Dir: Ralph Nelson - Cast: James Garner (Jess Remsberg), Sidney Poitier (Toller), Dennis Weaver (Willard Grange), Bibi Andersson (Ellen Grange), Bill Travers (Lieutenant "Scotty" McAllister), John Hoyt (Chata), John Hubbard (Major Novak)
While looking for the murderer of his (Indian) wife, former army scout Jess Remsberg saves the life of another woman, who was persecuted by two Apaches in the desert. This may sound like an echo of one of those Scott-Boetticher collaborations, notably Comanche Station, but the story takes a radically different turn. When Jess brings the woman to an army outpost, it transpires that she was abducted by Apaches two years earlier and has a child with one of them. Therefore she's no longer welcome with her husband, a tradesman called Grange, while others consider her to be the perfect rape victim. In the meantime Jess is hired to guide a cavalry unit to another fort. Along for the ride are also this tradesman, Mr. Grange, and a man called Todder, a former Cavalry sergeant, now a horse breaker selling horses to the service. And out there is a group of Apaches who have escaped from the reservation ...
Duel at Diablo is an odd western, fast-paced, violent, but also confusing, with a script that offers - as one critic mentioned it (1) - a grab bag of characters and ideas tossed together like a salad. On the surface, things seem okay: the different story lines are neatly tied together by the fact that all three lead characters - the scout, the horse breaker, the tradesman - are doing business with the Cavalry, but studied more closely, there are a few problems. With one of the key characters (Toddler, played by Sidney Poitier) being Afro-American and two mixed relationships central to the plot, one assumes that the movie also tries to make a point about racial prejudice; if it does, this point is pretty obscure.
Abductions of white women and mixed relationships had of course been treated before in western movies, most notably in John Ford's The Searchers and a series of pro-Indian westerns from the fifties like Broken Arrow or The Indian Fighter; with the name of the director (Ralph Nelson, best known for his violent pro-Indian pamphlet Soldier Blue, made half a decade later) in mind, it seems logical to assume that Duel at Diablo elaborates on this tradition, but it feels more like a comment on it. Unlike Candice Bergen in Soldier Blue, the woman in this movie (Bergman actress Bibi Andersson) shows no real sympathy for the people she has lived with, and this apathy is mutual: when she returns to the Apache, to claim her child, their leader threatens to bury her alive, apparently because he holds her responsible for the death of his son (the father of her child). The Apaches are depicted as mean and cruel, for the sake of being cruel and mean (they're a sheer menace); apart from a few oblique remarks by Garner, no attention is given to their fate, no explanation is given why they escaped from the reservation. Only in the final moments of the movie one of the characters - Garner again - asks himself why on earth they would ever want to stay there.
The film was based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert, who also wrote The Law and Jake Wade (filmed under the same title) and Renegade Posse (filmed as Bullet for a Badman). The script (co-written by Albert) fuzzes some of the issues it raises, but it delivers enough complications and thrills for a exciting cavalry versus Indians movie, seasoned with some thriller aspects. So if the film fails as a revisionist western, it succeeds as an action movie (and it might have influenced the structurally rather similar - but intellectually more complex Ulzana's Raid). For most part, it's concerned with the cavalry unit being ambushed (and subsequently cornered) by the renegade Apaches who are after the ammunition the unit is transporting to the other fort. There are two well-staged, bloody battle sequences and in-between the infant becomes a bone of contention between the different groups and the mystery of the murder of Jess Remsberg's wife is solved. Nelson handles the action effectively and keeps the narrative moving, helped by a rousing, catchy score by Neil Hefty.
For a movie released in the mid sixties, Duel at Diablo is remarkably violent; we're still far removed from the spurting blood and hacked limbs of Nelson's own Soldier Blue, but we get arrows penetrating bodies, protracted scenes of torture, vicious hand-to-hand combat and attempted gang rape. The characters are underwritten but the actors do their best to breathe life into them. Both James Garner and Dennis Weaver were cast against type as taciturn scout and the hypocritical - yet not completely insensible - tradesman, but they're quite convincing. Sidney Poitier's character of Toller, the horse breaker and former army sergeant, is as erratic as the movie itself: he smokes cigars, chews his words, and for some reason he's dressed like a sophisticated cardsharp.
Most commentators have noted that there were no black officers in the army at the time of the Indian wars, and Nelson seemed to have realized this: Toller's race is never referred to in the movie.
(1) Holly D. Ordway on DVD Talk.