Barquero (1970)

(Dir: Gordon Douglas - Cast: Lee van Cleef, Warren Oates, Forrest Tucker, Mariette Hartley, Kerwin Matthews, Maria Gomez)

First of all: despite the presence of the legendry Van Cleef, Barquero is not a spaghetti western. It's a full-blood American western, shot in Colorado, directed by a Hollywood veteran, Gordon Douglas, who had made several action packed westerns in the previous years, such as Rio Conchos (1964) and Chuka (1967). But the level of violence and the presentation of its protagonist as a taciturn cynic surely bespeaks some influence of the Italian western. And so does the location, near the Mexican-American border. As one critic once put it, the Italian western had pushed the Hollywood western further south, and made the western hero more cynical, and less verbose.

Bandit leader Jack Remy (Oates) and his gang of cutthroats want to cross the Rio Grande as soon as possible after they have pillaged a town and massacred the entire population. Van Cleef, referred to as "barquero" (Spanish for boat man) has built a barge to connect both river banks, and is captured by three members of the gang, sent ahead by Remy. But he is saved by a friend, Mountain Phil (Tucker), who has heard about Remy's exploits. They understand that Remy and his men will burn the barge and massacre the inhabitants of the young town, so they bring both to the other side of the river. Since Remy needs the barge to bring a wagon load of silver to the other side, a psychological battle begins, with Van Cleef and the townspeople on one side, and Oates and his gang on the other.

Author Philip French called this film the most "Italianate" of the American productions made in the wake of the spaghetti westerns. Oates' pot-smoking villain is reminiscent of Gian Maria Volonté's El Indio from For a Few Dollars More, and Van Cleef's laconic barquero (he only reluctantly defends the townspeople, seems to love his boat more than them) is far removed from the traditional Hollywood conception of a western hero. With the priest being portrayed as the most irritating (and selfish) of the townspeople, even some of the typical anti-clerical feelings of the Italian western seem to shine through. But it's obvious that The Wild Bunch was a major influence too; Oates not only was one of the bunch, but with a bloodbath early on in the movie, a more subdued mid-section, and a particularly violent conclusion, the movie's structure is also very similar to Peckinpah's masterpiece.

Overall Barquero is a nice blend of Italian and American influences, well-acted, well-shot, a bit sluggish in spots, but never boring. However Douglas is neither a Leone nor a Peckinpah. Both large-scale action scenes are ferociously violent, and show some nice directional touches (Oates and Mathews having a relaxed conversation inside while outside the massacre goes on), but they lack some fluency, as well as the sense of immediacy Peckinpah created. But his limitations as a director become most apparent in the rather protracted mid-section, with most of the action (or the lack of it) confined to one spot on the Rio Grande. Douglas tries to spice things up by giving Oates a background story, but it all feels a little forced, and the film only picks up in the last twenty minutes, with an Oates losing both his patience and his senses, and a totally original grand finale, played out more or less (I'm not joking) as a naval battle.

Warren Oates

Most probably Barquero was supposed to do for Van Cleef what Hang ‘m High had done for Eastwood: launch him as a star back home after a successful trip to Italy. But critical reception was lukewarm and it wasn't a hit at the box-office. Unlike Eastwood, Van Cleef only became a real star (and eventually a legend) in the course of the years, with the revaluation of the spaghetti western genre. He turns in a very decent performance in Barquero, but his taciturn characters suffers a little from the rather static choreography, both Oates and Tucker have more headroom as, respectively, the hallucinating maniac and the lively, ant-eating mountain man. There are two female roles too, for Maria Gomez and Mariette Hartley, and especially Hartley's character is interesting (if not particularly uplifting). She's one of townspeople and even though he has the lusty Gomez to sleep with, Van Cleef dreams of having a night with her. Hartley has noticed his attentions, and offers him her charms in exchange for his help (and boat) when her husband is captured by Remy. Van Cleef sees through her plans and rejects her, but then she becomes aware of the fact that she is attracted to him too. In accordance with some popular ideas about repressed sexuality of the civilized ‘lady', macho man Van Cleef is the proverbial brute who trails her into the woods by her hair. And yes, he takes her into the woods, and then rips off her clothes. A real man, good old Lee. Harley was cast alongside him again in The Magnificent seven Ride!

Sadly overlooked when first released, this film deserves to be rediscovered. It's not one of the great westerns, but it has an exceptional cast in fine form and two furious large-scale action scenes. The recently released British R2 release has fine image and sound quality, and presents the film in the correct aspect ratio of 1,85:1. Do yourself a favor and see it.

Marriete Hartley

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