100 Rifles was easily the most underrated film of the year. Even if the sum of all its parts did not add up to greatness, it had a lot more going for it than has generally been attributed. For a start, there was the attempt to build Jim Brown into a mainstream African American star. Secondly: the return of the bold female character that had largely disappeared since the heyday of Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford. Thirdly: the conjunction of these first two elements in a sex scene raised the issue of miscegenation that Hollywood had otherwise sought to avoid.
Fourthly, and perhaps most hard- hitting of all: the issue of genocide, the mass slaughter of the Yaqui Indian population providing an uneasy parallel not just to the United States treatment of its own indigenous Native American population but also to its actions in Vietnam.
But there was a danger that, without both incisive direction and potent performances, the movie would spiral downwards into another simple case of “When Beefcake (Jim Brown) Met Cheesecake (Raquel Welch).” Since nobody had expected Sidney Poitier to ascend the Hollywood ladder so fast, and in so doing set a trend, the industry had nobody lined up to ride in his wake and exploit what now appeared to be, at the very least, acceptance of African Africans as stars in their own right, with an audience ready to embrace a new kind of hero. Although MPAA president Jack Valenti called for more African Americans in more African American films, the number of highly touted big- budget African American–oriented pictures that offered stardom potential rarely made it out of the starting blocks.
But there was one potential crossover star waiting in the wings: Jim Brown. While lacking Poitier’s acting chops, he had the physique, looks and charisma. Cleveland Browns football legend with strong supporting roles in The Dirty Dozen (1967), Dark of the Sun (1968) and Ice Station Zebra (1968), top-billing had been limited to low-budgeters like Kenner (1968), The Split (1968) and Riot (1969).
But Variety had singled him out at the start of 1969 as one of its “new stars of the year” and judged him “the strongest contender to inherit some of Sidney Poitier’s earning power.” 100 Rifles had double the budget of any of his previous pictures.
Raquel Welch was in a similar situation to Jim Brown regarding Hollywood acceptance. However, she was not in a minority as far as female stars were concerned. The 1960s had been dominated by the likes of drama queen (in more ways than one) Elizabeth Taylor, comedy queen Doris Day and musical queen Julie Andrews, not to mention Audrey Hepburn, (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 1961), Italian import Sophia Loren (El Cid, 1961), Jane Fonda (Cat Ballou, 1965), Natalie Wood (Sex and the Single Girl, 1964) and Shirley MacLaine (Sweet Charity, 1968). There was also an overabundance of new talent in Julie Christie (Doctor Zhivago, 1965), Vanessa Redgrave (Blow Up, 1966), Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl, 1965), Mia Farrow (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968) and Faye Dunaway (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967).
But those stars had more to offer than mere beauty, whereas Welch, having made her name primarily as a pin- up and as eye candy in movies like One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Fantastic Voyage (1966), had trouble shaking off the idea that she won more parts on the basis of her body than for the acting skills, appearing in a dry bikini in Fathom (1967) and a wet one in Lady in Cement (1968).
However, like Jim Brown, she was actively looking to fill a niche, and set out her stall as a player of dramatic intensity, and she found it in the most unlikely of places: the western. That she chose 100 Rifles was interesting given her other choices. She was offered the Katharine Ross part in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the lead roles had been offered to Steve McQueen and Warren Beatty and again when Paul Newman came into the frame. She was also up for the Faye Dunaway role for The Crown Caper (title later changed to The Thomas Crown Affair), again with McQueen, and a film with Terence Stamp (which was never made). But she clearly felt those roles were more decorative.
At one time, the female western star had been a staple. Claire Trevor was the star of Stagecoach (1939) and Texas (1941). Gene Tierney made her name with The Return of Frank James (1940) and Belle Starr (1941). Barbara Stanwyck carved out her own niche as a western icon after taking top billing in Union Pacific (1939), California (1947), The Furies (1950), Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), The Maverick Queen (1956) and Forty Guns (1957). While Maureen O’Hara took second billing in Rio Grande (1950), McLintock! (1963) and The Rare Breed (1965), she was the star of Comanche Territory (1950), The Redhead from Wyoming (1953) and The Deadly Companions (1961). Yvonne De Carlo headlined Black Bart (1948), The Gal Who Took the West (1949) and Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949). Rhonda Fleming had the female lead in The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), The Last Outpost (1951), Pony Express (1953) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Johnny Guitar (1954) achieved classic status largely on the performance of Joan Crawford.
