Director: Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, Flight of the Phoenix)
Writers: Roland Kibbee and James R. Webb, based on a story by Borden Chase
Stars: Gary Cooper, Burt Lancaster, Denise Darcel, Cesar Romero, Sarita Montiel, George Macready
The Story: After coming out the wrong end of the Civil War, a ruined southern gentleman decides to refashion himself as a Mexican Civil War mercenary. Teaming up with a charming horsethief, he tries to earn a fortune by transporting a wagon full of Maximilian’s gold.
How it Came to be Underrated: This movie is in the same league as another western Cooper made that year, High Noon, but it remains far less well known. Alrdich and Lancaster (who also co-produced) both loved to rankle Hollywood by working on their own terms. The result was a lot of great movies, many of which didn’t get the respect they deserved.
Why It’s Great:
- The basic premise of this movie is so clever that I’m shocked we don’t see it more often: What if a movie like Star Wars culminated in a showdown between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo? We’re so used to seeing the lovable rogue win the trust of the naïve hero that it starts to seems like a foregone conclusion. But what if the rogue turns out to be even scarier than the evil empire he’s helping to overthrow?
- Cooper never settled into the sort of fatherly roles that would have been appropriate for his advancing age. He kept playing lean, desperate gunfighters until the day he died. He used his age to his advantage: Rather than growing soft, he just became more haggard.
- Aldrich specialized in movies about hard men who triumph over harder men, only to find themselves continually stabbed in the back by the soft men they’ve fought to protect. His best films are individually quite powerful, but when you put them all together, they form one grand unified statement, a devastating condemnation of nothing less than the idea of civilization itself.
- Did George Macready (Gilda, Paths of Glory) ever make a bad movie? He’s one of those character actors like Robert Ryan, who not only elevated every movie he was in, but seemed to have a knack for finding the smartest material. He makes it into this one for one scene as Maximilian, but he has to provide the whole motivation for the war.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: All three big names went on to make movies that were even cynical than this one later in the '50s: Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, Lancaster's Sweet Smell of Success, and Cooper's Man of the West. All three are pitch-black gems.
How Available Is It?: You can get it on dvd or watch it instantly.
Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: By Day I Am Known As Senor Suerte—Mister Luck, But At Night I Become Senor Muerte—Mr. Death!