Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) is a man in trouble since he got into a duel with the son of a powerful official: the man died, against Regret’s wishes for he was aiming for his shoulder but the target foolishly moved, and now he is wanted for murder, no matter that he thought duelling was legal in the New Orleans of 1843. It may well have been, but you don’t just bump off the offspring of such an influential man, so he flees the scene. Later, he is on a riverboat indulging his passion for gambling when he is approached by an attractive young woman, Pilar Graile (Ina Balin), who claims she wants to dance with him, but may have an ulterior motive. Though someone with only one motive that’s plain to see is ranger Captain Jake Cutter (John Wayne)…
Yup, Big Jake, not to be confused with any other character called Big Jake who may have been played by The Duke, is a fully paid up member of the forces of right and justice, and it’s not important that Regret wasn’t trying to kill his victim, all that matters to Jake is that he is brought in to be hanged, and he is the man to do it. As it turned out, in the most rambling manner possible, with a plot very easily distracted, most notably a fairly substantial interlude where Wayne traded quips with a roughhousing, half-scalped Lee Marvin who he poses as a gunrunner with. It was a mark of the confidence of the enterprise, as deceptively laid back as that was, that it could get away with throwing in whatever suited them to stay entertaining.
Of course, behind the camera it was a less fortunate experience, not because of any great tensions ruining the goodnatured atmosphere, but because the director was in the process of dying. He was Michael Curtiz, a minor legend for his helming of many a classic Golden Age of Hollywood effort such as The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca who though he had the reputation as a talented journeyman was more than that. He could bring pace, humour and even a soulfulness to even the most potentially pulpy of material, as well as the visual flair that delineated a man at home in the studio system when it gave him the opportunities to add a certain je ne sais quoi to the proceedings, but sadly after The Comancheros he was to be no more, suffering from the effects of cancer for the whole shoot.
Indeed, he died shortly after it was completed, and Wayne had been an enormous help on the set, often standing in when Curtiz was simply too ill to direct, actually making a better job of it than he had on the previous year’s The Alamo which had been his pet project to direct himself. Don’t go looking for which sequence was guided by which talent, either, for this was an entirely seamless edit between their scenes, as if Wayne had been a quick learner and was capable enough to adopt the Curtiz style. The mood, in spite of a load of people getting killed in the course of the plot, was upbeat and Wayne demonstrated yet again the worth of having a genuine star heading your movie, charismatic and comfortable enough in his skin by that point to guarantee there was an audience eager for him.
The Comancheros more or less set up the sort of Western Wayne would appear in for the rest of his career, with brawling, rowdiness, gunfights and the like mixing with a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do message that proved so appealing. No matter that he was getting long in the tooth, his exchanges with Whitman and Marvin, among others, were more than enough evidence his wits were still quick, and this was a film that liked to hear its characters chat and shoot the breeze, as Jake and Regret do whenever one has captured the other. But what, you may be asking, is a Comanchero? They didn’t show up until three quarters of an hour into the story, but brought out the theme of balance between civilisation and savagery, with Regret the city boy at one end, and the outlaws at the other, a gang who ride with the Comanches and stage terrible raids on the settlers of the plain. Jake, needless to say, was the perfect example of the happy medium, and he was pretty easygoing in temperament, making this good company, with a rousing finale. Music by Elmer Bernstein.