I’ve always enjoyed looking at the way the western evolved over the years. There’s a, fairly common, misconception that the spaghetti western just kind of exploded onto the scene in a genre busting blaze of immorality and violence. However, that’s a superficial reading of things; the foundations were being laid a decade before and the progression isn’t that hard to follow. Anyway, the consensus seems to hold that the spaghettis gave the traditional western a much needed jolt to shake it out of the doldrums it was in danger of slipping into. That’s hard to argue with, but I’m not sure the Hollywood western wasn’t heading in more or less the same direction of its own accord regardless of outside pressure. When you look at some examples of genre pieces from the mid-60s there are already indications of their straddling the two, seemingly irreconcilable, eras. Rio Conchos (1964) makes for interesting viewing in this context, having the trappings and look of the traditional oater but displaying an attitude and sensibility closer to the emerging European westerns.
At the heart of Rio Conchos lies revenge – there’s essentially no nobility on show, nor very much in the way of finer feelings of any kind. The main character is Lassiter (Richard Boone), a former confederate Major who’s almost totally consumed with a killing rage sparked by the torture and murder of his wife and child by the Apache. This man hunts down and disposes of his enemy with a ruthless precision. The opening shots are of Lassiter calmly massacring an Apache burial party, before heading back to the ruins of his former home to get drunk amid the personal and physical devastation. He would appear content to spend the remainder of his existence extracting his pound of flesh every time the opportunity arose. But that’s not to be, as he finds himself coerced into participating in an army plan to recover a shipment of stolen rifles thought to be over the border in Mexico and soon to be sold to an eager Apache warlord, Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta). Lassiter’s motivation, apart from a desire to get out of the army guardhouse, is the chance to even his personal score with Bloodshirt and he has no particular sympathy for the two cavalrymen, Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sergeant Franklyn (Jim Brown), that he’s guiding. Haven’s on a mission of vengeance too, being the man in charge of the original arms shipment that’s gone missing. His quest may be dressed up in the guise of duty, but there’s no hiding the fact that he too is seeking some form of recompense for the slight to his reputation. The party is completed by a Mexican rogue, Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa), whose involvement is quite simple: he’s out to avoid the hangman’s rope and hopefully line his pockets in the process. In the more traditional scenario, this ill-assorted group bound together by a common objective would include at least one member driven by some higher moral sense. Not in this case though; all (with the possible exception of the cipher-like Franklyn) are pandering to their own base instincts. Everything builds towards a surreal climax on the banks of the titular river, where a demented Colonel (Edmond O’Brien) twisted by the bitterness of defeat in the Civil War plots merciless retribution for his conquerors.
Director Gordon Douglas made a lot of so-so films but he had it in him to produce something of real quality when the conditions were right. Rio Conchos is among his best movies (and Only the Valiant is another little dark gem tucked away in his filmography) due largely to the tough and cynical script and an uncompromising performance by Richard Boone. To Douglas’ credit, the action scenes are extremely well staged and, along with cameraman Joe MacDonald, he really makes the most of the rugged Utah locations. Still, it’s Boone that carries it all along, playing a mere shell of a man subsisting on hatred and bitterness. His craggy, lived-in features were ideal for westerns, from his iconic Paladin in TV’s Have Gun – Will Travel to a couple of memorable appearances as the villain in two John Wayne pictures, to name just a few. I’ve seen it written that his performance is a bit one note, but I don’t think that’s being entirely fair. One sequence in particular has him showing two vastly different sides to his character within minutes. I’m referring to the scene where the travellers come upon a burned out house containing what one assumes is a tortured and/or violated woman, moaning in agony on her deathbed, while her infant lies neglected in a cot alongside. We can see a series of emotions playing across Boone’s face, but the predominant one is a deep hurt as the terrible vision obviously brings back memories of the fate of his own wife and child. As he puts the woman out of her misery he is close to breaking down totally, the mask of toughness slipping momentarily in the now deserted room. When the raiding party returns to harry the trapped men though, Boone reverts to type almost instantaneously. There is something terrible in his primal joy, the gales of malicious laughter he expels when watching a downed Apache burning to death before his eyes. It could be argued that Lassiter undergoes a change of heart as the quest progresses, seeing that the army mission has some worth in itself that supersedes his own desire for vengeance. Again, I don’t read it that way. The confrontation with Rodriguez seems to me not so much a realization that there are higher issues at stake but more a necessary way of ensuring that his own ambitions are not thwarted.
By the time the climax rolls round, the obsessive nature of Lassiter’s rage seems tame and reasonable when compared to the schemes of the deluded Colonel played by Edmond O’Brien. He only appears late on in the film but he makes a deep and lasting impression. At the outset, O’Brien’s character seems merely eccentric. However, when he opens the door to his reproduction plantation mansion and invites Lassiter to step inside the full extent of his madness is revealed. This castle in the desert is little more than a facade, a half-constructed monument to a world that’s passed away yet he struts around like he’s entertaining company back in Virginia. O’Brien wisely tones down the histrionics and lets his words and outlandish surroundings convey the imbalance of his mind instead. The ending, though it might be termed abrupt and somewhat inconclusive, is a wonderful exercise in nihilism. It’s this, rather than the violent tone of the movie, that persuades me that the Hollywood western was already moving in the direction of the spaghettis. The classic era of the Hollywood western told stories that invariably held out the promise of redemption for one or more of the lead characters. What sets the likes of Rio Conchos apart is the total lack of concern for any kind spiritual salvation. In the end, nobody really triumphs and no higher purpose is achieved – none of the characters, whether living or dead by this point, have advanced much from the stage they were at when we saw them initially.
The German DVD of Rio Conchos from Koch Media treats the film very well. There’s a strong anamorphic scope transfer with rich colours, especially evident in the red clay of the locations. There is no damage worth mentioning present on the print used and detail is again strong. The English soundtrack (with subs that are removable via the main menu) is a nice stereo mix that does justice to the frequent heavy gunshots, and also to Jerry Goldsmith’s powerful, driving score. The disc is nicely packaged in an attractive digibook format with notes (in German) and supplements the trailer and gallery that are provided as extras. The film may not qualify as one of the true greats of the genre, but it’s still a high quality production that marks an important stage in the evolution of the western. If you haven’t seen it, I strongly recommend seeking it out.