Dishevelled cowboy Matt Fletcher (Marlon Brando) returns home to the sun-scorched Mexican dustbowl where he spent his youth. Eager to escape his violent past, Matt wants to settle down and start a horse farm with childhood friends Paco (Rafael Campos) and Ana (Miriam Colon) and pins his dreams on a rare Appaloosa stud he procured during the Indian wars. Unfortunately, whilst repenting his sins in church, Matt becomes a scapegoat, wrongfully accused of lewd behaviour so that Trini (Anjanette Comer) can elude her bandito boyfriend Chuy Medina (John Saxon). To save face in front of his men, Medina lies that he and Trini were planning to buy Matt’s horse. When the gringo refuses to sell, Medina steals the Appaloosa, leaving him bound and humiliated in the dirt. So Matt sets out for revenge.
This slow-burning western is no classic, but quite interesting nonetheless. Less so for the straightforward, revenge-driven plot than the sweaty, claustrophobic confrontations between Brando (at his broodiest) and Saxon, and stray elements that lend it a human dimension. Missing from this screen adaptation of Robert Macleod’s novel are the early chapters that recount “the Battle of Adobe Walls”, a real-life incident that took place in 1874 in which a small group of buffalo hunters held off a large band of Indians. Although its inclusion might have provided some appreciable excitement, Brando refused to have the Indians be portrayed as nothing but savage killers.
One suspects the warm relationship Matt enjoys with his Mexican family was born of Brando’s social conscience too. These scenes are the most likeable in the movie, well played by the Latin actors and Brando delivers a quite moving speech about his love for the old man who raised him and desire to share his dreams with Ana and Paco. With so much pinned on one horse, you can understand why Matt risks all to retrieve it. None of the westerns Brando made, including his underrated self-directed One-Eyed Jacks (1960) and the wacko The Missouri Breaks (1976), were what you’d call conventional. Even here he plays, what for the genre, is an unusually vulnerable hero. He often falters and makes mistakes while bad guys continually second-guess his plans. Even Anjanette Comer’s ambivalent heroine seems drawn to him more out of desperation than any sense of attraction.
The end result is closer to a psychological western than the old-fashioned horse operas then dying out amidst the Sixties, or the grittier, but no less stylised films of Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone. Sidney J. Furie, of The Ipcress File (1965) and Lady Sings the Blues (1972) fame, opts for a flashy mise-en-scene that overdoses on close-ups. His camera is better at studying Brando’s fascinatingly furrowed brow than doling out some awkward gunplay. An arm-wrestling match over live scorpions is nicely handled and the showdown amidst the frozen wastes compels, but some of tension evaporates amidst the ponderous crawl. What you take away from the film is some of the goodwill inherent in those early scenes and Brando’s ability to milk every confrontation for maximum Method mumbling. Even when a scene goes nowhere, he’s compelling to watch.