There had even been modern precedent: Inger Stevens had nearly cornered the recent market after A Time for Killing (1967), Firecreek (1968), Hang ’Em High (1968) and 5 Card Stud (1968) while Claudia Cardinale went from a supporting role in The Professionals (1966) to top billing in the forthcoming Once Upon a Time in the West.
Raquel Welch set out to follow suit. In Bandolero (1968) she proved capable not only of holding her own against veterans James Stewart and Dean Martin but as adept on the pistol- packing side of things. While Welch professed herself “no Anne Bancroft,” she was pleased that she was not “running around half- naked all the time.” After that punched a hole in the box office, she was offered the female lead in 100 Rifles to be directed by Tom Gries who had made his name as a director with his unflinching portrayal of the cowboy in Will Penny (1968).
The basis of the film was Robert MacLeod’s The Californio, published in 1966, and the essence of the story concerned a “reckless stranger” who refused to turn the other cheek while innocent people were being killed. After Clair Huffaker turned in his screenplay, Gries wrote two further drafts. It is safe to assume that the casting of Jim Brown came after the Huffaker script had been handed in. When Huffaker did not like the way his work had ended up on screen, he insisted on using the pseudonym Cecil Dan Hansen, as he had done on The Second Time Around.
For 100 Rifles, he was so upset at the end result that he demanded either his name removed or the pseudonym installed, complaining that the finished product “bears absolutely no resemblance to my script.”
The story of The Californio bears little resemblance to 100 Rifles. Not only is the hero of the book, Steve McCall, white, he is a rawboned young man and not a lawman in his 30s. He is not a gunman either, being more proficient with the lasso. In fact, when forced into bloody action, he discovers that he abhors violence. The book could more aptly be described as a “rite of passage” novel where a young man, sent south “on legitimate business in the interests of the (U.S.) Federal Government,” leaves home for the first time, becomes a man, loses his virginity and kills his first man.
Nor is Yaqui Joe a bank robber in the book, and after meeting up with McCall, they embark on further legitimate business. Maria, named Sarita in the film, is most like her feisty movie counterpart, and although in the MacLeod version she is married, that does not prevent her taking Steve’s virginity. Of the villains, Verdugo (the name means “Hangman”), while not elevated to general, is still as ruthless, but the foreign adviser is not.
Most of the film’s action was invented by the screenwriters, including the concept of the 100 Rifles, Sarita’s sexy shower as a way of stopping the troop train, and the children being taken hostage (although in one episode in the book, children are shot). Trying to reshape the book to suit the new requirements of the characters makes the picture unnecessarily complicated. Burt Reynold’s solution was simpler: “Keep his shirt off and her [Raquel Welch’s] shirt off and give me all the lines,” he reportedly advised producer Marvin Schwartz.
The movie was shot over a ten- week period in Spain beginning in July 1968. Although that country had become a viable alternative for westerns looking to keep budgets low, in part in 1968 due to the devaluing of the peseta against the dollar, the volume of films shot there had declined by nearly a third compared to the previous year.
Despite the popularity of the location, Almeria, the actual area of countryside where most spaghetti westerns were shot, was very small. This resulted in a limited variety of available landscapes compared with films shot in the U.S. such as The Stalking Moon. The actors had to contend with extreme heat, and Gries was laid low for three days after contracting typhus. Gries decided to get the sex scene out of the way on the first day of shooting, probably to ensure that tension about the content was not allowed to linger until later in the shoot. However, it had the opposite effect. Neither Brown nor Welch had been given time to get to know one another nor to adjust to different styles of acting and to understand the perspectives of each other’s characters. Welch was not happy with the scene and tensions between the two stars continued throughout the film, some press reports putting this down to squabbles over close- ups, others to unresolved sexual tension. Welch later complained that scenes edited out of the picture had reduced audience understanding of her motivations. The MPAA also did some judicial trimming, axing Welch’s shrieks during lovemaking.
