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Saturday, 11 April 2009

Duel at Diablo (1966)

Director: Ralph Nelson
Stars: James Garner, Sidney Poitier, Bibi Andersson, Dennis Weaver and Bill Travers

Filmed in the bleak but picturesque deserts of southern Utah and based on a novel, Apache Rising by Marvin H Albert, this quickly makes its mark as a rather interesting and different western that makes us pay plenty of attention. For a start it opens with a very believable gunfight in open country, and how many of those has Hollywood ever given us? It introduces us to a former army scout called Jess Remsberg, who fights a couple of Indians to rescue a blonde haired and blue eyed girl by the name of Ellen Grange. However, beyond the believability of the scene, it's hardly what you'd expect in almost any way. Played by James Garner midway through the decade and a half gap between finishing up on Maverick and beginning The Rockford Files, Remsberg fights the Apaches through necessity, but it doesn't take us long to discover that he was married to a Comanche who was apparently scalped by a thug for hire marshal.

Grange is even more of an anomaly. Married to a rich ammunition dealer played by a young Dennis Weaver, she was apparently kidnapped by Apaches, rescued and brought back to her husband unconscious by soldiers after a raid on the Indian camp, only to run away to get back to her kidnappers. Remsberg brings her back again, but she's anathema to the townsfolk and promptly tries to escape again by stealing a horse. This prompts Remsberg to save her yet again, this time from rape at the hands of the owners of the horse she was caught stealing. So back she goes yet again to Mr Grange, only to escape for real during the night, because during her time with the Apaches she fathered a son with the son of the chief.

Talk about providing some rare depth for a female character in an American western, a genre not known for its opportunities for women! For every Johnny Guitar there were a thousand and one films that had no use for women beyond the odd prostitute here and there. And to fill the boots of Ellen Grange here, director Ralph Nelson hired Swedish legend Bibi Andersson, during a highly interesting time in her career. She made five films in 1966: this one and a Soviet movie among three Swedish films: one for Alf Sjöberg, Persona for Ingmar Bergman and a Vilgot Sjöman film about incest, made right before I am Curious: Yellow.

The official plot has the army transporting a couple of ammunition wagons owned by Ellen's husband Willard Grange from Fort Creel to Fort Concho, army forts close to the Mexican border thus making this a dangerous trip at the best of times. However now the task has been made more difficult through the presence of a renegade Indian chief called Chata, determined to die an Apache rather than a tame reservation Indian. Chata has fifty warriors to his command; Lt Scotty McAllister, in charge of the Army train, has half as many men and they're generally rookies on horses that aren't all saddlebroken yet.

This plot is really just a framework, partly because it ends about as quickly as it begins, but partly because it's really there just to hang a bunch of characterisations on: not just Ellen Grange, but also Remsberg, Grange, McAllister and others including a man called Toller. In some ways Toller is the most interesting of the bunch, not just because of what he is but through what he isn't. Toller is a former army sergeant who left service to become a horse trader and who provides the horses for the trip. He ends up joining it because his contract is to deliver saddlebroken horses and so to be paid has to break half of them on the trail.

Toller is a black man but there's only one moment in the film where anyone even hints at the fact that they even recognise that he's black and that's hardly overt. To some, he's a fancy dressed horse trader; to others he's a former colleague; as the film progresses, he's mostly treated as a capable soldier. I can't quite decide whether the most surprising thing is that he's played by Sidney Poitier in possibly the first role that didn't focus on his colour; or whether it's because he's in a film about race, merely one about Indians rather than blacks.

Rampaging all around this story is the way that Indians see everyone else and the way that everyone else sees Indians. Most impressive about it is that none of it is black and white, no pun intended: the Indians are the bad guys here, but they're not all the bad guys. While the army are treated with respect, the rest of the non-Indian population are depicted as racists through their lack of acceptance of a woman who has been 'tainted'. You could even call them sexists rather than racists, given that men were half expected to sleep with Indian women, just not marry them. That would be racism and beneath a white man. There's also a little understanding thrown at the bad guy indians but less thrown at a couple of non-Indian bad guys who abuse their power. No pun intended, but this is certainly not a black and white story.

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