Friday, January 8, 2016

Hail and Happy 81st Birthday to the King :: A Different Kind of Role Nets the Same Old Mediocrity for the Big E in Charles Marquis Warren's Charro! (1969)

Apparently, charro is Spanish for cowboy; and so we open with a very specific charro emerging from the desert, entering a fly-speck village along the Mexican border, then settling down the nervous townsfolk, assuring that despite his ruffian exterior he means them no harm. When the well-armed traveler enters the cantina, he asks the bartender if anyone has been looking for Jess Wade, specifically a lady named Tracey Winters, who had sent him a message to meet there. The bartender pleads ignorance and, as it turns out, this has all been an elaborate ruse to lure Wade (Presley) into a trap, set by his ex-partner, Vince Hackett (French). 

Seems Wade used to run with the outlaw Hackett and his gang of ex-Confederates. But Wade turned his back on Hackett, trying (but ultimately failing) at prospecting in an attempt to go straight and start a life of legitimacy with saloon owner, Tracey, who also just happens to be the ex-lover of Hackett, who thinks Wade stole her away from him. Thus and so, Hackett has now established a bizarre and unnecessarily complicated – nearly byzantine, revenge scheme against Wade, which begins with him and his gang stealing a Mexican museum piece, a cannon that fired the last shot to dethrone Maximilian, now bedazzled with gold and silver, and ends with a whisper campaign implicating Wade as the mastermind of the theft, netting him a huge price on his head on both sides of the border, that also necessitates capturing Wade and mutilating his neck to match the description of a man shot during the robbery. Like I said, way, way, way, way, WAY too unnecessarily complicated of a set-up for the payoff we’re destined to get. Alas!

Anyhoo, now branded and on the run, Wade runs to the only friend he has left, Sheriff Ramsey (Almanzar), with a hope he doesn’t believe all those circulated wanted posters. Luckily for Wade, Ramsey knows Hackett all too well and believes his tale of a frame-up. Ramsey also happens to be sheriff of the town where Tracey’s saloon is located and he fears she will be a harder sell. On this he proves clairvoyant, as Tracey (Balin), feeling betrayed, has a hard time ignoring all the circumstantial evidence against Wade.

And then things get even more complicated when Hackett’s brother, Billy Roy (Sturges), whoops his way into town and bumps into Wade in the saloon. Their stand-off is interrupted by Ramsey, who is badly wounded when the lead starts flying. But before he allows the town sawbones to operate on him, he swears in Wade as his new deputy and charges him to hold Billy Roy in the jail until he recovers. Unfortunately for the both of them, the elder Hackett soon comes to town looking for his brother – and he’s got a stolen cannon and a few ex-artillery men lurking in the hills nearby with orders to reduce the town to rubble unless Billy Roy is released...

As his film career waned, picking up velocity as it went until it eventually cratered, Elvis Presley was essentially reduced to being plugged into vehicles intended for someone else. The Trouble with Girls (1969) was written for Dick Van Dyke, and Charro! (1968) was meant for Clint Eastwood to cash-in on his new Spaghetti Western notoriety. A writer of westerns and pulp fiction in the 1940s and ‘50s, Charles Warren also dabbled in screenplays for motion pictures. But Warren is probably best known for creating several sagebrush classics for the small screen, including Gunsmoke, The Virginian, and Rawhide, which gave him an in with Eastwood when he pitched the idea for Come Hell or Come Sundown, based on a short story by Frederic Louis Fox, which was nothing more than Hang ‘Em High (1968), Rio Bravo (1959) and Navajo Joe (1966) put in a blender with some sour milk and rotten eggs and then pureed.

But Eastwood took a pass, opening the door for Presley, who was extremely interested in making the film because it would be his first solely dramatic and non-musical role, with adult themes, protracted violence, and a ton of skin. But when he showed up for the first day of shooting, he found out the script he'd been sold on had been sanitized and white-washed to the degree that he no longer recognized it – and if you smell Colonel Tom Parker’s hand in that, you’d be right. The film was part of a deal that Parker had struck with National General Productions, who wanted to reach the largest audience they could get, meaning a G-Rating. Extremely frustrated over this, Presley was contractually obligated to do the film, and so, do the film he did.

