Rio Conchos & Gordon Douglas: Subjects for Further Research—A Conversation with Lem Dobbs

May 3, 2012 - 5:12pm
Posted by Jim Healy

Veteran screenwriter Lem Dobbs has contributed to the scripts of Romancing the Stone (1984), Dark City (1998) and The Score (2001). He has also authored three screenplays for director Steven Soderbergh: Kafka (1991), The Limey (1999) and Haywire (2012). He is also an avid cinephile and an aficionado of the films of journeyman director Gordon Douglas (1907-1993), whose career spanned from Hal Roach-produced Our Gang shorts in the 1930s to Viva Knievel (1977). We both recently watched Rio Conchos and had this conversation over the phone on May 1, 2012 (JH).

Warning: Contains “spoilers”.

JH:  What are your first impressions after watching Rio Conchos again?

LD: I always think this about movies: the magical thing about them is that no matter how many times you’ve seen them, you don’t remember them! Even ones you think you know really well.

JH: My first viewing was of a pan/scan transfer on television, so watching a widescreen version almost was like seeing it for the first time.

LD: Me too. I saw it so many times growing up in England, and I have to believe they cut little bits of violence out of it, because I kept saying “Whoa!”

JH: In terms of violence, it’s really ahead of its time.

LD: Yeah, doesn’t it seem so? I was really surprised to find out it was made in 1964! I looked it up in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of the Western. He calls it an unofficial remake of The Comancheros (1961, Michael Curtiz). Of course, it’s very similar and there are many points of comparison in the plot, plus Stuart Whitman’s in both movies and both were released by Fox in CinemaScope. The difference between them is that The Comancheros is totally a product of old Hollywood – it really looks back – and Rio Conchos looks forward. I kept thinking that it anticipates all those “mission to Mexico” movies: Major Dundee (Sam Peckinphah, 1965) and The Wild Bunch (Peckinpah, 1969) and The Professionals (Richard Brooks, 1966) and so many other movies that came after it.

JH: Like some of those films, the violence in Rio Conchos seems amped up, both in the number of violent incidents in the story, plus the graphicness and intensity of it all.  There’s a surprising amount of blood for 1964!

LD: And sadism! It also anticipates Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1971) in the depiction of the brutality of the Apaches, who are torturing and raping women….

JH: …and in establishing an intense sense of dread in facing the Apaches.

LD: Exactly. There’s a sense of real fear.

JH: Richard Boone’s character is driven almost entirely by his hatred of the Apaches and he begins to adopt some of their sadistic tendencies.

LD: There’s that scene, where they’re shooting at the Apaches hiding in that brush and Boone sets fire to it in order to smoke them out and one of them starts screaming and Boone just shouts back, “Let ‘em burn! Let ‘em burn!” Harsh stuff for 1964 and to have the hero of the movie be like that anticipates the Spaghetti Westerns that were just beginning at the same time. I think A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone) came out the same year.

JH: That’s right. The violence is certainly there in Fistful, but for me, Leone and the Spaghetti Westerns come into their own with films like For a Few Dollars More (Leone, 1965) and Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966) and I have to believe that Rio Conchos had a big impact on the Italians. There’s also that terrific long sequence at Timothy Carey’s cantina where Anthony Franciosa checks in to the whorehouse, and then Boone shows up looking for him. It has this sense of digression to it that reminds me of Leone and, later, Quentin Tarantino. It seems like Franciosa could have been written off in a much quicker way and saved the film nine minutes! Also, Boone and Franciosa are each bluffing and hiding something from the other, which reminds me of the sadistic games played out between the farmer and Lee Van Cleef near the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, 1966).

LD:  And the basement saloon sequence in Inglourious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009). When you’re watching it, you might think this seems like some sort of padding that they stuck in the movie to make the running time longer or something. It’s also the most stage-bound, studio-type sequence in the movie, which is such an outdoors movie that looks so good in widescreen, and here, stuck in the middle, is this talky, rather dull sequence, but the most shocking thing about it is, of course, the death of Franciosa and I didn’t remember that at all, for some reason!

JH: It comes with almost a third of the film left to go and he’s a major character!

LD: Yeah! He’s one of the name-above-the-title, top-billed stars of the movie!

JH: It’s the kind of shock-digressive thing you find later in Leone and Brian DePalma and Tarantino.

