It’s a gripping and unusual opening. The jangling noise of metal beating upon metal. A trapped mountain lion surrounded by a posse of unkempt men. The beast driven into a killing zone. The camera ends up on a classy blonde in a top hat, Irina (Brigitte Bardot), drawing a bead on the animal. But as she shoots so does rugged cowboy Bosky (Stephen Boyd) and you can be sure his aim is more deadly. It wouldn’t do to have an upper-class European lady to be mauled to death by a vicious creature just because her ego got the better of her.
Except that’s not the opening. Instead, that’s sacrificed for a dumb theme tune and a few minutes over the credits watching titular hero Shalako (Sean Connery) doing what exactly? Nothing exciting that for sure. We see him riding I guess to prove he can sit as tall in the saddle as the stars of the genre like Alan Ladd, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, James Stewart, as if nobody expected James Bond to be able to complete such a transition. There’s a bit of waking up, more riding, drinking from a dirty stream, and more riding while composer Jim Dale struggles to find lyrics that rhyme with Shalako.
There’s a bit more exposition before Shalako does anything meaningful. We are introduced to a fistful of Europeans on a hunting party complete with butler (Eric Sykes) and guzzling champagne and escorted by a bunch of mean-looking cowboys looking on in envy though I doubt any would acquire a taste for champagne.
Then the real action starts. A bit’s been missed out explaining just why Irina took off on her own with just one man as escort to continue hunting and nobody thought fit to warn her this was Apache country. We know she’s in trouble because her escort is just about dead and Apaches are gathering. Enter Shalako to save the day. The first piece of dialogue between the most handsome man in the world and the screen’s most beautiful woman, a movie made just so Connery, at his Bond peak, and Bardot, in her most expensive picture, could strike sparks off each other, is hardly something to treasure. It’s almost priceless for its mundanity. “You all right?” grunts Shalako. “Yes,” replies the breathless heroine.
But trust the British to bring that epitome of British moviemaking, the class war, to that most democratic of movie species, the western. It’s ironic that in the country where freedom is a given – slavery long since abolished in the period this movie was set – members of the hunting party are fettered. Irina is little more than bait. You might as well have staked her out, hoping to snare German aristocrat von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck). Marriage would cure the financial woes of her debt-ridden sister Lady Daggett (Honor Blackman) and husband Sir Charles (Jack Jawkins). Von Hallstatt doesn’t believe in making romantic overtures, it would be, like so many aristocratic marriages, a contract of convenience; he acquires beauty, she gets wealth.
To complicate matters Lady Daggett has a roving eye which has settled on Bosky, and to complicate matters even further, nobody should be firing rifles, even if only for sport, in Apache territory. It’s not long before the Apaches take umbrage and launch an attack. And it takes even less time for Bosky and his buddies to take off, leaving their charges poorly defended in a makeshift fort.
It takes way too long to sort out all these plot machinations and get to the meat of the story which is finding a way of putting Connery and Bardot together and when they are not the movie trundles along without much in the way of screen sparks. It could have done with an entirely different scenario. Something akin to Soldier Blue (1970) would have worked a treat, with roles reversed of course back to the traditional of experienced male tending the inexperienced female as they battle through enemy territory.
You needed to get this pair together – and quick – for the movie to find any steam at all. As it is, it’s somewhat laborious. While the action sequences are well done and Shalako scores in the western lore department, you wouldn’t have thought a mountaineering subplot could have produced so few thrills, its only purpose, plot-wise, to ensure that von Hallstatt acquires some credibility (he’s the mountaineer) and that the group can reach a plateau whose main attraction, as lovers of westerns will already be aware, is a pool where in the great Hollywood tradition a woman can disport herself half-naked. Shalako, in sneaking up on her, comes across like a bit of a peeping tom.
Sean Connery (The Hill, 1965) is convincing enough as a cowboy. He certainly doesn’t look out of place on a horse but it takes far too long for the expected romance to begin. Brigitte Bardot (Viva Maria!, 1965) is better than you might expect as a sharpshooter, but not quite in the fiery class of a Claudia Cardinale (The Professionals, 1966) or even Maureen O’Hara (The Rare Breed, 1965) and she’s not really given the dialog necessary to fully establish the independence of her character.
Director Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965) does his best with an overly-complicated script and some cumbersome set-pieces and it would have worked far better if a few characters and reams of sub-plot had been chucked aside to bring the stars together quicker. While Connery does the riding and shooting well enough he lacks the grizzled lived-in face of his famed western predecessors and I get a sense of him trying too hard. And, as I said, it wouldn’t have taken much to pep up Bardot.
Having complained about the subsidiary characters, they are all well-drawn. Stephen Boyd (The Big Gamble, 1961) makes on helluva mean cowboy, Honor Blackman (Moment to Moment, 1966) is excellent as a predatory female. Aristocratic pair Peter van Eyck (Station Six Sahara, 1963) and Jack Hawkins (Masquerade, 1965) are the kind of actors who can denote fallen status with facial expression rather than requiring lumps of dialog. But Eric Sykes (The Plank, 1967) is really a British in-joke.
James Griffith and screenwriting partner Hal Hopper had previously worked on Russ Meyer epics like Lorna (1965). The original story came from a novel by Louis L’Amour (Catlow, 1971).
Out-with his guise as James Bond, Connery – excepting Robin and Marian (1976) and Cuba (1979) – was not one of the screen’s great lovers so this would have been the perfect chance to hone those particular credentials. But like the entire picture this was a missed opportunity. When the best scene is the brutal suffocation of Honor Blackman and not the two stars canoodling, you can see the target was missed by miles.