginal … All problems are solved at the level of action, and Dmytryk avoids the opportunity to develop his characters more deeply. That would be good if the action was better, but it isn't.” He added, “Strangely enough, the long-awaited meeting between Connery and Miss Bardot is a flop. They look yearningly at each other a lot, and once he puts his arms around her and they fall out of camera range, but otherwise no sparks are struck. Considering the resources they brought to their roles, we might have expected more. The same can be said for the movie.”

Brian Garfield said, “The movie is a hopeless mess and deservedly laid an egg,” adding that it was “a disaster nearly on the scale of Mackenna’s Gold.” Ouch.

Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns wrote, “The only fun to be had in this dismal Hombre retread is spotting the canyon-sized holes in the plot.”

So you’re getting the idea.

Renata Adler in The New York Times wasn’t quite so down on it. She wrote that it was “a good, long, old-fashioned, wide-screen Western, with lots of horses, love and Apaches and Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot.” She added, “Lots of shooting, galloping, terse dialogue—it is the perfect movie to see in a two-theater town on a Saturday night.”

I take the point about the 1967 Paul Newman Western Hombre. There are distinct similarities of plot – ultra-competent half-Indian white man leading crowd of useless and/or nasty characters to safety. I don’t know if Elmore Leonard, who wrote Hombre, had read Shalako, but he might have.

Anyway, forget Stiglegger, Simpson, Garfield, Ebert and The New York Times. What do they know? Let Jeff Arnold’s West be your guide. Shalako, an excellent little book, is not a bad movie either. It has its flaws, yes, but Connery is good, there are even some quite tense moments, and it works.

Even if it is British.

 

 

7 comments:

  1. Jeff, I am surprised not to see any Lamour novels in your western nooks list, am I right !? Considering this prolific author, I presume he has written a few good ones you might recommand !? I am wondering if his Shalako would be better than its screen adaptation... JM

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    1. No, they are there, e.g. Flint, Hondo, Shalako, Showdown at Yellow Butte. I'll add more gradually.
      Jeff

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  2. In one of Louis L'Amour's novels, the hero kills a couple of badmen who murdered the son of a British army officer. When he mentions this to the father, the father says that he once stalked and killed a tribesman in India who had murdered a fellow officer and says something like "things are different on the frontier". Obviously, Mr. L'Amour saw a similarity between the American West and the wilder parts of the British Empire.

    Richard

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    1. That's interesting. Yes, he would have seen a similarity.
      Hollywood did too. Errol Flynn as the gallant officer in THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE (1936) and as Custer in THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON (1941) were in the same vein.
      Jeff

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  3. Oh dear,Jeff a most interesting piece on a very bad movie.
    Connery is a clunky Westerner and the chemistry between him and Bardot is zilch!
    The oddball and mostly un Western cast does not help either.
    Too bad James Coburn never played the lead,but never mind.
    I might point out that Gerald Wilson is Canadian not a Brit and considers
    himself something of an expect on Indian or more to the point Native Canadian
    culture. I don't mind the two Winner/Wilson Westerns, what Wilson liked about
    working with Winner is that generally he did not tamper with his scripts too much.
    I'd watch CHATO'S LAND and LAWMAN over SHALAKO any day.
    One of the very first Euro Westerns was THE SAVAGE GUNS with Michael Carreras and
    Jimmy Sangster taking a break from Hammer films with their very short lived
    Capricorn Films. THE SAVAGE GUNS did have the attraction of three American
    leads,Richard Basehart,Don Taylor and Alex Nicol.
    It's also interesting to note all the Hollywood directors that made Euro or
    indeed Spaghetti Westerns all of them had made decent Westerns in their Homeland.
    John Sturges,Burt Kennedy,Lesley Selander,George Sherman,Roy Rowland,Nathan Juran,
    Henry Levin,Hugo Fregonese there are others I'm sure.

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    1. You are not alone in having scant regard for this picture!
      I do agree that the Connery/Bardot magic was missing. Some say she was having an affair with Boyd.
      Yes, Coburn would have been a good casting choice.
      Jeff

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  4. Jeff thank you for Lamour's list I need to get new glasses...! JM

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