Rio Conchos

Posted on October 18th, 2011 in 1960s, Westerns by Colin

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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.

Stuart Whitman & Richard Boone in Rio Conchos.

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.

8 Responses to 'Rio Conchos'

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  1. le0pard13 said,

    on October 19th, 2011 at 4:53 am

    You have me jazzed to screen this one with your fine review, Colin. Richard Boone is one of my favorite actors (I watched Have Gun - Will Travel first-run as a kid). You’re so right about his memorable turns in the villain role with Wayne (Big Jake and The Shootist). I thought he was equally great as Cicero Grimes in Hombre and Frank Usher (Tall T), too. He really was an underrated actor. So you see, I have to catch this one. Luckily, R1 received a Rio Conchos DVD this the summer (co-featured with Take a Hard Ride by the Shout! Factory). Thanks for the review.

  2. Livius said,

    on October 19th, 2011 at 9:02 am

    I always like to see Boone’s name in the credits as he invariably brought something worthwhile to any film he appeared in. His most memorable roles were villainous ones but, as in his work with Boetticher and Martin Ritt that you mentioned, there was a certain charm on display that raised them above the more commonplace performances that other actors might have given.

    I really ought to have mentioned in the main part of the text that the film also features an uncredited role for the instantly recognisable Timothy Carey, whose (frequently uncredited) appearances in a whole slew of films was the subject of a discussion over at Toby’s site the other day.

    Thanks for the comment Michael.

  3. Blake Lucas said,

    on October 20th, 2011 at 7:55 am

    Fascinating. You have placed the movie very well–the years 1963-1966 were transitional ones for the Western, with final works from people like Ford and Walsh, while Peckinpah, Hellman and Leone were beginning to suggest the modernist Western to come. RIO CONCHOS is somewhere in between–the work of a classicist (and shares the visual beauty of the same year’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN and A DISTANT TRUMPET, all also unusually mature Indian Westerns though in different ways) that does, as you say,anticipate the more violent and nihilistic world of the Italian Westerns on the horizon.

    But there is a difference for me. Neither the film nor its characters are cynical like the heroes of modernist Westerns. An outlaw like Franciosa’s character comes closest to it, but this kind of character was always much like this in earlier Westerns, and he is a dimensional character who doesn’t come over as comic, and his final confrontation with Boone handled with fine dramatic feeling. The bitter hatred between doubles Boone and Acosta (who is as outstanding as Boone in their climactic meeting with his wonderful dialogue to the other–”to kill, to die…” ) may hold no redemption for either but has a gravity the Western would soon lose.

    You are right that there was no sudden transformative moment in the genre and there are plenty of intimations of the more cynical modernist Westerns in earlier works than this–VERA CRUZ anticipates both Peckinpah and Leone and the way Boetticher and company push a movie like BUCHANAN RIDES ALONE effectively toward comedy also looks ahead. But they play as classical Westerns, serious at the core if not always in tone, and seem firmly of the 1950s–the genre’s best decade. Of the mid-60s, RIO CONCHOS is truly a transitional work, one of the most effective of the period. For me, it is definitely the most outstanding of Douglas’ admittedly uneven though generally appealing body of Westerns.

  4. Livius said,

    on October 20th, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Thanks for the in-depth comment Blake.

    I think we’re pretty much in agreement on this one. I concur that Rio Conchos doesn’t have the fully matured cynicism that would come to characterise later westerns. While there may not be any particular nobility to the character’s motives, there is still some motive for them beyond mere material gain. However, many other aspects are in place and the progression to what you call the more modernist western seems a much shorter step, as opposed to the leap that some would have us believe took place.

  5. Blake Lucas said,

    on October 20th, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Thanks for adding that. You underline the point I meant to make but didn’t quite do it, but I guess is implied–that the motives of the characters are non-materialistic (Franciosa excepted, but even he–though always ready to be lethal for his own purposes–doesn’t truly have the cheery and casual attitude toward life and death that generally characterizes both heroes and villains so many Westerns to come, especially Italian ones). Their motives are serious, if not endorsed by the film–1950s Westerns had shown thoroughly that revenge is a soul-destroying thing.

    We are very much in agreement about RIO CONCHOS and as you could tell, I enjoyed and was stimulated by your piece. This whole period of the Western is fascinating and deserves a book all its own, or at least a substantial article.

    Since other people like him too, I’ll add a word for Richard Boone and not only for this film. He has many outstanding films–anyone who likes him should make a point to check out early supporting roles like those in WAY OF A GAUCHO, VICKI, and THE RAID.

    In THE TALL T, Boone’s Frank Usher is one of the greatest villains in the genre, and his performance one of the subtlest, because somehow, in the first sequence in which he is on screen, he is able to begin creating a measure of sympathy for a character who we know immediately has ordered the deaths of several people including a small boy. A complex character, one who has a better side, brought out especially in his feeling for Randolph Scott’s Brennan, and yet, he is now beyond the pale, tragically. Boone played all this masterfully.

  6. Livius said,

    on October 20th, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    I think these mid-60s westerns tend to get passed over a bit, from a critical perspective anyway, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s simply not the number of quality movies that the preceding decade produced - or at least there’s a perceived dearth of quality. And secondly, any transitional period has an amorphous, intangible character that’s very difficult to analyse.

    You’re now the second person to mention Richard Boone’s role in The Tall T, a movie that I think may well be my favourite of the Boetticher/Scott movies. A significant part of what makes it so good is most certainly Boone’s playing of Frank Usher.

  7. Dafydd Jones said,

    on October 20th, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    Richard Boone may well be the scariest man in movie history. One minute, you get wonderful lighter shades of badness when his Frank Usher breaks into that wonderful, uncontrolled laugh, followed by “Ouch!” when he sees Randolph Scott bump his head (unrehearsed?) in THE TALL T. I was fortunate enough to be at a 1994 National Film Theatre screening of the film in London, when Boetticher himself was present. The audience loved that moment! Then, you see him in THE KREMLIN LETTER where he was absolutely terrifying. A memorable Boone moment in RIO CONCHOS is when the commanding officer explains (in Lassiter’s presence) that Lassiter’s family “was killed by the Apache”. There’s a moment of silence as you see the rage building up on Boone’s face and he roars “KILLED???!!”
    In one word and its delivery, everything is explained.
    One other point of interest is RIO CONCHOS’s similarity to THE COMANCHEROS. Writer Clair Huffaker is the common link of course…but I recently noticed that the reviewer of COMANCHEROS in the Aurum Film Encyclopedia THE WESTERN actually confuses the two films in his review.
    I’m glad you mentioned Jerry Goldsmith’s score Colin. A great work. On the FSM soundtrack CD there’s a very good vocal version of the main theme, unused in the film itself. A very good review of a memorable film.

  8. Livius said,

    on October 21st, 2011 at 8:28 am

    Good call on that early scene that effectively defines Boone’s character. It’s such a simple moment, yet so powerful and direct too.

    Rio Conchos certainly does bring The Comancheros to mind. There’s the common link between the two via Clair Huffaker, as you say. And Stuart Whitman provides another connection. The big difference of course is the change of tone; The Comancheros has a much lighter, less intense feel to it.

    Thanks for adding your thoughts Dafydd.

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