Comanche

So that’s the way it is. Comanches kill Mexicans to get even with the Spanish. And the Mexicans kill Comanche in revenge for that. It’s become a way of life.

Westerns, naturally enough, have a habit of featuring a fair number of real life historical figures. For the most part, these portrayals are heavily fictionalized since the films are dramas first and foremost. We’ve seen outlaws and lawmen, soldiers and natives transposed to the big screen, and it’s those in the latter category who, despite what some might tell you, actually tend to fare best in terms of sympathetic depictions. Comanche (1956) looks at Quanah Parker, the son of a captive woman, who rose to prominence as a war chief among his tribe, and presents him in a highly flattering light.

The onscreen prologue informs us that in 1875 a bitter and age-old war continues to rage between the Mexicans and the Comanche. The latter raid and massacre the unprotected villages close to the frontier with the US with impunity, while the former still pay out a bounty for Comanche scalps. The result is a brisk trade among the despised scalp-hunters and also pressure from the Mexican government on their northern counterparts to do something about the frequent cross border incursions. The opening sees one of those sleepy villages razed to the ground, its inhabitants largely butchered and the young women taken as captives. The scene then shifts to the land just across the Rio Grande, where part of the raiding party stumble upon a team of scalp-hunters and quickly overpower them. Just as the prisoners are about to be roasted alive, their grisly death is halted by the intervention of a more powerful presence. This is Quanah (Kent Smith), and his actions serve to raise the ire of his subordinate Black Cloud (Henry Brandon) and also to raise questions in the viewer’s mind. Why should this man make such a magnanimous gesture towards those preying on his people and simultaneously risk alienating the more hot-headed types like Black Cloud? The army’s chief scout Jim Read (Dana Andrews) has a hunch it’s a means of sending out signals of peace. When the US and Mexican governments decide to act, it’s Read who suggests heading into Comanche territory to sound out Quanah on his intentions, and maybe open negotiations with him instead of going straight for the military option. We later discover that there’s an intriguing connection between these two men, although both will have to address betrayals from within their own ranks by those with hawkish tendencies if any rapprochement is to be achieved.

What can be termed pro-Indian sentiments are to be found scattered throughout the westerns of the 1950s, and Comanche is yet another example of this trend. Part of the beauty of these movies, for me anyway, is the realistic way this is handled. We’re not presented with some blind diatribe, demonizing one side or the other for the sake of cheap point scoring. Instead, by focusing on a few individuals, there’s a more balanced perspective offered – the rights and wrongs, along with the brutality and cruelty perpetrated by both camps is acknowledged and confronted. As with almost everything in life, it’s only through such consideration of the subtle shadings that a mature appreciation is possible. And remember, it can’t be stated often enough that the 1950s was the decade when the western itself attained full maturity as a cinematic art form.

Comanche was directed by one of this site’s favorites, George Sherman. He was no stranger to the pro-Indian western and his strong visual sensibility is always in evidence too. This is very much an outdoors picture, shot by Jorge Stahl around Durango, and the tough, dusty landscape provides a harsh and bleak canvas upon which the human drama is played out. Sherman frequently makes full use of the wide scope lens, that primal backdrop packed with hordes of Comanche warriors or snaking columns of cavalry, to create an epic feel at times.

The character of the cavalry scout is a pivotal one from the audience’s point of view as the impartial intermediary acts as the eyes through which we view the unfolding events. Such a role needs to be filled by a man who can convey a sense of integrity alongside a stoic quality, yet he must also maintain an air of the outsider about him since he’s essentially got a foot in both camps. Step forward Dana Andrews. If ever an actor was possessed of the aforementioned characteristics, then it must surely be Andrews. He’s obviously best known for his noir parts, particularly those with Preminger and Lang, but he was equally fine in the western too. Kent Smith might seem like an odd choice to play Quanah, still I think he’s satisfactory. You could argue his role is a touch too noble and one-dimensional, I suppose; even so, he invests the part with a great deal of dignity and you get a feeling of the power of the character. The villainous types are played by Henry Brandon (interestingly taking on the part of the enemy of his own son, if you read The Searchers as a loose adaptation of the Parker story), Stacy Harris and Lowell Gilmore. And then there’s the beautiful Linda Cristal, making her Hollywood debut as the traumatized captive girl. She is pretty good although her character doesn’t get quite as much development as it deserves. Anyway, Sherman was obviously sufficiently impressed by her talents to use her again as the female lead in The Last of the Fast Guns a couple of years later.

