100 Rifles (1968)




Dir: Tom Gries - Cast: Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds, Fernando Lamas, Hans Gudegast, Dan O'Herlihy, Michael Forest - Music: Jerry Goldsmith

100 Rifles is set in the Northern Mexican region of Sonora, at the beginning of the 20th Century, against the background of an ethnic cleansing by the Mexican government. Most of the Yaqui Indians have already been deported to Southern regions (where they were used as slaves), but small groups are continuing to resist subjugation (1). The story is about a black deputy sheriff from Arizona, Lyedecker, who accidentally becomes involved in their rebellion, when he crosses the border with Mexico to capture a half breed Indian who has robbed a bank and used the money to buy one hundred rifles to arm his people.

Lyedecker has a short time contract as a deputy in Phoenix, Arizona and hopes to get a permanent assignment by bringing the bank robber to justice. When Yaqui Joe (his mother was Yaqui, his father from Alabama) is arrested by general Verdugo of the federales, Lyedecker tries to intervene but is himself arrested. When both men are about to be executed, they're saved in the last minute by a rebellious group of Yaqui, led by a fiery red-headed woman called Sarita. She wants the black man to join the Yaqui in their fight against the federal troops, but like he says, their fight is not his business, and he never liked Indians anyway. But Sarita has other ways to convince a man …

100 Rifles was credited for being one of the first major Hollywood productions to offer an interracial sex scene, but critical reactions to it were lukewarm; many thought it was a confusing mix of ultra-violence and tongue-in-cheek humor with only few redeeming qualities, such as a scene in which the film’s heroin takes a public shower under a water tank. Like some other Hollywood westerns shot in Spain in the late sixties, 100 Rifles seems to have found its audience in the course of the years, and recent comments have been more favorable. 

It's often thought that the movie was influenced by the spaghetti westerns. There are indeed some similarities to the so-called Zapata westerns (Italian westerns set in Mexico), especially those of Sergio Corbucci: It features a beautiful woman alongside two rivaling macho men - one attached to a cause, the other only to himself – and also uses some familiar locations and faces, such as Aldo Sambrell and José Manuel Martin (as Welch’s father in the opening scene). But the feeling is different and the spaghetti westerns certainly weren’t the only source of inspiration. In one prolonged scene Brown and Reynolds are shackled to each other like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958, Stanley Kramer). 

The historic background lends a socio-cultural dimension to the story, but the script never gets to the bottom of the conflict. General Verdugo has been given a German advisor, who proposes some radical solutions for the ‘Yaqui problem’ (these hints at extermination seem a little anachronistic), and there’s also a representative of the Southern Pacific Railroad, who’s appalled by Verdugo’s drastic measurements, but still wants the work on the railroad to continue (the familiar New world - Third World opposition). The story offers too many cliché situations (a fistfight near a cliff, several narrow escapes, the stubborn black man changing his mind about helping the Yaqui when the children are in danger, etc.), and there are also a few sudden transitions and other anomalies; according to French director Bertrand Tavernier - who seems to like Gries' work a lot - they were caused by 20th Century Fox' decision to re-edit the material against the director's wishes (2). 

100 Rifles has its share of flaws, but it’s fast paced and remarkably violent for a western predating The Wild Bunch by a year. The ‘sex scene’, which gave some notoriety to the movie, seems rather tame today, but that other (in)famous moment, Raquel taking a shower, is still quite provocative. The large-scale action is quite exciting (notably an assault on a train) and the movie stars three attractive young actors rising to stardom. Brown's laid-back style suits his character very well and Welch really gives her best as the fiery rebel leader; the part may be a bit beyond her as an actress, but she makes it up with her wardrobe (wearing a variety of shirts and tops that are two or three seizes too small). Burt Reynolds successfully hams it up as the halfbreed, playing the part in semi-comical style, almost as if he were meant to be Brown's sidekick. 

There are several hints that the film tried to say something about racial prejudice, but if so, its 'message' remains obscure; ironically, racial prejudice seemed to have caused some problems on the set. According to an article in a French magazine, Brown and Welch didn’t like each other. Welch thought Brown was insupportable and she was pissed off that he was top-billed, Brown thought Welch was prejudiced against black people and had expected him to behave like an Uncle Tom who was prepared to kiss her feet. Welch also had a bad time with her husband, who was on the set, when it came out that she was having an affair with one of the Spanish extras, who was subsequently fired (3). And oh yes, before I forget: the film also stars Soledad Miranda, and unlike La Welch, she goes for the full monty. 


Notes:

(1) The official Yaqui website (http://www.manataka.org/page129.html) says: 
"Yaqui families lived in the Gila and Santa Cruz River valleys since time immemorial. Around the turn of the century, these families, encouraged by farmers, politicians, and internal preferences, began moving into larger communities. Guadalupe took early form in 1880. Old Pascua Village was established in 1903. The Sonoran Governor Izabal had a policy to arrest and deport both peaceful and rebel Yaquis. This forced Yaquis to relocate to the Arizona communities and to join old family groups already in residence. Many Yaqui families moved to escape the violence of the 1910-1920 Mexican Revolution.

In 1916, Mexico had a constitutional governor named Adolpho de la Huerta, who was one-quarter Yaqui. He made the first attempts to restore Yaqui land and stop the bloodshed. But, the next president, Alvaro Obregon, changed the policy, and the Yaqui-Mexican wars continued." 

(2) In an interview, added as an extra feature to the French DVD, Les 100 Fusils (Sidonis)
(3) Ciné Revue, N° 18, May 4, 1972. According to the article, Welch had a brief affair with Spanish actor Sancho Gracia (his name is misspelled as Garcia).

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