Surrounded by many familiar TV faces, because that is all they could afford, there have long been rumors that the nudity and more violent scenes in the original script were shot but were later left on the editing room floor. Yeah, the film comes off as really cheap and, despite the width of Panavision, just feels like a by the numbers episode of one of Warren’s TV oaters – and not a very exciting one at that. Presley’s salary ate over half the film’s budget, which probably didn’t help things. He was also guaranteed 50% of the film’s profits, which means the less money spent at the beginning equaled more profits at the end; typical Parker chicanery that plagued his cash-cow’s later film career. Again, Presley only sings the title theme song, but it doesn’t take too sharp an ear to hear the melody of “Memories” creeping in as the love theme of Charro!, a more family friendly title, right? Right.

Over the years I had heard terrible things about Charro!. I’d also read a few rebuttals, saying the film wasn’t as bad as we’d all heard. Yet another near miss to lump onto the wasted potential pile. And as I sat down to watch it, well, while it’s not all that good it wasn’t all that terrible either. A little too methodical, and a little too meh, I was ready to let it ride off into the sunset relatively unscathed. And then, we reached the climax. And then, oh, dear gawd that was awful. So, so, awful. And kinda hilarious in its boneheaded-ness and the 'lets just get this over with' execution.

See, when Hackett makes his threat, despite all the townspeople begging him to just let Billy Roy go, Wade is beseeched by Ramsey to uphold the law. And so, and I’m not really sure if this would work, instead of cannonballs, Hackett’s men use the cannon to shoot lit bundles of dynamite into the town. (I mean, wouldn't that just explode in the barrel when the percussion charge went off?) And as the people all stand around in the middle of the street, slack-jawed and agape, the town kinda erupts around them, with one of the missiles taking out Ramsey’s house, killing him, sending his wife, Sara (Werle), into a tizzy, who blames Wade and reveals those wanted posters, which her husband had kept hidden, pegging Wade (falsely) as one of Hackett’s accomplices. Thus, with the town in rebellion, and in the process of exploding, and knowing Hackett will murder everyone whether he lets his brother go or not, Wade makes his move, which makes no sense, leading to a final showdown that finds Billy Roy, somehow, getting run over and killed by the errant cannon and Hackett meekly surrendering thereafter, as if someone had thrown an off switch, making one believe all those rumors that Charro! was sorely sought after for an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 because it really and truly is that stupid.

However, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. As bad as this is, and as stupid as it got, none of this is Presley’s fault. No, the sole blame for this fiasco falls on Warren, who produced, directed and wrote this … thing. The lackluster staging, a static camera, and the dull, perfunctory editing equal no tension or excitement in the film. (The haplessly indeterminate scene where Hackett’s goons lure and take out the troop of Federales at the river is Exhibit A in The People vs. Charro!) And unlike some directors, Warren wasn’t able to coax a whole lot out of his star in spite of the shoddy material, who only seemed occupied in making sure his hat stayed on straight because there wasn't a whole lot else to do.

Presley only had one more (non-concert) film after this, Change of Habit (1969), which, unlike Charro!, isn’t nearly as bad as it’s dubious reputation. Luckily for the star, Parker had also landed him a deal at NBC, which netted him a TV special that shot the month before Charro! went into production -- a production where Steve Binder ran circles around the ever-meddling Parker, turning a holiday special into a career-redefining tour de force. And while Charro! really isn’t worth the time or effort, The ’68 Comeback Special definitely is, was, and ever shall be. 

Other Points of Interest:

Charro! (1969) National General Pictures / EP: Harry Caplan / P: Charles Marquis Warren / AP: George Templeton / D: Charles Marquis Warren / W: Charles Marquis Warren, Frederick Louis Fox / C: Ellsworth Fredericks / E: Al Clark / M: Hugo Montenegro / S: Elvis Presley, Ina Balin, Victor French, Solomon Sturges, James Almanzar, Barbara Werle, James Sikking


Dr. Freex said...

I remember seeing trailers for this and thinking, at the tender age of 12, "Man, this looks like crap." Keep in mind the movie I was probably watching at the time was The Green Slime.

W.B. Kelso said...

It really and truly feels like a last season episode of GUNSMOKE, when they tried to ape something the writer saw on the big screen, with The Big E subbing in for Ken Kurtis on a Festus misadventure. All that was missing was Marshall Dillon riding in at the end to save his hash. Again.

Dr. Freex said...

"DAWgonnit, Matthew!"

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