Comanche has been available on DVD in France and Spain for a while now but I held off buying it as it seemed the picture quality was nothing special and then there was also the forced subtitle issue on the French disc. It’s just been released in the UK by 101 Films, who have put out a number of western title in recent times, and so I thought I’d take a chance. First, the good news: the film is presented in its correct 2.35:1 scope ratio. And now for the bad news: the disc is not anamorphic so the image is surrounded by heavy black bars that can only be reduced by zooming in, with the resultant loss of resolution. Also, the print used is clearly an old one which, although not showing all that much damage, is somewhat faded and lacking in detail. All told, it’s a very disappointing presentation of the film, one which I can’t recommend in good faith. What makes this even more frustrating is the fact that the film itself is a very worthwhile one that deserves far better treatment than it’s been afforded so far.

By way of a postscript, I’d like to add that this blog was eight years old a few days ago. Normally, I like to mark the occasion with a posting but circumstances conspired against me this time. Anyway, I reckon this movie is an appropriate way to celebrate the anniversary, albeit a couple of days late.

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37 thoughts on “Comanche

  1. First, and most important, thing to say is Many Congratulations on your 8 years as a quality blogger, Colin. Good job!

    That news about the film’s presentation is disappointing. I have just finished watching another film put out by 101 Films, “Law And Order” and the presentation there is superb.
    I have only seen this film once, and that was a pan & scan print, so certainly not at its best. What you have so eloquently written makes me want to see it again now, properly, but I guess we may have to wait still for the ideal to arrive, if at all.

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    • Thank you, Jerry.
      I’m honestly doubtful if there is a decent master of this film available for use at the moment. I’ve a feeling all the DVDs currently on the market come from the same source and someone would have to go back to the original materials and create a new, updated master. Bearing in mind, Comanche features so much fine location photography, it’s a real shame it doesn’t look better.

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  2. Congratulations on the eight years! It’s always been a great blog and has introduced me, for one, to a slew of films I might never otherwise have seen.

    I’m working slowly through the 101 collection so will no doubt come across this eventually. As Jerry says the other 101 titles I’ve bought have featured fine transfers, so the treatment of this one seems a bit disappointing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers, Mike.
      I don’t think the fault really lies with 101 Films in this case – I’ve certainly heard no bad reports about their other releases myself – and I imagine they are the kind of company which deal in distribution; they use whatever transfer they are handed by the licensing group. I reckon it’s simply a case of an older master prepared for syndication ages ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. First off congrats on the anniversary Colin – great going! I feel like I have seen this film but it has been a while, so thanks very much for the illuminating essays. What you say about the role of the cavalry scout is of course absolutely spot on but I had never stopped to consider ti that way before. I hope this gets a better pressing soon too!

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  4. To add to the confusion MGM own the entire United Artists catalog as well as American International, Orion and others.
    Most of the vintage MGM titles are now owned by Warner Bros,who also own a huge chunk
    of Allied Artists Monogram and RKO.
    The pre-1949 Paramount titles are owned by Universal.

    I cannot believe a decent master of Sherman’s film does not exist,our best hope is a future
    Kino Lorber release. This of course would be a remastered edition and on Blu Ray.
    There are several United Artists films that need decent restorations notably Byron Haskin’s fine
    Noir THE BOSS…the MGM MOD was wretched.
    Hugo Fregonese’s very fine BLACK TUESDAY has never been released anywhere and it should
    be.

    I saw COMANCHE in the Sixties at the cinema,I remember it as being good but not top drawer Sherman. Needless to say I’d get a Kino Lorber Blu Ray in a heartbeat.

    Congrats on your 8th anniversary Colin and many more of them.

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  5. Just as an add on to the above I should imagine the master 101 films used was obtained from
    Hollywood Classics a UK based company that supply titles mainly from the archives of Fox,
    Universal and MGM/UA.

    Kino Lorber would of course source their master from MGM/UA’s vaults.

    There is an on-going trend in Europe at least for French and German companies to source
    master material from the majors direct.
    Elephant in France are sourcing direct from Universal-I believe a Blu Ray of NIGHT PASSAGE
    is due in 2016.
    Explosive are dealing direct with Sony and have many exciting items in the pipeline including
    COMANCHE STATION on Blu Ray.
    RIDE LONESOME is also coming from another German imprint on Blu Ray next year.

