John Wayne plays 'Big' Jake Cutter, a seasoned Texas Rangers captain, searching for an army of desperadoes in "Casablanca" director Michael Curtiz's "The Comancheros" (**** OUT OF ****) who are selling rifles, ammunition, and whiskey to Indians that have turned the border into a battlefield. This top-notch frontier fracas co-starred Stuart Whitman and Ian Balin along with a veteran cast of supporting players, including Bruce Cabot, Jack Elam, Michael Ansara, Edgar Buchanan, Henry Daniell, Lee Marvin, Richard Devon, and Nehemiah Persoff. "The Comancheros" turned out to be Curtiz's final film, and the legendary Hungarian helmer, who had been celebrated for his malapropisms, was ill throughout most of the lensing. Nevertheless, Wayne made sure that he received sole directorial credit.If you look carefully, you'll spot at least one Curtiz shot that only he could have envisaged. When Wayne makes his entrance, his shadow is reflected off the wall before we see him walk into the shot. William H. Clothier's sprawling widescreen Cinemascope photography, "Angel and the Badman" scribe James Edward Grant's memorable dialogue, and "Ten Commandants" composer Elmer Bernstein's epic orchestral score all to bolster this exciting action-packed horse opera above the usual run-of-the-mill oater.
The action unfolds 1843 in Louisiana when Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) guns down an opponent in a duel. Regret observes ruefully that had his opponent not moved, he would have only have winged him. Since the dead man was Judge Bouvier's son, one of the dueling referees assures Regret that he will swing from the gallows after he surrenders to the law. Regret clears out of Louisiana and boards a riverboat. A beautiful young woman, Pilar Graile (Ian Balin of "Charro"), pursues Regret. They dance and retire to her bedroom. “What passes between us tonight has nothing to do with love,” Pilar clarifies their status. An incredulous Regret wonders, “You don’t believe there’s such a thing as love?” Pilar cherishes no illusions about love. “I believe this very night all over the world, men and women are saying to each other, “I love you,” when what theyreally mean is, “I desire you.” The riverboat docks in Galveston, and Regret awakens to find himself handcuffed and under arrest. Captain Jake Cutter points out that the state of Louisiana wants to extradite Regret, and they embark on their on-again, off-again journey. They ride across a ranch where hostile Indians have massacred all the occupants. Cutter and Regret bury the family, and Cutter turns his back for a moment on Regret. The gentlemen who wears $300 dollar suit clobbers Cutter with a spade and then hightails it.
Cutter recovers, suffers derision when he shows up at the Rangers' Headquarters riding a mule. He learns Major Henry (Bruce Cabot of "King Kong") has an assignment for him. The Rangers have nabbed a gun runner recently released from Yuma Territorial Prison, McBain (Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams of "Santa Fe Trail'), who has a rendezvous with a member of the Comancheros in the town of Sweetwater. “You want me to take his place, take those guns to Sweetwater and meet the contact men,” Cutter figures out what Henry wants him to do. Cutter goes undercover as McBain and encounters a sinister, uncouth gunman, Tully Crow (Lee Marvin of "Attack"), and transacts a deal for a six crates of repeating rifle. Crow appears as menacing as he acts. Scar tissue covers part of his skull where the Indians scalped him. Crow like doesn't Cutter. Later in the evening, Crow has a falling out with Cutter because the former believes that the latter has cheated him at poker. One of the participants is Paul Regret, but Regret keeps his mouth shut about Cutter's real occupation. When Cutter tries to leave the table, Crow pulls his six-gun, and Cutter shoots him stone dead. No sooner has Cutter gunned down Crow than he re-arrests Regret.
In the last ten minutes of "The Comancheros," when everything looks bleak for our heroes, Major Henry and his troop of Texas Rangers thunder to the rescue and scatter the few remaining Indians. "The Comancheros" ranks as one of John Wayne's best westerns with an inspired Elmer Bernstein score that captures the outdoors majesty of the mountainous scenery. Wayne's running gag where he refers to Regret as 'Mon-soor' is hilarious. There is more than enough gunplay for dyed-in-the-leather western fans. Action director Cliff Lyons stages several vast battles between men on horseback. "The Comancheros" qualifies as one of Wayne's best straightforward western as well as a must-see John Wayne aficionados.