LD: It breaks the convention of the “team of misfits on a mission impossible” formula where all of the characters will usually come to their own separate destinies in the big climax. You wonder if it’s deliberate clever screenwriting that’s meant to surprise the audience or is it just a lucky accident that it turns out to be something interesting. Perhaps it’s a re-shoot because Timothy Carey isn’t even credited in the movie! I don’t know the backstage story of the movie and why it’s so similar to The Comancheros, which was made with the same studio and the same screenwriter [Clair Huffaker] just a few years earlier. Perhaps the Huffaker script for The Comancheros was turned into a John Wayne vehicle and a few years later [Fox] saw a way to reconstitute the story and do it again, kind of like what Hawks did with Rio Bravo/El Dorado? I don’t know. It requires some research.

JH: The director, Gordon Douglas, would seem to be Fox’s go-to guy for Western remakes. He directed The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958), which re-worked Kiss of Death (1947) and he also made the 1966 Fox remake of John Ford’s Stagecoach. Even Gold of the Seven Saints (1961), which he made for Warner Bros., is almost his contribution to the Rio Bravo/El Dorado cycle.

LD: Even that was supposed to be a Hawks movie, perhaps another re-teaming with John Wayne. Leigh Brackett wrote the screenplay.  When you watch The Comancheros, which is directed by Michael Curtiz, you can see how it harkens back to the style of 30s and 40s films [Curtiz] directed, but it’s deformed by John Wayne, because he’s such a presence and an icon. The minute you get John Wayne in a western, it can’t just be about the story and the characters any more; it has to be geared towards being a Wayne vehicle.  You see something like Rio Conchos and it doesn’t have those major, iconic people in it and that’s almost a virtue because their characters can be unsympathetic, convention-breaking protagonists.

JH: Sure. I’d say Douglas uses Richard Boone the way that a lot of filmmakers use Tommy Lee Jones today. In fact, their voices are very similar. There’s a dangerous sense that since our hero is played by a character actor, anything could happen at any moment.

LD: It’s almost arbitrary whether the filmmakers decide to make him a hero or not!

JH: This is Jim Brown’s first movie, made while he was still playing football, and it’s two or three years before he acts again. This seems to be a prototypical role for him and presages his work in other “mission” movies like The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich, 1967) and Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff, 1968).

LD: …and 100 Rifles (1969, Tom Gries). If Rio Conchos is an unofficial remake of The Comancheros, then 100 Rifles is almost an unofficial remake of Rio Conchos. Burt Reynolds is in the same outfit, the same mustache and the same phony accent doing the Tony Franciosa part! And [composer] Jerry Goldsmith again and this business of selling rifles, which is like the joke that never gets old. You can imagine the story meetings at 20th Century Fox where they’re trying to come up with some sort of generic plot and then they all say, “ah, let’s just go with the fucking rifles!” (laughs).

JH: What do you know of the screenwriter, Clair Huffaker, who co-wrote the script, based on his novel.

LD:  You know, I met him when he was an old man.  Someone took me to his house where he was having a party and he seemed to be one of those guys who was an old-time Hollywood type yet connected to young people. He had a kind of coterie of young admirers. I’m sorry I didn’t investigate further or sit down to talk with him more. He died in the early 90's and this must’ve been like the mid-80’s. He’s not a particularly distinguished writer, but once upon a time you could have a career specializing in, like, being a “Western guy,” which is all he basically wrote.

JH: I see from the IMDB here that he also wrote 100 Rifles!

LD: I hadn’t realized that! So he wasn’t just a specialist in Westerns, he was a specialist in just recycling the same, pulpy plot time and again and squeezing out another dollar for it!

JH: Tell me how you rank Gordon Douglas, I know you’ve seen most, if not all of his features.

LD: What’s interesting to me is that he’s just a journeyman. I don’t think anyone’s really written about what it’s like to have the career of a journeyman. I suppose a more unkind term would be “Hollywood hack” but I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to define what makes one guy an artist or an “auteur” and another guy just a talented craftsman. What is the dividing line between the two and how does one leap across that line and become something a bit more?

JH: For me, Douglas bears comparison with Henry Hathaway, they worked a lot in the same genres and at the same studios during roughly the same period in film history, but Hathaway has much more of a reputation as an auteur.

LD: I guess that’s because Hathaway, at times, tried to be an artist, when he made something like Peter Ibbetson (1935) and he’d get bigger budgets and bigger stars and Douglas was kind of a “b” movie guy and he never got out of it. He was considered a reliable studio guy that they could count on, or someone who Frank Sinatra would be able to deal with.

JH: While we try to make our case for Rio Conchos, is there one Douglas film that has a universally acclaimed reputation among critics and cinephiles?

LD: Well, the one that everyone always points to is Them! (1954). He’s often referred to as “Gordon Douglas, director of Them!” That’s the one film that everyone agrees is a classic, that’s memorable. It’s one that everyone saw as a kid and is still exciting. I don’t know. I haven’t seen it for a long time.