    I might add all three of those films were “made” to be presented in High-Def.

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  6. Happy anniversary, Colin, to one of my favorite blogs!! What a wonderful job you do with your thoughtful, well-written essays on movies — I always end up wanting to see what you’ve written about, or go back and watch again! Thanks so much for all you do here sharing great info as well as hosting wonderful conversations.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  7. As I cannot really comment on COMANCHE as it’s been so many years since I’ve seen it
    and I am holding out for a decent version I thought I would further comment on other issues
    raised here.
    Firstly the MGM/UA MOD series seems to have ground to a halt.
    The Fox MOD series,as far as I know are still releasing 4×3 versions of CinemaScope films and
    their releases are far and few between.
    The Universal Vault MOD series surfaces from time to time and Sony,again are not putting these
    things out on a regular basis.
    Sony used to release about a dozen titles on the first Tuesday of each month but those days are
    long past. They seem to have given up on Westerns altogether.

    You may have noticed a comment by Chip,a regular French commentator on Toby’s blog that
    Sidonis have entered into an arrangement with Sony for a whole raft of Columbia Westerns
    slotted for 2016-17.
    These include some really much sought after titles like STAGE TO TUCSON and REPRISAL!
    both having never had a DVD release.
    Sidonis,of course have those “forced” subtitles we all loathe so much,but the quality of
    their releases is fine and dual layered discs to boot.
    They are about to release GUNFIGHTERS (1947) the only Randolph Scott Columbia Western
    not yet released on DVD.
    With Explosive Media now releasing Columbia titles and so it would seem Koch Media,hopefully
    some of those most sought after Columbia Westerns will finally surface on DVD in Germany.
    Oddly enough Explosive wanted to release Anthony Mann’s underrated THE LAST FRONTIER
    on Blu Ray but at present Sony do not have a High-Def master of this film. I hope that will
    change over time.
    One Explosive release I did get recently was A MAN CALLED SLEDGE on Blu Ray.
    At the time of it’s release it sort of got buried among the avalanche of Euro Western and
    Bond knockoff spy capers that were flooding the market. I thought it was merely OK at the time,
    but the Explosive Blu Ray is sensational,a beauty of a Techniscope transfer.
    The film is excellent,one of the very best Euro Westerns,I thought,top heavy with American talent
    for a change.It’s funny how these high def transfers can really raise the game of films we had
    virtually forgotten. I think I saw the film at the time on with THE EXECUTIONER another of these
    never ending spy capers with George Peppard and Joan Collins.

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    • I’m quite excited by that news of the Columbia material coming in France. I’d like to think it may lead to similar releases in other countries where the subtitle problem would not be an issue.
      On MGM MODs, I noticed on the HTF that there is still a small trickle of titles coming but, as you say, it’s near enough dead in the water at this stage.

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  8. Hmm, I hadn’t wanted to miss this and now I guess I’m a little out of date but will add a few thoughts anyway because I’m always glad to see attention brought to a George Sherman movie like this one.

    First, though, congratulations on the eight years, Colin. You know how I value your pieces and appreciate the sensibility behind them. It’s always a pleasure to read what’s here.

    Sorry to hear that this DVD of COMANCHE is not better. Maybe a better one will come along. The last time I saw this (second viewing and first in proper anamorphic ratio) was on TCM and it looked pretty good and was properly presented. Maybe it wasn’t perfect but was from a pretty good source; the color was not faded but perhaps just a little pallid, which happens often without extra attention.

    I like the film very much, especially certain things in it. The opening shot, for example, is a brilliant example of Sherman’s directorial skill–the CinemaScope camera tracking through a happy village scene in Mexico but at the end of the shot the Comanches suddenly appear and the mood turns violent, a wonderful contrast to the way the shot opens so the mood is changed in time and space to great effect.

    I believe when Sherman is properly studied in depth (and sure that day will come), we’ll see him doing a lot of things like that.

