The Riders of the Whistling Skull (1937) Review

Director: Mack V. Wright

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Western

Runtime: 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1937 b-movie The Riders of the Whistling Skull is an early cinematic entry into the “Weird West” subgenre. That phrase refers to western genre media with fantasy/supernatural, horror, or science-fiction elements. This flick is about three cowboys – Stony Brooke (Robert Livingston), Tucson Smith (Ray Corrigan), and Lullaby Joslin (Max Terhune) – who go on a quest to find a lost city out West that’s been overrun by Native American cultists. Oh, yeah, they also bring a ventriloquist dummy with them.

This is a very low-budget affair, but that’s part of its charm. The Riders of the Whistling Skull is cheaply-made, yet it manages to keep the audience’s attention. It’s the fourth entry into the The Three Mesquiteers series, a franchise of Poverty Row westerns that featured a trio of Wild West gunslingers. John Wayne actually appeared as the Stony Brooke character in several of the pictures in the prolific series, but this isn’t one of them.

The action sequences here are fair-enough, but nothing that special, as the heroes battle against a small army of Native American cultists. Speaking of indigenous peoples, the movie’s depiction of them is somewhat racist, but what do you expect from a micro-budget 1930s b-western? If you’ve come here looking for an enlightened look at racial minorities in such a picture, then you’re barking up the wrong tree.

As of right now, Wikipedia and IMDb refer to this feature as “Riders of the Whistling Skull,” without the “The” at the beginning of the title (I’m pretty sure that I saw a “The” at the beginning of the title during the movie’s opening credits sequence). Anyway, this is a pretty solid action-adventure film all things considered. It’s less than an hour in length, so it’s a painless viewing. This western is good, corny fun with a unique plot

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Winchester ’73 (1950) Review

Director: Anthony Mann

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 92 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Winchester ’73 is a fabulous fusion of the psychological western and the action-adventure-western, combining the brains of the former and the brawn of the latter. This movie helped reinvent actor James Stewart’s career, allowing Hollywood’s iconic Mr. Nice Guy to be cast in somewhat tougher roles. The plot here is about cowboy Lin McAdam (James Stewart) hunting down a Winchester rifle across the Wild West that was stolen from him after he won it in a sharp-sho0ting competition.

Action-packed by the standards of its original release, this western packs a surprising amount of content into its ninety-two-minute runtime. From the contest for the titular rifle at the beginning to the bullet-ricocheting finale, this is a constantly engaging movie. James Stewart is violently obsessed with tracking down his gun, which is a notable departure from the sort of roles he enjoyed before 1950.

This firearm-filled film even has some slight war picture elements, thanks to a battle that erupts between American government troops and some Native Americans. The depiction of said Native Americans is a mixed bag for sure. On one hand, the leader of the indigenous rebels, Young Bull, is played by, uh, Rock Hudson. On the other, he does get a brief opportunity to mention the atrocities committed against his people by the White man, but it’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.

This acclaimed western movie is a treat for fans of the genre. It makes a few references to the famous events and people of the Wild West era while also creating its own legends. Jimmy Stewart plays a very slightly darker character than usual, but the psychological aspects of the picture never get in the way of the rousing action. Winchester ’73 is a flick worth cherishing.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Duck, You Sucker (1971) Review

Director: Sergio Leone

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 157 minutes, 120 minutes (initial American version)

MPAA Rating: PG (initial American version), R (longer cut)

IMDb Page

The final western that legendary director Sergio Leone helmed was the sprawling, war-themed epic Duck, You Sucker, originally titled “GiĆ¹ la Testa” in Italian and also sometimes known as “A Fistful of Dynamite” in English. The plot is about a Mexican bandit named Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger) and an Irish revolutionary named John H. Mallory (James Coburn) teaming up to rob the Mesa Verde bank, but ending up involved neck-deep in the Mexican Revolution. This one’s a real genre-buster, combining elements of action-adventure, comedy, drama, war, and western, with some hetero “bromance” thrown into the mix.

