If I’m honest I had no reason before now to really return to Rio Conchos (1964). It was inspiration for an early piece of work that I’ve made. The unfinished mansion of the confederates who had fled after the surrender at the end of the civil war. I could see the potential in the building, even looking at how it was first framed, from behind the pillars on the porch we have no idea what state the new home is in. The focus of the work has been put into the entrance, emphasising the need to display the power they had once lost back over the border. A need to assert power and stature in a foreign country was clearly essential for Col. Theron Pardee (Edmond O’Brien). This time around I wasn’t so much drawn to the mansion, that drive has been fulfilled, allowing me to focus on what was just a chance to return to a curio of a Western that had faded in the memory.
The memory had become so fragmented that the mansion was really all I remembered. Leaving me to truly rediscover what is really another chance to explore the influence of The Searchers (1956). From the opening scenes I could see clear comparisons between them. We see a number of Apache’s being gunned down just as they are about to pay their respect to the dead they have brought out to cremate. We find James Lassiter (Richard Boone) hiding from view. He enjoys the killing, showing no respect for these Native Americans wanting to say good-bye. If there were more Apache’s he would surely have carried on until he had no more rounds of ammunition. Much like Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) whose stopped by Reverend Clayton (Ward Bond) who can see that this same emotion is all-consuming in the man on a mission of search and destroy.
The very next seen we found Lassiter sleeping in the burnt out homestead when he’s found by Union Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and his men. Not so much for killing the Apache’s, more so the gun he used. This could easily have been an alternate version of The Searchers – Edwards, a Confederate solider who we learn wasn’t present at the surrender. Also he could have been so grief-stricken that he stayed in the also burned out homestead and avoided the 7 year search, which would mean no film. It’s a version of events that’s taken up in Conchos instead, who without a supporting community and family a search was never carried out. Lassiter does however know who killed his family, not that we learn this until the final act of the film.
Brought into face justice at a military outposts that doubles as refuge for families making their way West. Everyone is living in a world if fear, something that Lassiter has experience first-hand, changing his outlook on life. A selfish shell of a man who resents the union for winning the civil war and the Apaches for killing his wife and child. Left to rot with his old friend and partner Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) who I saw as another Mexican stereotype whose allowed to be a little more than the sidekick at times.
Now for the subplot, the rife used by Lassister had previously stolen, before being sold on. Captain Haven want’s to track down these stolen weapons, hoping to use a gunpowder as bait to bring them to the guns. Something he feels he can achieve if he enlist the help of his newest prisoner. An unorthodox method that sees them cross the border. The prisoner sees this as an opportunity to test his luck, bribing them to also release Rodriguez, a ruthless man who will do anything as long as he gets his own way. Waging his own war against the victors of war as he carries out one last campaign.
Made during the early days of the civil rights movement we have Jim Brown’s Sgt. Ben Franklyn a rare Black soldier, depicting progress in the Union army, a victory for the freed slaves and taking note also of Sergeant Rutledge (1960) which had an all black unit of men. Here they’re mixed, reflecting the hope for better integration within the contemporary U.S. army. Here Franklyn, named after one of America’s founding fathers plays a fairly decent sized role for a traditionally white-centric film and role. He’s able to freely express himself to his superior, no fear of reprisal, carrying out orders and most importantly he gains the respect of Lassiter who a few years before fought for his continued life as a slave.
Moving the focus back to Lassiter whose not afraid to make personal sacrifices, he’s on a mission, one that even he doesn’t really know about. We finally begin to see a more human side of him when they’re surrounded by a band of Apaches who surround another burned out house. A house that only holds reminders of a past that he has yet to resolve. When we see him turn from killer to protector. He becomes the other in order to help them get away. Even their captor, a Squaw – Sally (Wende Wagner) who he begins to see more as a woman and human being to protect. She loses the image of Mexican Apache to become someone to be protect. She’s the Debbie of the film, whilst Boones – Ethan Edwards has begun his long journey to redemption and hopes of moving on. He faces one last challenge, to fight his Confederate past when he’s brought to Rio Conchos, the new base for Pardee’s men south of the border. Becoming Confedardo’s. Hoping to rebuild and return for another chance of glory that has rejected them.
The final act is full of emotional and physical pain for everyone left alive. Visually it’s a little hard to make out at times what is going on, shot in day-for-night conditions for the finale as they tied up men who by this point has been dragged by Apache horses. A form of torture ordered by Blondebeard (sounds more like a pirate than a Native American name) Kevin Hagen who we learn killed Lassiter’s wife and child. The Scar of the film is finally revealed and is just as mean as his white opposite who came for him. It’s a dramatic fiery mess that draws to a close what has been not so much boiling over but simmering for a while. Boone plays the sneaky under-hand kind of man, layered with grief and anger, not quite a hero or anti-hero, he just wants what is justice in his eyes and that’s all that matters.
It’s not everyday I see a film where an image that just doesn’t seem to shift, which means just one thing, inspiration has struck once more. I am usually inspired by more well-known films, which is not a rule just coincidence. Taking place in the mystical Monument Valley, with the robbery of Army rifles a group of soldiers and prisoners go on a mission to retrieve them. Sadly the landscape is not so well filmed as John Ford had repeatedly captured it. At times you never know you are there, having only the skyline to remind you. Rio Conchos (1964) is a not just a mission but a journey of self discovery for one lonely man Maj, James Lassiter (Richard Boone) who has been filled with hatred by the Apaches that massacred his family years before.
After army capture he has a chance to get out along with another prisoner Juan Luis Rodriguez (Anthony Franciosa) who was destined for the noose is given another chance to change things. They leave alongside a captain and sergeant. Hoping to catch up with the Confederate colonel that has not conceded defeat after the end of the civil war, going on to sell artillery to the Apaches, a dangerous move that no one wants to really allow.
With hints of The Searchers (1956) Ethan Edwards who has to terms with another family massacre, is repeated here with at first more effect. Yet as the film progresses a different resolution is made, as he meets an Apache girl who would easily commit more murders. Also a visit to another home forces him to see what he thankfully was saved from, leaving only a baby alive.
It’s not very clear that who we are looking for are in fact Confederates until we meet them in them in a surreal camp where stands a mansion house still under construction, which makes the job of the set builders very easy. The idea of the whites world intruding in such a grand form is a sight to see. Whilst at the same time violates this sacred ground if we remove ourselves from the film for a moment or two. There is also intent to progress in an undeveloped part of the world on an aggressive scale. The structure looks very out of place in such an environment that will never really be touched by man. It’s an invasion with intent to make routes like no other. Also an image of the past that the confederates are not willing to give up easy. The big house, away from the plantation that was worked by the slaves. Here they wish to set up a new America with no interference, hoping to control the natives by outfitting them with artillery they control.
A brutal end that brings the film to an abrupt end with no real confusion, full of action that is warranted yet not reacted to in terms of dialogue, no one rides off, they are all left to deal with the consequences of the explosions. Will the Confederates admit defeat, will the captain and sergeant return to the fort. Has Lassister really come to terms with the loss of his family. There was already a rich film before we reached the inclusion of renegade soldiers why did they carry on adding extra weight to the film? It does add another layer and create a what if scenario, seeing them not give into defeat as seen in Hangmans Knot (1952) but slowly admit defeat, whilst later on we see in The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) a rampage of murder is began for personal reasons. The South didn’t give up easy, no loser does that unless they know they are truly wrong.