High expectation can kill a picture. Low expectation can have the opposite result. I came at The Appaloosa with the latter attitude in mind. I knew the picture had been a big flop and that critics had carped – as they had done through most of the 1960s – about the performance of Marlon Brando.
Neither was director Sidney J. Furie’s style to everyone’s taste. And it seemed an odd subject – Texan takes on Mexican warlord to recover a stolen horse. It is surely a slow burn, but it certainly worked well beyond my anticipation. There’s not much more to the story than two guys fighting over a horse.
First of all, Brando’s performance came across as natural, not mannered. Secondly, this was a real character. He was not a John Wayne striding into action to protect the underdog or a woman or out of some goddam principle.
At first it did seem odd that Matt Fletcher (Marlon Brando) placed so much importance on the horse given that said warlord Chuy Meena (John Saxon) had offered him a more than fair price for it. But in one brilliant two-minute scene, expertly directed and with virtually no close-ups – the actor caught mostly with his back to the camera or in silhouette – we discover why. Fletcher has been such a disappointment to his father that bringing home such a quality animal was proof that he had made something of himself. A buffalo hunter to trade, he was on the verge of starting a new life.
The second aspect of this intriguing picture was that Medena placed so much importance on a horse when he could easily buy any horse he wanted. But he was faced with losing face. His wife Trini (Anjanette Comer) had tried to escape from him on the horse and the only remedy was to persuade the watching federales that Fletcher had previously sold him the horse.
When Fletcher refuses, Medena takes the horse by force. Fletcher, in retaliation, and to save his own sense of pride, tries to take it back. He is not represented as a superhuman John Wayne or savage Clint Eastwood, but an ordinary guy who soon finds himself out of his depth. So ordinary that the first time he aims his rifle he misses the target by a mile.
Nor is he burdened with an over-enlarged empathy gland. He not only refuses to help Trini, but steadfastly refuses to take her with him, not even as far as the border, until in another of the film’s lengthy scenes she explains the reasons for her escape attempt.
Few films have exceeded it for atmosphere. This Mexico is grim, pitiless. Hostility and suspicion are endemic. Women are abused and discarded. The standout scene is Medena and Fletcher arm-wrestling over scorpions, played out against a soundtrack of scraping chairs and the poisonous insects scrabbling on the table.
This brooding western is enhanced by the best brooder in the business. And Brando is matched by Sidney J. Furie’s (The Ipcress File, 1965) gift – or affliction depending on your point of view – for the unusual camera angle. Here I think the former is on show. John Saxon (Istanbul Express, 1968), making his name as a specialist in bad guys, creates one his best. Anjanette Comer (Guns for San Sebastian, 1968) is worth a watch. Keep your eye out for Emilio Fernandez (The Wild Bunch, 1969) and Alex Montoya (The Flight of the Phoenix, 1965).
James Bridges (writer-director of The China Syndrome, 1979) and Roland Kibbee (Valdez Is Coming, 1971) wrote the screenplay based on the novel by Robert MacLeod, also responsible for the source western for 100 Rifles (1969).
When you watch this and The Chase (1966) together it’s hard to see what on earth got the critics so rattled about Brando’s mid-decade performances. This is realistic acting at his best. Where John Wayne or Clint Eastwood present a superhuman screen persona, even if for part of a picture they are downtrodden, Brando was happy to play very human characters. In both pictures he is just an ordinary joe – forced into action by circumstance.