John Wayne was in such a fertile period in his career when he made The Comancheros—coming off Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo, John Ford’s The Horse Soldiers and Wayne’s own mega-production of The Alamo—that The Comancheros got lost in the shuffle.
What intrigues me most about The Comancheros is that it’s the last film of Michael Curtiz, best known for directing Casablanca. Curtiz first began directing movies in 1912 in his native Hungary before moving to America in 1926 and working as a top director at Warner Bros. for the next 20 years, making many of Cagney, Bogart, Robinson, Flynn and Bette Davis’s best movies. Curtiz was a master filmmaker; his camera is always in the right place, and a moment is never wasted.
I’m amazed that the studio hired Curtiz to direct The Comancheros. Yes, he’d already made several very good Westerns—including Errol Flynn’s Dodge City, Virginia City and Santa Fe Trail (Flynn, by the way, hated Curtiz’s guts, and finally refused to work with him). Yet I wouldn’t say that a sick, 73-year-old Hungarian was an obvious choice for directing The Comancheros. Apparently, Curtiz got so sick by the end of the production that Wayne took over the direction (uncredited). You’d never know it; the film offers an exciting buoyancy that is pure Curtiz, and Duke finished up in the exact same spirit.
The Comancheros is a strong, fun action film that makes perfect use of Wayne. Duke plays Big Jake (a name he would revisit later), a Texas Ranger hired to bring in a riverboat gambler and alleged killer Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), due to a new extradition treaty between Louisiana and Texas.
My one “complaint” with the film is that Lee Marvin’s character, Crow, comes and goes too quickly. He’s such a great character—half-scalped by the Indians—that it’s a shame when Jake shoots him down so early in the film.
No, The Comancheros isn’t as good as Rio Bravo right before it, nor is it as good as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance right after it, but it’s a rollicking, high-spirited, top-notch John Wayne Western. That’s good enough for me.
Josh Becker is the internationally-known director of Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules, has directed seven feature films and has been a proud member of the Director’s Guild of America for 17 years. His latest book is Going Hollywood by Point Blank.