When it comes to directing, Sergio Leone really knows what he’s doing, so every frame of the film is electric. Frequent Leone collaborator Ennio Morricone provides the brilliant musical score, and it’s the best work of music I’ve ever heard from him (and that’s saying something!). The cinematography is top-shelf and the performances (especially those from Rod Steiger and James Coburn) are nothing short of fantastic.

The biggest downside to the masterpiece Duck, You Sucker is how muddled its thesis is (well, that and its unfortunate misogyny). The movie’s take on the nature of revolutions is frustratingly incoherent, as it veers from showing savage atrocities by Mexican government forces and displaying their malevolence to the poor of Mexico to being an “anti-Zapata western,” where politically-motivated violence by the rebellious factions is essentially condemned (think of the song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who). I don’t even know what this motion picture is trying to say…and it’s desperately trying to say something.

Okay, this work doesn’t make a lot of sense on the political side, but just about everything else is magnificent. The humor is quirky and delightfully broad, and the drama is heartrending. On the action front, this feature boasts some truly massive explosions and an apocalyptic body count. It’s a tragicomic war-western that commands the audience’s attention and gets beneath their skin.

My rating is 10 outta 10.

The Texican (1966) Review

Director: Lesley Selander

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

Audie Murphy does a Euro-Western? Whaaaaa?!? Technically, it’s not a “spaghetti western,” as Italy apparently wasn’t involved in its production (IMDb says it was a co-production between Spain and the United States), but it sure looks and sounds like one. Filmed in Spain, this western is about gunslinger Jess Carlin (American World War II war hero Audie Murphy) seeking revenge on town boss Luke Starr (Broderick Crawford), who’s responsible for the murder of his newspaperman brother, Roy Carlin (Victor Vilanova).

The Texican definitely feels like a “spaghetti western,” or Italian-made western, thanks to its distinctive sound effects, Ennio Morricone-wannabe musical score (from Nico Fidenco), and the obvious dubbing done for some of the non-English-speaking cast. It’s a bit strange seeing Audie Murphy in such a movie, but I suppose that that’s part of the novelty. Being one of the last films that Murphy made, it appears that he was trying to jump on the Clint Eastwood Train by invigorating his career with a Euro-Western.

This picture has a reasonably tight story, which helps it enormously. Action comes along fairly frequently, which is another plus. The low budget doesn’t really hinder the production much, only adding to the sense of atmosphere (those lonely, remote way-stations are characters of their own). Murphy is pretty much his typical white-knight hero, while Broderick Crawford makes a satisfactory villain.

As far as obscure action-westerns go, this one is pretty darn good. The plot’s easy to follow and it’s fun seeing Murphy out for vengeance. It’s not exactly high art, but not every motion picture has to be Citizen Kane (1941). Sometimes you just want to watch one of the greatest heroes of the Second World War play cowboy and beat up people in scenes where punches sound like gunshots.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Seven Angry Men (1955) Review

Director: Charles Marquis Warren

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1955 biopic Seven Angry Men was actually the second time that actor Raymond Massey played John Brown on the big screen. The first film was the pro-slavery propaganda piece Santa Fe Trail (1940), where Brown was the villain. Anyway, this historical drama details the life of that famed American abolitionist, as he battles against pro-slavery forces in Kansas and what-is-now West Virginia in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s a very nifty movie that does justice to the legendary figure at its center.

People who have studied the life of John Brown, one of my heroes, will recognize various incidents in the picture inspired by real-life events. Yes, some of these highlights of Brown’s life – like the Sacking of Lawrence and the Battle of Osawatomie – are exaggerated to make them more cinematic, but the flick often sticks surprisingly close to the facts. A few major events are omitted from the feature, like the Battle of Black Jack and the raid into Missouri to rescue several slaves.

This is a morally complex film that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions about extralegal violence. Raymond Massey gives a dynamite performance as the central character, although it may be too much to keep track of all of his grown sons, considering how little fleshing-out some of them are given (they make up the other six angry men of the title). The action scenes that show up are serviceable, but not above and beyond the call of duty.

