Duel at Diablo – Rousing and lively.
For anyone who liked westerns when they were young Duel at Diablo (1966) is the kind you looked forward to seeing every time you went to the movies but rarely got. It’s tough, it’s exciting, it’s sometimes mean and mean spirited, not too deep, and it’s loaded with lively action sequences and all sorts of confrontations between the principals. It also showcases James Garner in a refreshing role reversal away from the easy going, wry characters he played so often in both comedies and dramas. Here he is an emotionally scarred and embittered military scout who is in search of the man who murdered his Comanche wife. But that’s just a subplot. The main story is about a military battalion of inexperienced soldiers led by an ambitious lieutenant who must transport several wagons of ammunition through hostile Indian Territory. Their enemy is Chata, an Apache Chief on the warpath because he and his tribe have been forced by the US Government to live on a thread bare reservation. So he goes after this troop with his full army of warriors for their ammunition trapping them in a boxed- in space called Diablo Canyon. Will this group of mostly green soldiers be able to hold off this marauding horde or will they succumb and be destroyed the way the US Government destroyed the Indians so many times before. This is the question that the film poses. We of course know the answer. But the fun of this film isn’t in its resolution, it’s in its details and in the inter play of its characters.
The cast is an interesting mix of American and European actors. Sidney Poitier co-stars as an ex-soldier turned horse wrangler ordered against his will to accompany the soldiers. British actor Bill Travers (Born Free-1966) plays the lieutenant who dreams of becoming a general. Sweden’s Bibi Andersson plays Ellen Grange, a woman once kidnapped by the Indians and now shunned by both the townspeople and her husband Dennis Weaver of TV’s Gunsmoke (1955-1975). He has the most interesting role in the film because his character shifts from callous and cold to sometimes caring and tender and back again. Poitier is suitably flashy in a not sharply defined role. Travers does his martinet soldier thing well. Bibi Andersson gets to strut her dramatic stuff out doors instead of the inner chambers of Ingmar Bergman’s claustrophobic world. Garner at the center of much of it is as I said before tough and laconic and quite physical as well… “You got no luck Jess” The lieutenant says to him at one point, “Ellen Grange is already married.” and that sort of sums up the melancholy nature his character. But this isn’t the kind of film that’s designed to demonstrate the histrionic versatility of its actors. It’s about action and more action with a few shades of character sketches thrown in then it’s back to action and shootouts as any good western should be.
It was adapted from a novel (Apache Uprising) by Marvin Alpert, a prolific screenwriter and novelist. He wrote Rough Night in Jerico-1967. It was directed by Ralph Nelson, an all round pro who moved easily between TV and Movies. He directed Sidney Poitier in his Academy Award winning performance in Lilies of the Filed – 1963.The script makes some mention about the plight of the Indians so as not to paint them as heinous villains although they do some pretty heinous things but none of that is important in this film. Its main purpose is to provide you with rousing genre entertainment and that it does in spades. If there is a cinematic equivalent to a good paperback western this is it. There are many others too but this one would be high on the list.