JH: Dave Kehr recently had some nice things to say about Douglas’ remake of Stagecoach. Have you seen it lately?

LD: I’ve been meaning to watch the new blu-ray. I’ve only seen it years ago, pan and scan, as a kid. I’m sure it’s better than its reputation. Obviously, it was a stupid thing even to go near such a thing as John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). And it has that kind of kitschy 60s cast of Bing Crosby and Ann-Margret. But I’d be interested to see it again because it would seem like a family entertainment with that cast, but I’d be curious to see if it has those moments of Douglas violence. One distinguishing feature of his that I think is pretty consistent over his career is a rather startling degree of sadistic violence for the period.

JH: Yes, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950, with James Cagney) seems to want to up the ante on the violence of White Heat (1949, Raoul Walsh).

LD: Yes [Andrew] Sarris always makes comparisons between directors and he judges one director against another. A lot of Douglas’ films seem to be deliberately made to, as you say, up the ante on something made by another director: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, for example, and these Western remakes like Stagecoach. He always seems to be struggling against his betters in that way and I wonder how much that weighed upon him or was he just a happy-go-lucky guy who went from assignment to assignment, was happy being “Zanuck’s guy.” Was there ever any resentment or ambition to be something more, to be taken more seriously? You would kind of doubt it given his films, because I don’t think he ever, unlike Hathaway, really tried to do anything that said, “here guys, I’m more than the hack that you think I am.”

JH: Whether he was trying or not, I think Rio Conchos is a special film. I especially like the use of CinemaScope and the sense of spatial geography, especially in scenes like the one in the rain where Boone is tied up under the wagon.

LD: On the other hand, you wonder is that just the studio style that’s been lost? There used to be much more attention to composition and framing and making the image look more artistic than studio directors today care about or even know about. Was that Douglas or was that just the glory of the system that employed old-time cameramen like Joseph MacDonald.

JH: And composers like Jerry Goldsmith. His Rio Conchos score is quite good. His work on Douglas’ Stagecoach is even better, I think.

LD: This is from that period of 60s Westerns where the composer alone could elevate the average studio product like that. It’s totally lost now.

JH: Rio Conchos also anticipates Apocalypse Now (Francis Coppola, 1979) in Edmond O’Brien’s Kurtz-like character. He definitely dominates the final act of the movie, the way Brando does.

LD: Again, one of the magical things about the movies is that it brings up all of your own personal memories of when and where you saw them and how you learned about actors. Every time I see Edmond O’Brien, particularly in this film, I remember my mother saying, when I was very little watching O’Brien, “he’s a very nervous actor.” And it’s one of those moments, as a child, when you go, “what’s nervous?” And she says, “Oh, you know, he’s kind of excitable and jumpy. He moves around a lot and makes a lot of gestures.” Now every time I see Edmond O’Brien in my whole life since, I think, he’s a very “nervous actor” (laughs). And he is. It’s another way of saying, I guess, that he’s “hammy” but I think she was being very precise because Richard Boone is hammy, Tony Franciosa doing his Mexican “bandito” accent is hammy. Edmond O’Brien is a hammy actor too but he’s also nervous. He is gesticulating and trembling. He always acts that way, a nervous way.

JH: And in this role, he makes us nervous too, because he has all of the power and he’s out of his mind.

LD: You’re right. Maybe that’s what “nervous” means – he acts crazy and I guess he always tended to. Even in The Wild Bunch, he’s cast for that quality, like he’s got Alzheimer’s, which I think he wound up having in real life. In The Comancheros, the madman Confederate in the gothic mansion is played by Nehemiah Persoff.

JH: Now I want to see The Comancheros and 100 Rifles again. Perhaps this was [Fox Studio chief Darryl F.] Zanuck’s own attempt at what Howard Hawks pulled off with Rio Bravo/El Dorado/Rio Lobo.

LD: The other Zanuck thing I think of while watching Rio Conchos, or anything from that period that Darryl F. Zanuck had any control over, is that in film after film after film, there’s always some girl who’s never been in any other movie [laughs]. I looked her up, Wende Wagner, and it turns out she was a kind-of Gina Carano type. She was an athlete/stunt woman particularly in the field of surfing and swimming and diving and scuba. She was a stunt double on the Sea Hunt series and this was her one significant movie. She married Jim Mitchum [son of Robert] for about 10 years. She’s sort of memorable and you look at her and wonder about the strange lives people have when they end up in one movie like this.

JH: Thanks for talking with me, Lem.

LD: It was fun. I was thrilled to watch it again!
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