    Still, though this is made in an especially good period of Sherman’s career, it’s somewhat less than one of his best movies overall. For me, that’s simply because he’d already worked pretty hard in the Indian cycle, about a film a year in this vein since 1950, and had hit a lot of these marks already. TOMAHAWK, for example, has affinities with its white hero between two worlds and sympathetic to the Indians (in lots of movies through these years of course) and dramatized it somewhat more vividly. COMANCHE is interesting in a way because it almost seems to want to make sure we get the point as to the “balanced perspective” you talked about very well–for the only time I remember, the history behind the Comanches and their raids is explained in a didactic dissertation by Andrews’ character. That makes sure we will understand all this in a full way from a historical point of view, yet there is balance of sympathy in THE SEARCHERS later in the year without Ford ever having to explain everything in this way; it comes in the way it’s dramatized. Sherman is capable of this (not on the level of Ford in that film perhaps) but in the present case, there is an extent to which the characters stand for their ideas or what they represent in the film. It feels that way even though they are all workable, and I like the cast headed by Dana Andrews, so excellent as usual (and I like your description of the qualities of his persona as used in this role).

    After his contract years (Republic, Columbia, and most rewardingly, Universal-International), Sherman had gone free-lance in 1955 after CHIEF CRAZY HORSE. I believe the next three years or so are his best period in terms of choosing projects purposefully and probably even initiating several of them–THE TREASURE OF PANCHO VILLA, COUNT THREE AND PRAY, COMANCHE, REPRISAL!, THE HARD MAN and (returning to U-I for this) THE LAST OF THE FAST GUNS. As a group, these include some of his very best and if not necessarily always better than some of the earlier ones, put a clear focus on his themes and ideas and seem to be treated just as he wants, so a Sherman fan will value them for that. After this point, his last dozen films take place as that level of programmer (classy B to modest A) on which he thrived began to become less richly a part of American cinema and based on the ones I’ve seen (about half of those) he’s more uneven and may not have cared much about some of those. That said, I would like to see them all.

    1956 was a key year for the Indian cycle, because in the first half of the decade, the movies had generally been historically based and more expansive, focused on external conflicts. By the end of the year, there is a shift toward more intimate films of prejudice and concerns about how the Indian will find a way to endure when his way of life has been shattered. THE LAST HUNT intimates that aftermath while preserving the historical expansiveness around the story and following it, the aforementioned THE SEARCHERS does much the same thing, combining elements of protagonist and antagonist in Richard Brooks’ movie into a single hero. For Sherman, COMANCHE is a late example of the earlier type of movie, but later in the year his REPRISAL! is one of the best examples of the later type of film, a sharply focused story set in a small town in which prejudice against the Indian is both externalized in the villains and internalized within a complex hero. This gave Sherman a new place to go with his sensitivity to this whole subject of Indians (and to the redemption theme as well) and it is, I believe, the more vivid of these two movies.

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    • Firstly, thanks for the kind words and wishes, Blake.

      I thought you’d be around to add your thoughts on this one at some point, and I’m glad you did. And no, it’s never too late to comment on anything.

      I liked the opening here too, especially the lack of dialogue of any kind for the first few minutes – it’s very cinematic and sets the scene wonderfully, contrasting perfectly with the mayhem soon to follow. I was equally impressed by the opening of The Last of the Fast Guns, which set the mood and drew me into the movie right from the off.

      Thanks too for putting the Indian cycle in context and speaking about the way it developed, that kind of thing always fascinates me and it’s great to hear your, and indeed other, views on that aspect. Reprisal! often comes up in these discussions of Sherman, and I’m a little ashamed to say I’ve yet to see it. However, I do have a copy of the film at hand and plan to watch it over the holidays, when I have a bit of time to relax and catch up on stuff.

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    • Thank you very much, Chris. There’s a lot about the movie I like – cast, crew, story etc. – so it seemed an appropriate choice on or around the site’s anniversary.

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  9. Reading Blake’s very interesting treatise on the development during the 1950s of the treatment of the Indians filmically and, in particular, his heartfelt appreciation of a director many of us here cherish, underlines why I keep checking back on these threads – and I am really glad it is, as you say, never too late!

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    • Thanks very much, Kristina, and also for taking the time to catch up on so much stuff here.
      The holidays have been pretty relaxing so far, thankfully, and I’m off till January 7th. I hope they’ve been enjoyable for you too and that 2016 brings only good things.

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  10. Pingback: Winter’s Tail: Year of Bests – 2015 | It Rains... You Get Wet

  11. Colin
    Saw this years ago when it came on the market in VHS form. For some reason I don’t recall all that much about it. (Might have been one of those heavy on the beer weekends) So I will add it to the re-watch list. Thanks

    Gord

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