Starring: John Wayne, Stuart Whitman, Lee Marvin, Ina Balin
Director: Michael Curtiz
Mood: If you’re hungry for an upbeat James Garner-style Western but your partner is insisting on a John Wayne night so you need a movie that sneakily bridges the gap.
The reason I watched The Comancheros last night is actually kind of pitiful.
I’ve been slowly working my way through a John Wayne box set – like, it’s taken me over a year to watch two out of four DVDs – and I settled on The Undefeated. I was super pumped until right after the opening credits, when I realized I’ve already seen AND reviewed that movie. Whoops. Then I picked The Searchers. But I checked my own damn website and sure enough, I’ve reviewed that too.
Give me a break, there are a lot of John Wayne Westerns with two-word titles.
So The Comancheros was my third choice, but I’m so glad I picked it! This is the most fun I’ve had with John Wayne since The War Wagon. This Western has a very James Garner vibe, and you know I love me some James Garner.
- Fun Fact #1: James Garner was one of the actors originally lined up to star in The Comancheros, but was blackballed by one of the Warner Bros.
The Comancheros feels like a slightly more adult version of a ‘60s Disney live-action movie. And for me, it was a surprisingly warm and welcome break from the nonstop sci-fi horror that is my October.
The Comancheros opens in New Orleans, 1843. Two men square off in a duel. They’re having a fairly friendly chat before they march off, but one is shot and killed. The other, Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) swears he was trying to miss but his opponent side-stepped. The slain man was the son of a judge, so Regret has to flee.
Cut to a steamship. Regret gets arrested by Captain Jake Cutter of the Texas Rangers (John Wayne), who was sent on his trail. It’s literally the most chill capture I’ve ever seen in a Western. The two are chatting away like old pals throughout the arrest and the entire ride afterward – despite Cutter’s frequent protests to Regret calling him “friend.”
It’s like watching a great odd couple or buddy cop pairing, and that energy lasts throughout the movie.
Regret manages an escape, but Cutter recaptures him after they randomly run into each other in a poker game. Then, through a series of action-packed events, they end up joining forces against a ruthless gang of Comancheros.
And, of course, there’s a feisty woman with questionable motives.
I’ve said this before in other reviews, but I have to say it again: I’m not a John Wayne fan.
I tend to enjoy his Westerns that diehard Wayne fans don’t like, and I usually loathe his most popular hits. The Comancheros has passable ratings at best on most review sites, so naturally I got a serious kick out of it.
And here’s the weird part – it’s largely because of Lee Marvin.
Between the first and second capture of Paul Regret, Cutter begins a separate mission and has to go undercover and try to befriend a major gunrunner, Tully Crow (Marvin). This is just a few years before Marvin snagged an Oscar for his drunken comedy masterclass in Cat Ballou, and Tully Crow is a similar character – or rather, they seem to have started building characters around Marvin’s drunken boisterous personality.
Here, Marvin is throwing down the physical comedy and quotable one-liners, rocking a partial bald cap, and bursting with a raw talent that’s bigger than the screen, all while chugging from a 2-6 AND merrily punching out John Wayne.
- Fun Fact #2: You hear Cutter repeatedly called ‘Big Jake’ throughout The Comancheros, and Wayne ended up making the epic Western Big Jake 10 years later.
The highlight of my Western-watching year so far is unquestionably Lee Marvin and John Wayne doing a drunk saloon sing along. Wayne looks like he’s having a genuinely awesome time.
I never expected to see Wayne sitting back in a Western, grinning and watching someone else ham it up in the spotlight. Apparently Marvin’s performance is the reason Wayne recommended him for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
Stuart Whitman is another formidable screen counterpart for Wayne as the scruffy, sweet-faced Regret. He delivers a cheeky gambler that seems clearly inspired by James Garner’s lovable scamp in the original Maverick.
Whitman and Wayne share an easy banter and natural chemistry that flows perfectly through all the huge Western action, and makes you want to hang out with them.
Ina Balin gives you a bold, strong woman in Pilar Graile, and she’s gorgeous AND fun to watch, but something in her delivery isn’t quite authentic and left me wanting more.
The Comancheros is way more lighthearted than I expected. But at the same time, it’s a solid Western action movie for anyone who loves that ‘60s flavour of cinematic comedy. The entertainment is plentiful, and the prolonged final showdown is quite satisfying.
- Mega-Fun Fact: Director Michael Curtiz was ill for much of The Comancheros, so Wayne ended up directing as well as starring – which is extra interesting since Wayne’s character was significantly smaller in the original novel, and had to be fluffed up to make it Wayne-worthy when he came on board after Gary Cooper dropped out (also for health reasons).
- Not-So-Fun Fact: This was the last film made by Curtiz, who died of cancer shortly after it came out, and it was also the final film of Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams, who has a hilarious early scene as a repentent gunrunner.
I did zone out a bit in the middle, because everyone gets along so well that it’s not particularly challenging. But I’m not complaining, because seriously people, Lee Marvin.
The one downside is the cringey stereotype of Chief Iron Shirt (Mexican actor George J. Lewis), getting sloppy drunk and passing out.
I mean, the whole deal with the Comancheros IS that these bad guys are giving guns and whiskey to the Comanche, to stir up violence. And we all know that colonists introduced booze to Indigenous people. It just felt like a lazy and unnecessary plot choice to have the chief hiccuping and falling off a chair.
With that said, would I watch The Comancheros again? Absolutely. It’s fun, it’s fast, and you don’t have to use too many brain cells to enjoy it. It gives you exactly what most people expect from the genre, and sometimes that’s all we need.