The Film: Rio Conchos

The Principals: Director: Gordon Douglas. Richard Boone, Jim Brown, Edmond O’Brien, Stuart Whitman, Tony Franciosa

The Premise: A bitter, boozy ex-Confederate named Lassiter (Boone) has both a death wish and a grim desire to rid the frontier of Apaches.   They killed his family, and he wants nothing more than to die butchering them.   By chance, he happens to take a U.S. Army repeating rifle off one of them, which results in his arrest by the U.S. Army.     They offer him freedom in exchange for his scouting skills, and since the job involves hunting Apaches and stolen guns, he’s all right with it.

But in good Western tradition, he’s paired with a group of guys he doesn’t like: an ambitious Army Captain (Whitman), a Buffalo Soldier (Brown), and a smooth-talking Mexican mercenary (Franciosa, because Italians are “Safe Mexicans.”)  As they make their way across the dusty sands, the tensions in the group become strained, and it’s not clear who is working for who, or who might be out for himself.  The arrival of an Apache woman only complicates things further, and their mission takes on an even grimmer turn when they happen on the bloodsoaked trail of their quarry. But are the Apaches really the villains out here beyond the pale?

Is It Good: It’s a slow burn, but yes.  It has the bad luck to be made right on the cusp of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci, and you can’t help but wish it had been delayed a year or two.   It could have cut loose with all manner of blood and violence then.  Instead, it’s stuck playing it relatively safe and traditional, although it has a few twists that make it worth the watch.

Personally, I’d urge  you to watch it just for Richard Boone.   Every actor Back in the Day did Westerns. Three of them — John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and Clint Eastwood, with Randolph Scott bringing up the strays — owned the genre, casting such a large and imposing shadow that a lot of good character actors have been lost in the pop culture shuffle. Boone is one of these.   He ought to be referenced often. Young actors should study him.  He’s fantastic — craggy and tough, but never one note, and always willing to show shades of sensitivity.   There’s a chilling scene where the little company happens on a homestead that was put to fire by Apaches.  They find a woman and child (never shown, the horrified expressions and screams say volumes), and Lassiter quietly tells everyone to wait outside. He does what is humane. And then he collapses, where no one can see, his past hemming on him.

And while I wouldn’t normally praise a film for being racist,  I admire that Boone plays Lassiter as he ought to be played. He’s a proud ex-Confederate. He doesn’t want to work with a black man.  But he eventually develops a grudging respect for him — but dammit, that’s as far as it goes. That ain’t gonna be friends or nothing.

Is It Worth A Look: Well, Justin Gray of DC’s Jonah Hex thought so. He recommended it to me.  So, yes.    As I said, it’s a slow and talky movie, but it has its moments.    And it doesn’t go where you think it will.  The final battle isn’t the “Cavalry and Indians” clash you’re expecting.  It turns out the Apaches are a cat’s paw, and the stolen rifles have found their way into darker and more dangerous hands.  I’ll let you discover it for yourself.   It plays particularly eerie in today’s world of historical grandstanding and misunderstanding.

Random Anecdotes: This is the film debut of Jim Brown, who left football at the height of his prowess to pursue acting.