Seven Angry Men is an excellent look back at the history of militant abolitionism in the years prior to the breakout of the American Civil War. However, it should be noted that an unnecessary romantic subplot occasionally brings the movie to a standstill. This, right here, is the proper John Brown motion picture to view, not that Santa Fe Trail stuff. If you enjoy this work, I’d recommend reading the book John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds as a companion piece.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Breakheart Pass (1975) Review

Director: Tom Gries

Genre(s): Adventure, Mystery, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

It may just be me, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood cranks out too many mystery-western movies. If that’s a genre combo that you’ve been looking for a film from, Breakheart Pass is worth looking into. Set, of course, in the Wild West, outlaw Deakin (Charles Bronson) finds himself on a train full of medical supplies headed for a diseased military outpost. To complicate matters, people are constantly disappearing or winding up dead on the locomotive.

Written by Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novels that pictures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) were based off of, this flick has a solid mystery at its center that never gets too confusing. It’s not too complicated or convoluted, but it is appropriately satisfying. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Charles Bronson in the middle of a murder mystery on a train in the Old West?

Famous stuntman and action choreographer Yakima Canutt served as the second unit director for the movie, handling the set-pieces (it was the last time he would have such a position on a film). I can’t say that it’s his best work, but there is a mighty fist fight atop a moving train car that’s a bit hair-raising. It appears to be death-defying. Sure, the ending gets a little on the silly side, but Breakheart Pass works just as well on the adventure side as it does on the mystery front.

I think that this movie, while not top-of-the-line, is a success. Train aficionados will probably like it, thanks to most of it being set on a locomotive or the immediate exterior of one. Two of Charles Bronson’s notable co-stars here are his real-life wife Jill Ireland (as Marica) and Ed Lauter (playing Claremont), who Bronson would later team up with in the accidental masterpiece Death Wish 3 (1985).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Comancheros (1961) Review

Directors: Michael Curtiz and John Wayne

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The last motion picture directed by Hollywood icon Michael Curtiz (who helmed such classics as Casablanca [1942]) was the John Wayne western The Comancheros. Curtiz was dying during the filming of the movie, and Wayne often stepped in to direct for him. The story of the film concerns Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne), who has to take down a society of outlaws selling firearms to hostile Native Americans. The Duke really piles up the corpses in this one.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is fabulous, even if it sounds a bit too similar to the one he wrote for The Magnificent Seven (1960) the previous year. The action scenes are very good, with tons of people falling off of horses. They certainly didn’t skimp on the body count here. There’s also some interesting worldbuilding for a western flick, with the bad guys – known as “the Comancheros” – basically being a civilization unto themselves.

What holds back The Comancheros from greatness is mostly its meandering plot. John Wayne working to take down gunrunners takes up only a fraction of the picture’s runtime. Much screentime is devoted to the Duke’s dealings with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a fugitive that he’s slowly befriending, and some time is dedicated to widow Melinda Marshall (Joan O’Brien) who Wayne might be fancying. The film also falls back on the racist trope of there being “tame” Native Americans (those who voluntarily give up their land) and “wild” ones (those who don’t).

Action and music are the strong suits of this movie, while its shortcomings largely have to do with its unfocused nature. That being said, I’m sure fans of John Wayne will find plenty to like here. I just wish that the screenplay had been streamlined a bit and that a couple of slow spots had been patched over. Still, you could do a lot worse.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Mercenary (1968) Review

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, War, Western

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Man, was director Sergio Corbucci on a roll with those “spaghetti westerns” (Italian-made westerns) between the mid-1960s and early-1970s or what? One of the better known of his flicks from this time period is The Mercenary, also sometimes called “A Professional Gun.” Set during the Mexican Revolution, a Polish gun-for-hire named Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero) finds himself at the service of Paco Roman (Tony Musante), a Mexican bandit who’s an aspiring revolutionary. Many people will be blown away and many genres will be blended along the way.