Critical reception ranged from sniffy to downright hostile. Perhaps like The Stalking Moon, advance publicity, although not this time pointing in the direction of the Oscars, had served to put critics off what sounded like an exploitative film. For the western traditionalist, sex scenes were off- putting, and although naked breasts had started appearing in a handful of movies, there were precious few full- on sex scenes, never mind one that featured miscegenation. Variety judged it a “routine Spanish- made western with a questionable sex scene as a possible exploitation hook.” On the plus side, Welch’s performance was “spirited” as was the Jerry Goldsmith score; Brown and Reynolds were just “okay.” The Showmen’s Servisection took a different view: “Fast pace, fine performances lift western several notches above the ordinary.” Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun- Times called it “pretty dreary.” Howard Thompson, the New York Times’ second- string reviewer, said it was a “triumphantly empty exercise.”
Twentieth Century–Fox had been affected by recent financial disasters such as Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Star! (1968); the former collecting $6.2 million in domestic rentals on a budget of $17 million, the latter $4.2 million in rentals after costing $14.5 million. To counter mounting exhibitor panic about production being slashed, Fox had drawn up an ambitious program for 1969, promising one new movie every month. The program kicked off with a $7.7 million adaptation of the Lawrence Durrell classic Justine with Dirk Bogarde (January), followed by Michael Caine and Anthony Quinn in the $3.77 million film of the John Fowles bestseller The Magus (February) and the trendy $1.1 million Joanna from new director Mike Sarne (March). British star Maggie Smith in the $2.7 million The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (April) came next with 100 Rifles (May) and another Marvin Schwarz production, Hard Contract starring James Coburn, costing $4 million (June). Summer highlights were Omar Sharif in the $5.1 million biopic of Che! directed by Richard Fleischer (July) and Gregory Peck in the $4.9 million Cold War thriller The Chairman (August). Come fall it was the turn of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid coming in at $6.8 million (September), Richard Burton and Rex Harrison as aging homosexuals in The Staircase costing $6.3 million (October) and Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor in George Stevens’ $10 million The Only Game in Town (November). The year ended with John Wayne and Rock Hudson in the $7.1 million Civil War western The Undefeated (December).
The studio needed several box office home runs because the following year it was already committed to three roadshows—Tora! Tora ! Tora!, Hello, Dolly and Patton—costing over $60 million. By spring it was clear that the first two movies in the schedule had been major flops, Justine bringing in only $2.2 million in rentals, The Magus $1 million. Income from Joanna and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie barely exceeded costs.
By the time 100 Rifles swung into action with two largely untried leads and a director making only his second major picture, the pressure was on. “
At the box office 100 Rifles got off to a great start and Twentieth Century–Fox reported with delight that it had outgrossed Bandolero! by 40 percent in Washington (and by 500 percent in the ghetto areas), and by 300 percent in Philadelphia. In Baltimore it grossed $50,000 from a single theater compared to $80,000 from eight for Bandolero! and in Atlanta first run it had been $61,000 for the new film compared to $38,000 for the previous one. However, while Brown and Welch fans were out in force in certain areas, that did not make up for less interest in regions where westerns were associated with bigger or more traditional names. Ultimately, 100 Rifles fell short of expectations given the budget. U.S. rentals amounted to $3.5 million, and it registered in 29th position on the annual chart— the sixth highest- grossing western of the year and ahead of Mackenna’s Gold, The Stalking Moon, Paint Your Wagon and Once Upon a Time in the West.
But, of course, the domestic performance did not take into account the popularity of westerns overseas and the distinct following Raquel Welch had accumulated. So where some of the studio’s major dramas stumbled in the global market, 100 Rifles hit the ground running.
SOURCES: This is an abbreviated version of much longer chapter devoted to the film that ran in The Gunslingers of ’69: Western Movies’ Greatest Year (McFarland, 2019) by Brian Hannan (that’s me). All the references mentioned can be found in the Notes section of that book.