Duel at Diablo (1966) ****

Action-packed and plot-jammed revisionist western with fresh performances from James Garner and Sidney Poitier caught up in an Apache uprising. Tough-as-teak ex-cavalry scout Garner has dispensed with his glib smart-aleck persona in favor of world-weariness and Poitier is a revelation as a cocky cigar-smoking ex-cavalry sergeant horse-dealer. Racism here concerns hostility towards Indian squaw Bibi Andersson (Persona, 1966), Garner, who had married a Commanche (now dead) the only one to treat her with any decency.

Returned to “civilization,” Andersson wants nothing more than to escape, back to her baby it transpires. Her crime is staying alive after Apache capture when she should have done the “decent thing” and killed herself rather than living as a squaw. But prejudice is leavened by husband Dennis Weaver (minus trademark moustache) who retains tender feelings towards her and, eventually, her baby. Apache chief John Hoyt is equally redeemed by his care towards the baby.  

Director Ralph Nelson (Lilies of the Field, 1963) handles the action with aplomb but it is the Apaches who prove the masters of battlefield strategy, deftly maneuvering the cavalry into an ambush and cutting them to shreds. His biggest problem is delivering logical reasons for all the principals – Weaver is an arms dealer, Garner and Poitier no longer in the army – to join up with Bill Travers’ (Born Free, 1966) cavalry troop. However, rather than slowing the story down, the various complications add further tension.  

Nelson never reins in reality. The cavalry are raw recruits, hardly able to control their mounts. Garner and Poitier don’t buddy-up, there is no camaraderie, and Andersson is an outcast in both worlds. And the good guys are constantly out-smarted by the Apaches, Poitier’s mistake leading to initial ambush, the Apaches targeting water supplies to derail the enemy and resorting to bow-and-arrow in case a stray bullet ignites the ammunition wagons. But it is still a duel, Poitier, Garner and Travers each in turn coming up with brilliant ideas to retrieve what looks like a desperate position trapped in a box canyon.     

We might be more sympathetic towards the plight of the Apaches, shoved into a “hell-hole of a reservation,” had Nelson concentrated less on their brutality, the picture opening with the corpse of a mutilated man, the cavalry under siege at Diablo tortured by the screams in the night of a man being tortured, Andersson told that she will be buried alive. But when any Commanche woman can be killed and scalped just because she married a white man and Andersson viewed as fair game for rapists because she lived with Apaches, you can see how little regard the Native Americans have for their oppressors.

Garner and Poitier are superb and top marks for a rounded performance from John Hoyt, savage one minute, gentle the next. Scotsman Travers and Swede Andersson should have added to the authenticity since immigrants such as these provided the mass of settlers, but Travers seems quite out of place and Andersson never quite delivers the angst required of her situation.  William Redfield (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, 1975) can be spotted. Nelson has a cameo and if you look closely you will see a fleeting glimpse of Richard Farnsworth. Western specialist Marvin H. Albert (The Law and Jake Wade, 1958) co-wrote the screenplay from his novel.

You might be able to catch this for free on Sony Action Movies, but otherwise here’s a DVD link. You might get it on Amazon Prime but last time I posted a link for that, it didn’t work.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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