The remarkable musical score from Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is one of the first things the audience notices about the movie, and it leaves a major impression. Jack Palance shows up as “Curly,” the picture’s chilling villain. He’s a quietly sinister threat and Palance’s job holds up as one of the best bad guy performances of the 1960s. The action scenes are frequent and frenetic, with plenty of machine gun mayhem. The standout here is probably the highly stylish showdown in the empty bullfighting arena.

The biggest problem with The Mercenary is that it’s pretty episodic at times. The characters played by Franco Nero and Tony Musante are constantly fussin’ and fightin’ as they move from town to town, with Jack Palance’s “Curly” hot on their trail. A stronger central plot might be necessary. It’s interesting to note that this movie has some moral ambiguity for being a “Zapata western” (a politically-conscious western typically set during a time of revolution or rebellion in Mexico), with neither of the leads exactly being terrific role models.

With its effortless tough guy swagger and effective premise, The Mercenary is a must-watch for spaghetti western fans. Its plot may ramble a bit, but it’s fast-paced enough for this to not be a serious concern. For a winning mixture of action-adventure, spaghetti western, war film, and even comedy, check this one out!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Django (1966) Review

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

1966’s Django just might be the most famous “spaghetti western” (Italian-made western) that wasn’t directed by Sergio Leone. A mysterious, coffin-dragging gunslinger named Django (Franco Nero) finds himself in the middle of a range war between Mexican revolutionaries and ex-Confederate, Ku Klux Klan-style renegades. It may live in the shadows of the works by the aforementioned Leone, but this flick has a personality of its own.

One of the first things one is probably going to notice about this movie is just how action-packed it is. Guns are going off almost constantly and the body count just keeps rising. Keep in mind that this is a pulpy and over-the-top film that has no time for realism. The violence was considered extreme for its time, and still has a jarring moment or two.

Franco Nero’s cool-as-a-cucumber titular character is obviously based on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I figure he’s just different enough to avoid claims of blatant plagiarism. This feature is rawer and looser than Leone’s pictures, so don’t expect something quite as tight or elegant as those movies. One of the best parts of Django is its theme song, sung by Rocky Roberts. Some may find it lacking in subtlety, but, hey, that certainly fits the film.

Overall, Django is a pretty undemanding piece of shoot-’em-up filmmaking. It verges on the schlocky, but this muddy and bloody classic revels in its carnage in a way that’s hard not to admire. The action’s mostly exemplary, so this makes up for any problems that the rest of the flick may have. It’s worth noting that over thirty movies have used the Django character since introduced here.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) Review

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven can’t top the 1960 original, but it doesn’t go down without one Hell of a fight. In this action-packed western, seven gunmen are hired to help protect a small mining town from robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue’s (Peter Sarsgaard) private army. What this film lacks in originality, it makes up for with fireworks.

2016’s The Magnificent Seven is set domestically in the United States, so it largely lacks the internationalist, Wilsonian edge of the 1960 flick. Still, the seven gunslingers are a diverse bunch, so one could argue that it’s still about people of different backgrounds coming together to fight tyranny. One of the main characters has an unnecessary motivation for his actions (that I won’t spoil here) that sort of ruins the angle that the heroes are doing this from the purity of their hearts, though.

If all you want is Wild West action, this feature delivers that by the wagonload. The final shootout (more of an all-out battle) is a lengthy affair, going through several different stages. This film’s body count is nothing short of ludicrous. In comparison to the 1960 original, there’s a lot more shoot-’em-up, but, in terms of quality, they’re roughly on par with one another.

So, I just prefer The Magnificent Seven (1960), but I can put aside my love of that picture to say that this one is still worth a ride or two (or three). The 1960 film has a more impressive cast and a more riveting musical score by Elmer Bernstein (the 2016 version’s score, by Simon Franglen and James Horner, is downright restrained in comparison). Yeah, it’s hard to beat a classic, but this movie is still worth watching…especially for action-adventure fanatics.

My rating is 8 outta 10.