Rio Conchos (1964)

(1965, Gordon Douglas)

Cast:‭ ‬Stuart Whitman,‭ ‬Richard Boone,‭ ‬Tony Franciosa, ‭ ‬Jim Brown,‭ ‬Wende Wagner,‭ ‬Warner Anderson,‭ ‬Rodolfo Acosta,‭ ‬Edmond O’Brien

Rio Conchos opens with a rather shocking scene of a white man shooting a couple of Indians from a distance in cold blood.‭ ‬What makes the scene even more uncomfortable,‭ ‬is the fact that the victims were burying one of their own.‭

The shooter is Jim Lassiter‭ (‬Richard Boone‭) ‬an ex-Confederate officer who has turned into an Apache killer after ‬the tribe has tortured his wife and children to death.‭ ‬He’s arrested by the U.S.‭ ‬Army because he’s in possession of a rifle that is part of a cache of U.S.‭ ‬Army rifles,‭ ‬stolen by a group of southern renegades,‭ ‬led by a man called Pardee.‭ ‬The renegades are now living south of the border and Pardee has planned to continue his war against the Union by arming the Apaches.‭ ‬Lassiter is offered a chance to regain his freedom if he’s willing to lead an illegal search party into Mexico along with the officer, Captain Haven, who was responsible for the shipment of weapons.‭ Haven is accompanied by his own (‬black) sergeant  and to ‘balance’ the group,‭ ‬Lassiter appoints his own‭ ‘‬sergeant‭’‬,‭ ‬a knife-wielding and womanizing Mexican adventurer called Rodriguez,‭ ‬who was about to be hanged by the Army.

Although Whitman is top-billed (1),‭ ‬the film belongs to Richard Boone.‭ He’s the central character and the other characters take shape in contrast to his obsessed Apache killer.‭ ‬Captain Haven is as persistent as he is, but he’s a more calculating type of person, often a bit hesitant.‭ ‬Rodriguez‭ (‬Tony Franciosa‭) ‬is as vigorous as Lassiter,‭ ‬but while Lassiter is loyal to a friend,‭ ‬Rodriguez is unreliable.‭ ‬The film also marks former football star Jim Brown’s acting debut.‭ ‬He has only a few lines,‭ ‬but his laid-back acting style and monolithic presence are very effective.‭ ‬There’s also a small but pivotal role for Wende Wagner as a woman warrior who understands that the very weapons administered to her people by Pardee,‭ ‬will eventually lead to their downfall.

Rio Conchos was released in 1964 and for a Hollywood western of the mid-sixties, it is surprisingly violent and cynical. It bears some resemblance to a type of war-adventure movies that flourished in this period (2), usually offering a group of morally ambiguous anti-heroes sent on a mission behind enemy lines. The philosophy of these movies often is that no-goods in daily life, make dirty heroes in wartime. But Rio Conchos is set after the war and remains firmly rooted in the western tradition.

There are also some similarities to the‭ ‬1961‭ ‬John Wayne vehicle The Comancheros.‭ ‬Two common factors are Stuart Whitman (‬who appears in both movies)‭ ‬and screenwriter Clair Huffaker (‬who contributed to both scripts).‭ For Rio Conchos Huffaker adapted his own novel (‬called Guns of Rio Conchos‭) to the screen, but only a few minor story elements of the novel made it to the script (3)‬.‭ ‬Another John Wayne western that must have influenced Rio Conchos,‭ ‬is John Ford’s The Searchers.‭ ‬There’s a crucial scene echoing the famous scene in The Searchers,‭ ‬in which Ethan Edwards kills as many buffaloes as possible,‭ ‬so that‭ ‘‬no Indian will have them‭’‬.‭ ‬The corresponding scene in Rio Conchos is far more brutal.‭ ‬When Boone and Brown‭ (‬the black army sergeant‭) ‬are watching an Apache warrior burn to death,‭ ‬a laughing Boone yells:

“‬Let‭ ‘‬m burn‭! ‬Let‭ ‘‬m burn‭!

But Brown releases the man from his sufferings,‭ ‬noticing laconically:

“‬Doin‭’ ‬like they do,‭ ‬don’t make it right‭”

With his sturdy physique and rugged face,‭ ‬Boone was the ideal actor to play a man full of hatred,‭ ‬who may explode any minute.‭ ‬He actually explodes when he’s confronted with the Apache chief Bloodshirt‭ (‬Rodolpho Acosta in a small but essential role‭)‬,‭ ‬who recognizes him as the famous‭ ‘‬murderer of his people‭’‬.‭ ‬In other words:‭ ‬the men are each others counterparts,‭ ‬direct opponents,‭ ‬but not that different.‭ ‬Bloodshirt is the murderer of Boone’s family,‭ ‬Lassiter is the murderer of Bloodshirt’s people.

Apart from Lassiter the most important character in the movie is Pardee,‭ ‬the renegade Confederate officer,‭ ‬an obsessed man,‭ ‬living in an improvised southern mansion,‭ an almost surrealist location, ‬no more than a façade and a couple of supporting walls (4).‭ It seems likely that Pardee was based on the character Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness‭ (‬turned into a Vietnam movie by Francis Ford Coppola as Apocalypse Now‭)‬.‭ ‬Like Kurtz,‭ ‬Pardee only appears in the final stages of the narrative,‭ and when Lassiter is confronted with him,‭ ‬it becomes clear that the journey has been a sort of purification rite:‭ ‬the man who was slowly turning mad,‭ ‬now looks in the face of utter madness.

Rio Conchos isn’t perfect; some of the ethnic stereotypes (notably those of Mexicans) are mere caricatures and the racial and social issues that are raised, are hinted at, but not really analyzed or studied in depth. But it’s a great transitional movie, gritty and exciting, a forerunner of revisionist movies like Soldier Blue, Little Big Man or Ulzana’s Raid, that would treat the historic conflict in terms of racial hatred and genocide.


This is a slightly altered and extended version of an article previously published on Furious Cinema


* (1) On posters Whitman’s name was listed first, but Boone’s name was placed a bit higher. Warner Bros. had introduced the idea on the posters for Key Largo which had Humphrey Bogart’s name more to the left and Edward G. Robinson’s name elevated a little. The idea most probably was that both actors were equally important and therefore ‘shared’ top-billing.
* (2) Most of these war/adventure movies of the dirty kind were made in the second half of the decade, but there were earlier examples, notably The Guns of Navarone
* (3) See: (see also note 2)
* (4) I’m not the only one who saw some surrealist qualities in Pardee’s improvised headquarters; Philip French (one of the first major film critics to notice the special qualities of the movie) writes: (...) through the windows of the Palladian facade one can see the sky - and [the mansion] has the same disturbing qualities as a Margritte. Philip French, Landscape, Violence, Poker, in: Westerns, Aspects of a movie genre, p. 62