First of all let me say that I just love movie posters from the 1960’s. Just look at the one above. Dynamic, exciting and it tells you exactly what the film is all about. And that was the standard back then.
Unlike movie posters today which most of the time don’t tell you a damn thing except who’s in it. Like that poster for Transcendence with just Johnny Deep’s face on it. So what? What’s the film about? No clue. They thought just having Depp’s face on the poster was enough. No wonder that film is sinking fast at the box office.
But I thanks for permitting me to vent for a second for what I wanted to discuss. The great news that Ralph Nelson’s terrific 1966 United Artists western Duel at Diablo is finally, at long last, coming out on blu-ray DVD after only being available for years on a crummy MGM/Fox non-anamorphic DVD struck form a faded print. The film has always deserved a lot better than that.
The film was released at a time in the midst of all sorts of political and social upheavals that were happening around the country and movies, no matter what genre from romantic comedies to sci-fi to westerns, where reflecting the reality that was going on in the streets. And Diablo is perfect example, since at the core of the film is the never ending issue of race. But not so much the tensions of black vs white, but of white vs Indians
The film is on the surface is a typical U.S. Calvary vs Indians sort of film which has been made during the previous 20 years or more about a group of untrained army soldiers led by a ambitious major who are assigned to another fort in another town while escorting a small group of civilians
Along the way however, they are ordered to engage a warring band of renegade Apaches who have been pushed off what was their land for centuries and forced into government land. Not surprisingly they are out to take their revenge on any cavalry officer or white man they find. The troop eventually find themselves trapped in gorge called Diablo where they have to somehow struggle to stay alive before reinforcements can arrive.
But the film has two concurring subplots, one involving James Garner, a worn out and embittered Army scout who’s been searching for the man who savagely killed his Indian wife. The major manipulates Garner into joining him by telling him that’s a there a sheriff at the town where the troop is assigned who knows who killed his wife (which leads to an ironic plot twist.)
Meanwhile another subplot involves Bibi Anderson, the wife of a businessman who returns after years living with Apaches, even giving birth to a child by one of them, something which makes her "contaminated" to eyes of whites and, of course, to the total disgust of her husband.
But the most fascinating character is Sidney Poitier‘s Toller, an ex-Army soldier, who before the film has begun, has just recently left the Army, burned his uniforms and bought a fancy new suit with plans to use the rest of the money he's saved to establish his own gambling casino. Though he first refuses to join to troop on their mission, the major convinces him to join them by agreeing to pay him for every wild horse he breaks in.
It’s a hard bitten, savage, brutal, at times ugly film, a long way from the romanticized clean, and somewhat antiseptic calvary movies that had been the stable of western films such as John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache.
No misty eyed nostalgia or nobility here. In Diablo it’s all about survival, death and violence. In fact, though it’s very tame by today’s standards, the film, which was released two years before the MPAA ratings system was established, was controversial in its day for what was considered to be its explicit violence.
But Poitier’s commands the screen and with the exception of Woody Strode’s lead role in John Ford’s 1960 Sargent Rutledge (not a great Ford film, but a truly interesting one that I have to write about soon), it was only the second time that a black actor had a main role in western in a major Hollywood movie. An especially sad fact considering that some 20% of the cowboy population out West after the Civil war were black men.
(Not to ignore of course the independently made black westerns “race” movies from the 1930’s such as Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range)
With few films to go on, as a result Poitier, in effect, had create his own character and he’s created one who is heroic, steadfast and honorable. Though he’s given no backstory whatsoever in the film (actually none of them, except the major, has one) one can easily imagine that Toller was an ex-slave who escaped the plantation to join to Union Army and after the war stayed with them until he decided to get his freedom for the second time and become an entrepreneur. No more working for someone else but his own man. And on top of that, let’s face it, Poiter is so cool in the film as well
So it’s great news that Kino Lorber as announced yesterday that sometime this summer they plan to release Duel at Diablo on blu-ray DVD several other United Artists film from the 50’s though the early 70’s also including Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues with Poitier and Diahann Carroll, Sydney Pollack’s overlooked 1968 western The Scalphunters with Burt Lancaster and Ossie Davis (which has one of the best fist fights ever between Davis and Lancaster)
With more and more studios, (with the exception of Warner Bros with their Warner Archive label) are reluctant or refusing to release their older films on blu-ray even though there is a huge demand for them and are farming them out other labels such as Kino Lorber, Shout and Scream Factory, Twilight Time, Olive Films and of course Criterion the gold standard when it comes to DVD releases, which is great news for those (like me) and many others who want to see and or collect the older (and I dare say better) movies. So thanks to Kino Lorber, Duel at Diablo is finally getting its long overdue respect.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find the trailer, but’s here a clip from the final scene from the film with ends with Poitier who says the final line in the film. However the clip ends before the final last haunting image of a bloody knife cutting through the image on the screen and ripping it apart.