Duel at Diablo (1966)

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. Bringing her to an army post, he discovers that she was abducted by Apaches two years earlier and has a child with one of them. She is therefore rejected by 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 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. The different story lines are tied together by the fact that all three lead characters - the scout, the horse breaker, the tradesman - are doing business with the Cavalry, but 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. Director Ralph Nelson is best known for his violent pro-Indian pamphlet Soldier Blue. Both Soldier Blue and Duel at Diable feature a woman who was abducted by Indians, but 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 and no attention is given to their fate, no explanation is given why they escaped from the reservation. 

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The film was based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert, who also co-wrote the script. The story 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. 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. 

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)


  1. I found this film similarly incoherent. Toller, though, may have been a former sergeant in a troop of Buffalo Soldiers.


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