Starring: James Garner, Sidney Poitier
Director: Ralph Nelson
Mood: If you’ve always wished there was a really great old Western with sharp AF dialogue starring a strong Black man but you don’t actually think such a thing exists.
The first time I watched Duel at Diablo was not long before I decided that the world needs to hear my opinions on Westerns.
Unfortunately, I don’t write reviews unless the movie or book is fresh in my mind. Duel at Diablo got returned to the library along with a whole pile of other Westerns, and you had to wait until now to hear about this masterpiece.
And let me say this from the get-go: Duel at Diablo is a f*cking masterpiece.
The more times I watch it, the more I appreciate the strength of the dialogue and how well the male leads were written. We can’t watch it in this house without constantly saying, “ah, that was such a good line!” And James Garner may have top billing, but this movie is all about Sidney Poitier.
Duel at Diablo takes place sometime in the 1870s. It doesn’t say exactly, but you can tell from the fact that the army has a free Black man and veteran Buffalo Soldier breaking their horses (Sidney Poitier as Toller).
The movie opens on a dusty desert. Frontier scout Jess Ramsberg (James Garner) is hiding behind rocks to observe a person in distress. A group of Apaches close in to attack, and Jess gallops in to rescue what turns out to be a pretty woman (gasp!) who doesn’t want to be rescued.
Jess takes Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson) back to town to her husband, who it turns out is a collosal jerk and treats her like crap. Ellen clearly has a lot of backstory, and it’s not long before she’s trying to run away again.
Meanwhile, Jess gets drunk in a saloon, has a misunderstanding with Toller, gets into a massive brawl in a stable, and gets talked into scouting for Lt. Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers) on a dangerous mission to deliver ammunition and supplies to Fort Concho, across Apache territory.
The shipping wagons and supplies belong to none other than Mr. Grange, so he and Ellen will be along for the ride. The Apache people really sick of white folks by this point in time, and are keen to acquire their supplies and ammunition.
Duel at Diablo is James Garner’s first Western since Maverick (the TV series), and Sidney Poitier’s first-ever Western. And it’s a doozy! This is no chipper weeknight romp, which probably disappointed Garner fans expecting his trademark charm (and may explain the score of just 59% on Rotten Tomatoes). Despite plenty of sharp dialogue, this story is quite sad and dark.
For starters, you have the messed up relationship between Ellen and her husband. He actually says to her, “Lots of white women have been grabbed off by an Indian, and many a decent one of them would have killed herself before she let them turn her into an Indian squaw.”
Ellen is very Cynthia Ann Parker, the woman who was kidnapped by a Comanche war band and lived with them for 24 years before being re-kidnapped by white people. She spent the last 10 years of her life trying to escape back to the Comanche and her family, failing to assimilate back into ‘regular’ life, and eventually giving up eating and dying.
Jess’ backstory is an ongoing search for the white man who murdered and scalped his Comanche wife. He carries her scalp with him as a painful reminder on his journey to vengeance.
Then you have poor Lt. Scotty, who is informed that his totally green and inexperienced cavalry unit has no choice but to take on this deadly mission, when their horses aren’t even all broke yet. It doesn’t take long for shit to hit the fan, and then it’s very much a survival story, right down to the last stand.
But Sidney Poitier… holy crap, what a fantastic performance. Let’s take this to a bullet list:
- Toller’s dialogue includes most of the movie’s best lines, like staring down Jess in the street and saying, “McAllistair said you wanted to kill me. I don’t much like that idea. I’d rather get it over with now, if the thought’s still in your mind.”
- As the Apaches attack, Toller gallops like he’s going into battle, but you realize he’s just grabbing the green horses because he only gets paid per horse and it’s on-brand and hilarious
- Nobody at any point mentions Toller being Black, which makes Duel at Diablo all the better
- Poitier radiates cool with every glance, and the way he carries himself; during the fight scene in the stable, he’s just leaning casually against a wall and suddenly his gun is drawn, but he still looks unruffled
- Toller has the most interesting arc, basically pressed into taking this mission and eventually taking charge of a bunch of scared young men, so you get a whole lot of range
- While everyone else in the film feels like they’re acting, Poitier feels totally NATURAL, like he simply is Toller the smooth-talking Buffalo Soldier and bronc buster
It was definitely different to watch Garner unsmiling and downright surly. I’m sure he just wanted to do something as far from the role of Maverick as possible, although I appreciate that he returned to that cheeky sarcasm in Support Your Local Sheriff three years after this.
Garner excels at fist fights and physicality in general, and this movie is no exception. In fact, all of the action scenes are extremely well done for the time. From the punchouts to the shootouts, there’s almost non-stop action that feels grueling and exhausting, rather than the campier style of other ‘60s Westerns.
Bill Travers is seriously wonderful as Lt. Scotty. I didn’t realize until my third or fourth time watching just how noble and tragic his performance is.
Although the role of Chief Chata (based on the real Chato) is played by a white guy, Duel at Diablo is surprisingly free from racial stereotypes. Jess’ wife was scalped by a white man, and Toller is treated with as much respect as anyone else, which isn’t saying much, but still.
Chata and Lt. Scotty are just two men fighting over ammunition, and your attention is drawn to the futility of the fighting rather than the Apache warriors being villains. Jess frequently comments that the Apache aren’t doing anything worse than what’s being done to them, and that they don’t deserve to be stuck on a reservation.
I don’t get why Western fans aren’t flocking to this movie. At the time of its release, one prominent reviewer said that the casting of a Brit (Travers) and a Swede (Andersson) took away from the film’s authenticity. Um, what? Everybody except the Natives was a f*cking immigrant back then!
You get a ton of excellent action, a gripping story, and a phenomenal performance by Sidney Poitier. It’s everything you need in a solid Western. If you don’t like Duel at Diablo, your taste is broken.