REVIEW: ‘The Comancheros’ Blu-Ray

John Wayne stars in an epic western, the last film from the director of Casablanca, now in high-def.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The Comancheros is a film that, if I’m being perfectly honest, I was completely unfamiliar with until this Blu-Ray release. But the pedigree is sound: a sprawling western starring John Wayne, with a score by the legendary Elmer Bernstein and directed by Michael Curtiz, the man who made Casablanca. Can the film possibly live up to its credentials? The answer is a resounding… almost. But it’s an impressive film nonetheless and makes a fine debut on Blu-Ray courtesy of Fox.

I was never a fan of westerns until I discovered them in spaghetti form. The violence and grime of the European western was in stark contrast to the wide-eyed heroism of its American counterparts. Maybe I’m just a cynic: the American westerns through the 1950’s tended to suffer from rose-tinted nostalgia, portraying the era as a time of legend when heroes were stalwart and villains were simplistic creatures who were considerate enough to wear black. The Italian westerns were darker, and critical of a period in which geographic isolation led to men to act on their base instincts. The Comancheros is an intriguing early mixture of the two sensibilities, even though it predates the Sergio Leone period by several years. 

Stuart Whitman plays Paul Regret, a socialite who accidentally kills a man during a duel and finds himself on the run from the law. John Wayne plays Jake Cutter, a Texas Ranger out to bring him to justice. That would be enough for most movies, but The Comancheros also throws in the Comancheros, a group of outlaws who live outside the purview of American justice and deal weapons to the Comanches, a tribe which uses the armaments to kill helpless settlers. The two stories weave in and out of each other in unexpected ways in a surprisingly advanced structure for an early American western, giving the effect of a truly sprawling epic. It takes more than sweeping vistas and epic battles to make a true epic – although The Comancheros has both in spades – it’s also necessary to give the actual story proper scope. The Comancheros freewheels from one unexpected plot point to the next, bringing closure to some at unexpected times, jumpstarting others at the drop of a hat. It’s not a perfect mix but it’s never dull.

Wayne is playing to his strengths here as a heroic Texas Ranger. His swagger is in full effect, as is his sense of humor, his occasional moment of maudlin, and his memorable punches. Whitman, who never made much of an impression on me before, holds his own against Wayne’s formidable screen presence. He’s no Cary Grant (the role was supposedly written with Grant in mind), but you believe his character throughout his unexpected travails even if he’s not always as charming as he’s supposed to be. Lee Marvin has an extended cameo as a ruthless outlaw with a wicked scar from a scalping gone wrong (or ‘right,’ from his perspective I suppose, since he lived to tell the tale) who goes on an outlandish drinking spree with The Duke, and although he’s out of the film early the shot of energy he gives the film lasts throughout the proceedings.

This was Michael Curtiz’s last film, and in fact his ailing health forced Wayne himself to direct a significant portion of the film. That might account for the somewhat scattershot narrative, but it doesn’t detract from a memorable epic western with slightly more complex moral themes than you’d expect from an American entry in the genre from 1961. The action is impressive, from fiery carriage chases to extended shootouts. Some of the storyline feels a little dated these days, what with the somewhat naïve portrayal of Native Americans and an overly loving portrayal of frontier living, but the film holds up well today and remains a solid adventure film in the grand Hollywood tradition.

Fox brings The Comancheros to Blu-Ray with an impressive transfer that only appears to suffer from faults in the original negative. Fox appears to have cleaned up the film without glossing over textures, and indeed the film has a rich texture of beautiful shimmering grain. The film looks a bit soft at times, which appears to be the result of the photography itself, but otherwise it’s a wonderful-looking film. The sound has been upgraded to a pleasing 5.1 DTS HD mix and special features a plentiful, including documentaries on The Duke’s tenure at Fox, the history of the actual Comancheros and a commentary track.

The Comancheros isn’t quite a western classic but it’s an impressive production filled with exciting action sequences and an interesting storytelling style, and I’m glad that Fox took the time to clean it up for HD. It’s only a ‘Must Buy’ if you love westerns, but it’s definitely worth a look for lovers of classic film.

Crave Online Rating (Film): 7.5/10

Crave Online Rating (Blu-Ray): 9/10