By Carter B. Horsley
The Western genre is huge and largely formulaic.
Many of the best John Wayne vehicles such as "Stagecoach,"
"Red River," "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," "The
Searchers" and "True Grit" and other classics such
as "Shane," "High Noon," "The Man Who
Shot Liberty Valance," "Jeremiah Johnson," "The
Professionals," "A Man Called Horse," "One-Eyed
Jacks," "Hang 'Em High," and "Dances With
Wolves" painted their stories in simple brushstrokes. Even
the few comedies such as "Cat Ballou" and "Blazing
Saddles" were relatively one-dimensional.
Subplots and complex characters just got in
the way most of the time with the broad sweep of landscape and
One of the most offbeat and finest Westerns
is "Duel at Diablo." Indeed, it may well be the best
Western for it combines sensational music, great photography,
lots of action, many plot twists and turns and subplots.
Nothing is simple about this rather wild and
The film opens with Jess Remsberg, played by
James Garner, rescuing a white woman, Ellen Grange, played by
Bibi Andersson, from pursuing Indians in a spectacular landscape.
He discovers that she is married to Willard Grange, who runs a
store in a nearby town, and that he is very bitter because she
had been kidnapped by the Indians and has an Indian baby, which
is her own.
Remsberg is persuaded to guide a shipment of
ammunition by Lt. McAllister, played by Bill Travers, who has
also convinced horse-wrangler Sidney Poitier to join the expedition.
Grange and his wife, and her baby, join the expedition for protection
from the Apaches. Remsberg is sympathetic with Ellen Grange because
his own Indian wife had been murdered by a white man.
The expedition gets attacked by the Apaches,
led by Chata, played by John Hoyt, and not everyone survives.
The story crowds a lot of sympathies and antagonisms
together, but does not linger long on moralizing. Indeed, the
crossed loyalties of the principals change and one of the film's
strong points is the ambiguity and dilemmas of personal values,
especially in crisis.
It would have been easy for this movie to get
lost in clichés, but it does not and hardly ever moves
at less than a gallop. Dramatically, it packs wallops.
It's just plain thrilling.
Among the many surprises is the casting: Bibi
Andersson, the Swedish actress who starred in many Ingmar Bergman
films, has never been lovelier; Sidney Poitier, as the rather
dandified Army veteran who sells horses, is very convincing as
a hero; Bill Travers, the Scottish actor who would make "Born
Free" the same year, as an Army officer leading a patrol,
is full of bluster; Dennis Weaver, as the bitter husband, is very
unsympathetic and believable as a weak man; and James Garner as
the scout who is the real hero has never been better.
Each star truly makes the agony of their character's
dilemmas believable and the difficulties of survival in the pre-modern
West very real.
Pride, hatred, love, and respect are the keywords
here and they are writ large against a magnificent panorama of
real and personal canyons.
The film is very sensitive to Native Americans
and perhaps no other film so brilliantly captures the contradictions
and happenstances that really did flourish in the shaping and
forging of the "American" West. It does not accomplish
this didactically, but compellingly through the dignity and suffering
of its characters.
The film borders on the precipice of the preposterous,
but manages to sidestep most clichés, thanks to its marvelously
rousing score and Garner, who provides a vivid portrayal of a
savvy, experienced, agile scout who is no longer young and fearless
but tired and angry. He clearly has fallen in love with Ellen
Grange, but his decency constrains him and the movie's grace is
that it doesn't not capitalize on their possible relationship,
nor bother with big issues of honor.
Survival is almost all.
The beauty of the film is that it is all about
action, but in the end what lingers are its values, which are
The movie is based on Marvin H. Albert's novel,
"Apache Rising," and its screenplay was written by Albert
and Michael M. Grilikhes.
The cinematography by Charles Wheeler is fabulous,
almost as great, stirring and memorable as the score by Neal Hefti
that ties together its various plots. It is one of the best in
film history, not for originality but for its anthemic power.
A relatively simple theme, it is persistent, uplifting, and of
Nelson had previously directed Poitier in the
movie, "Lillies of the Field" and four years after this
movie would direct "Soldier Blue," another strong Western
that was sympathetic to Native Americans.
Poitier's important presence in the film is
almost too politically correct, but shock quickly dissipates because
of his competence. The civil rights movement was still very vivid
in the nation's conscience and Poitier's role almost begins to
distract from the film's more important sensitivity to Native
Americans, but the racism theme is balanced very nicely and the
final scene is especially moving.
Winning and taming the West was not easy and
not pleasant and not always honorable. It took a lot of guts by
a wide assortment of people and "Duel at Diablo" is
not only a fitting, grueling testament to such heroics but also
an excellent counter to the stereotyped myths that dominated the
Western film genre.
Personal torment, this film suggests, can be
more difficult to conquer than political battles.