By Linc Leifeste | July 28, 2014
Director: Ralph Nelson
Writer: Marvin H. Albert, Michel M. Grilikhes
Starring: James Garner, Sidney Poitier, Bibi Andersson, Dennis Weaver, Bill Travers, John Hoyt
This classic 1966 Western gets off to a visually compelling start, displaying a United Artists Release logo momentarily before a bloody Bowie knife suddenly slashes through the logo from behind, cutting a large “x” through the logo. And then there’s the jaunty 60’s soundtrack by Neal Hefti, who was also responsible for the memorable music on the Batman TV series of the same period. It’s edgy, it’s action-packed, it’s hip and it swings! And it’s directed by the talented Ralph Nelson with a cast that includes James Garner and Sidney Poitier! Seriously, how can you go wrong with Duel at Diablo? The answer is, simply, that you can’t and thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics it’s now available on Blu-ray. But at the same time I have to reluctantly say that the whole is not quite as great as the parts.
The film opens with ex-Army scout Jess Remsberg (James Garner) crossing the desert when he discovers a lone rider being pursued by several Apaches. He attacks the Apaches and rescues the lone rider, Ellen Grange (Bibi Andersson), who he returns her to her community and husband, only to discover that her husband is more upset about his horse not making it back than he is overjoyed at the return of his wife. It turns out that Ellen was abducted by the Apaches several years before and rescued only to steal her husband’s horse and willingly return to the Apaches a second time.
In the meantime, Remsberg encounters old Army pal Lt. Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers), who is about to set out with a group of poorly trained troops to travel to Fort Concho. McAllister has the unfortunate task of handing Remsberg the scalp of his recently murdered Native American wife. He lets Remsberg know that the marshall at Fort Concho is the man that provided him with the scalp. So, of course, Remsberg decides to comes along for the trip to Concho, with revenge on his mind. Also roped in against his will for the trip is ex-Army-soldier/gambler/horse-breaker/gun-hand/dandy Toller (Sidney Poitier), who has just sold the Army a bunch of semi-broken horses. When he’s told that the Army will only pay him for the horses that are fully broken, he agrees to accompany the troops to Fort Concho, breaking horses as he goes along in an effort to increase his payday. And also riding along is Ellen’s husband (Willard Grange), who has his own reasons for traveling to Fort Concho and prefers to make the trip with a well armed escort.
Before the troops head out, Ellen Grange runs off to the Apaches yet again, in search of the child she bore while in captivity. Remsberg, scouting ahead, runs across Ellen being abused by Apache chief Chata (John Hoyt), who blames Ellen for the death of his son (the father of her baby) and again rescues her (and her child). Soon the three of them join the wagon train to Concho, which in no time is being attacked by Chata and his soldiers. Eventually, McAllister and company find themselves trapped in a gorge called Diablo, where they have to make a stand and try to survive the Apache onslaught long enough for Remsberg to make it to Concho and bring back reinforcements. Of course once Remsberg makes it to Concho he also has personal business to take care of, paying a visit to the Marshal to find out how he obtained the scalp of his wife.
If all of this sounds complicated, it’s because it is. But director Nelson is an old hand and does an admirable job of keeping the narrative flow crisp and straightforward, despite the ambitious and complex nature of the script. Also admirable is the way Duel at Diablo progressively deals with issues of race, identity and prejudice, recurring themes in Nelson’s filmmaking. In 1966 it wasn’t common for black actors to have leading roles in Westerns (not that this film deals with race from the black-white perspective) nor was it common to have a white lead character with a Native American wife or a white female character who had birthed a child with a Native American and was choosing to return to the Native Americans over staying with her white husband and community (who had shunned her as a ruined woman). The film admirably expresses sympathy for the Apaches, at least broadcasting consideration for the viewpoint of those who had repeatedly been lied to and taken advantage of by the American government while being pushed off their land.
While nothing compared to what viewers are used to in modern film, Duel contains a surprising level of violence and was evidently somewhat controversial in its day for that reason. But while the film was progressive in a number of ways, it’s also hampered by being a product of it’s time. While the concepts it deals with in regards to Ellen Granger’s relationship to the Apaches and her white husband and community are intriguing, they’re not fully delved into the way they would be in a modern film, more hinted at and neatly danced around than fully dealt with head-on. As well, actors Garner and Weaver are cast against type, and it’s debatable how successful that move is. And as enjoyable as Neal Hefti’s score is, the jaunty, upbeat, swinging 60’s-soundtrack at times clashes with the dark, violent, somber tone of much of the film. And while there are some gorgeous location shots and one tracking shot that made my jaw drop, too often the film’s mixed success with large-scale action sequences and panoramic outdoor shots left me with the feeling that this was a case of a talented filmmaker trying his hand at an obligatory (though admittedly higher minded) Western, in the process repeatedly putting me in mind of just how challenging of an endeavor making a Western must be.