Rugged cowboy Jess Wade (Elvis Presley) used to ride with an outlaw gang till he went straight. In revenge, gang boss Vince Hackett (Victor French) frames Jess for the theft of a powerful cannon from the Mexican revolutionary forces. To ensure Jess can be identified as the culprit, Vince has his men brand his neck with a hot iron. Sure enough when Jess returns to his home town even his girlfriend, saloon keeper Tracey (Ina Balin) thinks he is guilty. As Jess goes to desperate lengths to prove his innocence he ends up placing the whole town in danger from vengeful Vince.
After the career boost of the '68 Comeback TV Special Elvis Presley sought out a grittier film role in keeping with his newly revitalized image as a raucous rock'n'roll rebel. He thought he found it in Charro!, a script turned down by Clint Eastwood whose unique brand of laconic tough guy cool he greatly admired. Rife with violence, sex and sadism it was far removed from the saccharine fun and frolics of his post-Blue Hawaii (1962) output which was just fine with Elvis who was no great fan of musical comedy. Thus, armed with some suitably Eastwood-esque facial stubble, a newfound commitment to dramatic acting and the best intentions in the world, Elvis arrived on set on the first day of the shoot only to find the script had been altered beyond all recognition. Colonel Tom Parker had struck again. Having convinced Elvis to abandon a choice role in True Grit (1969) - that eventually went to Glen Campbell, who made a right old hash of it (though he has his defenders) - Parker stranded his star in a flat, flavourless western. The disastrous result made back its money (fact: no matter how bad, every Elvis film turned a profit) but soured Elvis on movie-making thereafter though he made two more halfway decent efforts, The Trouble with Girls (1969) and Change of Habit (1969), before abandoning Hollywood for Las Vegas. The rest is history.
Right from the set-up (lone stranger rides into a Mexican town to be ambushed by three gunmen), Charro! aims to ape the ambiance of a spaghetti western. Only writer-director Charles Marquis Warren is no Sergio Leone. Warren had some solid westerns on his resume, e.g. Arrowhead (1953) and Cattle Empire (1958), but his snail-paced, stylistically drab direction here leaves this looking like a particularly weak episode of one of his television shows Gunsmoke and Rawhide. Underrated composer Hugo Montenegro serves up a pretty good score although to the disappointment of fans at the time, aside from the theme song, Elvis does not sing a note in this movie. Hirsute and with an impressive steely-eyed intensity, the King proved he could still cut it as an actor. The early scene where Jess has his neck burned by the hot poker remains a fairly harrowing sight for Elvis fans. It would appear the filmmakers originally intended to employ a conceit similar to Eastwood's Hang 'Em High (1967) as Jess uses his new-found role as a lawman to exact revenge on the men that did him wrong.
Except that is not how things play out. Just like the characters the plot meanders aimlessly through a lot of picturesque scenery with a great deal of moody strutting around and far too little action. Midway through we suddenly find ourselves in Rio Bravo (1959) territory when Jess holes up in jail with Vince's maniacal, frankly annoying brother Billy Roy (Solomon Sturges) as his prisoner. Yet the film does nothing with this angle either and simply plods from one inconclusive stand-off to another, devoid of suspense or humour. It is hard to know who exactly was to blame, whether it was Parker or Warren or other forces behind the scenes but what remains of the original script ladles on moral dilemmas in the most prosaic fashion. Only the third act manages to dole out some tension as Vince (an oddly apologetic villain) threatens to blow up the entire town unless Jess frees his brother, thus driving a further wedge between the hero and the townspeople. Sluggish pacing hampers whatever enjoyment there is to be had from watching Elvis gun down bad guys or rope wild stallions. It is just a sad and sorry shell of the movie it was intended to be. Tragically, a decade later, Colonel Parker pulled the same trick when he convinced Elvis to turn down the lead opposite Barbara Streisand in the third version of A Star is Born (1976) to star in a martial arts movie patterned after his newest idol, Bruce Lee. Sadly we all know what actually happened next.