Dean Martin was one of the greatest all-around entertainers of the late 20th Century. He was a success on the big screen, on television, and of course as a recording artist. To pick just one of his films to write a blog post about it kind of limits the man. Nevertheless that's what I'm about to do with my look at the 1968 Western BANDOLERO! from 20th Century Fox.
Why BANDOLERO!? Simple. When I think of Dean Martin's movie career, I think of his Westerns. For me Dean's greatest film role was as Dude in the iconic RIO BRAVO. Martin went on to appear in several more Westerns--he has more titles on his resume in that genre than many stars more associated with it. Most of Martin's Western characterizations are basically variations on Dude--men who have a bad reputation, are a bit untrustworthy, and are somewhat cynical. Yet they also have a roguish charm, and they can be depended on when the chips are down. Martin's cowboys also were not exactly on the right side of the law most of the time, yet they never came off as evil.
Those descriptions fit Dee Bishop, the character Dean plays in BANDOLERO! The film starts out with Dee and his gang attempting to rob a bank in Val Verde, Texas, in 1867. There's nothing unusual in a Western film beginning with a bank robbery--but this one is foiled by straight-arrow sheriff July Johnson (George Kennedy). Dee and his gang are thrown in jail, and they are all sentenced to hang due to a Val Verde citizen being killed during the holdup. The citizen is a rich rancher named Stoner, and his gorgeous Mexican wife Maria (Raquel Welch) is now the wealthiest woman in the territory.
Dee's brother Mace (James Stewart) hears about the capture of the Bishop gang, and happens upon the hangman heading to Val Verde to perform the executions. Mace disguises as the hangman, and helps Dee and his gang escape. As the sheriff and most of the town's men chase after Dee, Mace takes advantage of the situation to rob the bank. Dee and the gang kidnap Maria and head into Mexico, where they are joined by Mace. The sheriff, with a posse, continues the pursuit--he has a huge crush on Maria, and hopes that now she's a widow he will have a chance to be with her.
As the two groups travel farther south, they venture into bandolero territory--a desolate region dominated by bandits who will kill anyone for anything. Dee and his group stop at a deserted Mexican town, where Sheriff Johnson catches up with them. Before the sheriff can take them back, bandits attack, and the motley groups have to join forces and fight for their lives.
BANDOLERO! was directed by action veteran Andrew V. McLaglen (son of famed character actor Victor). McLaglen spent a lot of time on the film sets of John Ford, and he was heavily influenced by the great filmmaker. McLaglen's work is nowhere near the level of Ford's, but he did know how to make an entertaining tale. McLaglen did share one thing with Ford--he knew how to use a great location, and BANDOLERO! has several (the movie was shot on different locations in Texas, Arizona, and Utah). The film isn't a great Western, but it is a very good one--it's the type of movie you watch on a lazy rainy Saturday afternoon. After the opening bank robbery, the film is dominated by James Stewart's humorous play-acting as the hangman. One starts to think that the story is going to be rather lighthearted--but as the characters get farther into Mexico, things get darker. McLaglen had a very traditional, understated directorial style, and at times the movie seems to just amble along. But what makes it noteworthy is the fantastic cast. Any movie with names like Stewart, Martin, and Welch is going to be worth seeing, but there's a great supporting group here as well, with names such as Denver Pyle, Dub Taylor, and Harry Carey Jr.
Believe it or not, it is George Kennedy who steals the film (his sheriff has as much screen time as the three leads). Kennedy plays an upright, honest, "ordinary guy" who pines for Maria, and risks his life and those of his men to get her back, despite the fact he probably realizes he has no chance with her. Stewart and Martin have the showiest roles as the Bishop brothers, but it is Kennedy who the audience remembers after the film is over.
Raquel Welch doesn't have all that much to do here--her future Westerns 100 RIFLES and HANNIE CAULDER would give her a bigger showcase. Her Maria isn't all that broken up over her husband's death--she explains to Mace that Stoner literally bought her from her poor Mexican family. She also tells another character in the film that she was a whore at the age of 13 and her family of 12 never went hungry. Apparently this background is one of the reasons why Maria starts falling for Dee during the last part of the film. This relationship doesn't really have enough time to develop, and is one of the weak points of the movie.
James Stewart is wonderful as always. Stewart had worked with McLaglen and screenwriter James Lee Barrett several times before, and one gets the feeling McLaglen let Stewart do whatever he wanted acting-wise. The idea of Stewart and Martin being brothers is about as far-fetched as Martin and John Wayne being brothers in THE SONS OF KATIE ELDER, but the two men work well together. Their brother-to-brother conversations are major highlights of the story, the most memorable one being their discussion on how many Indians there are in Montana. It's too bad Stewart and Martin never made another film together, especially another Western.
Great Japanese poster for BANDOLERO!
And as far Dino himself? Many have said that Dean Martin did nothing but play Dean Martin, and there is some truth to that. But Martin did have an incredible natural performing ability, and a performer has to use whatever gifts he or she has. Dean Martin had the knack of appearing as if he wasn't really acting, or singing, or being witty--he just seemed to do it, and be totally smooth while doing it. What makes Martin's Dee a little bit different than most of his other Western roles is that Dee has a bit of an edge to him. His usual cockiness is toned down here--after all, Dee is on the run for most of the story. Dee is also a man who realizes that he's wasted most of his life, especially when he comes across his older brother. Throughout the film Mace constantly tries to get Dee to change his ways, and Martin's pained expression shows that Mace has made his point. I wouldn't say that this is a performance of great psychological depth, but Martin does more than enough to reveal that Dee is haunted by his actions. By the way, there's a great on-set story about BANDOLERO!. At one point Raquel Welch went up to James Stewart and Dean Martin and started asking about her character's motivation. After the discussion, as Welch walked away, Dean turned to Jimmy and asked, "What's she talkin' about??"
It's interesting that Dean Martin was so successful in the Western genre. It would seem that a man who was the personification of 1960s playboy cool might look ridiculous on a horse, but Martin never seems out of place in any of his Westerns, which is more than can be said for his good friend Frank Sinatra. Martin may have looked like he wasn't doing much of anything, but he always gave the audience its money's worth. BANDOLERO! isn't one of the greatest Westerns ever, and it has a surprisingly downbeat ending, but you'll always have a good time watching it--just like you'll have a good time experiencing anything Dean Martin put his considerable talents to.