Wild West Collection: Rio Conchos/Take a Hard Ride
Director- Gordon Douglas, Antonio Margheriti
Cast- Stuart Whitman, Jim Brown/ Lee Van Cleef, Fred Williamson
Country of Origin- U.S.
Distributor- Shout! Factory
Reviewer- Bobby Morgan
The Film: 3/5
Shout! Factory drops a few more of their back catalog titles on the DVD market by packaging two 20th Century Fox westerns in a single disc set. Rio Conchos is making its official DVD debut while Take a Hard Ride had previously been released by Anchor Bay back in 2006. The common factor among these films is that they both feature Jim Brown, Rio Conchos being his first film. So is this double feature worth the price? Saddle up pilgrim and let me tell you a tale….
RIO CONCHOS (1964)
As the movie begins broken-down ex-Confederate soldier Major James Lassiter (Richard Boone) grabs a discarded rifle and opens fire on a group of Apaches. He is arrested and taken to a military camp where he is thrown into jail with Mexican knife-thrower Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa). The rifle Lassiter was caught with was one of a cache belonging to the Army that was recently stolen by bandits. The ranking officer in the camp offers Lassiter a deal: in exchange for his freedom he’ll lead officers Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sergeant Franklyn (Jim Brown, in his film debut) into Mexico to track down the man he bought the rifle from. That man is Col. Theron Pardee (Edmond O’Brien). Pardee is selling the stolen rifles to the Apaches. Lassiter agrees to do it only if he’s allowed to bring Rodriguez along since he knows the territory better than any of them.
Directed by Gordon Douglas (Them!, In Like Flint), Rio Conchos is the kind good, brawny western fun you won’t see being made anymore. It’s cool, funny, and exciting most of the time and it’s interesting to watch the interactions of the four main characters since neither of them could exactly be seen as shining paragons of virtue. That doesn’t make them bad men either; Haven and Franklyn are just men doing their jobs, Lassier is nursing a grudge against the Apaches because they murdered his family, and Rodriguez is just being Rodriguez, out to protect his own skin. There’s nothing groundbreaking going on here but as I said before it’s great fun. Douglas’ professional direction keeps the action and dialogue scenes moving at a clip, enhanced by striking Utah locations shot by veteran cinematographer Joseph MacDonald (The Sand Pebbles, My Darling Clementine), a frequent collaborator of Douglas. Boone digs into his morally-questionable character with weathered glee, as does Franciosa as the shifty knife expert in the group. Brown is given little dialogue but he mores than makes up for that by establishing a mighty presence in the action scenes. Whitman is a good lead but he’s given little to do but be the straight man in this motley bunch. Jerry Goldsmith contributes a rousing score.
TAKE A HARD RIDE (1975)
By this time both Brown and his fellow former gridiron god-turned-movie star Fred Williamson were big office draws both in America and abroad. Take a Hard Ride, shot in Spain where several of Sergio Leone’s finest westerns had been filmed, reunited Brown and Williamson with their Three the Hard Way co-star Jim “Black Belt Jones” Kelly and marked the first time Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti (Castle of Blood, Yor the Hunter from the Future) worked for an American studio. The influence of the spaghetti western is apparent at times in Take a Hard Ride but mostly it sticks closely to the old school American style of B-westerns that eschewed grand visual scope and sweeping themes for a straightforward narrative that plunges the viewer right into the action from the get-go and rarely pauses for a breath.
Trail boss Pike (Brown) is in quite a bind: his longtime employer Morgan (Dana Andrews) has just died after they’ve successfully driven a herd of cattle to their intended destination and now Pike must deliver Morgan’s $86,000 payroll back to his widow at their ranch in Sonora, Mexico. Easier said than done because once word gets out about Pike’s expensive cargo every two-bit bandit and marauder from miles around come out of the woodwork to claim that money for themselves. As Pike makes for the border and tries to stay one step ahead of the greedy mob hunting him he picks up some unlikely allies along the way: Tyree (Williamson), a smooth-talking gambler with designs on the money that make him a potential liability; Catherine (Catherine Spaak), a prostitute new to the States; and her protector Kashtok (Kelly), a mute half-breed Indian schooled in the martial arts. The group will need each other if they’re to survive the vicious onslaught being led by cold-blooded bounty hunter Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef) and make it to the safety of the Mexican border.
I didn’t expect greatness from Take a Hard Ride but if there’s one thing I could count on was awesomeness, which this fun little flick had plenty of to spare. The actors give the material the right amount of levity without going overboard into stone-faced solemnity. They’re just out to have some fun and by extent so do we. The heroes and villains are all great: Williamson, Brown, and Kelly have always made a dynamite trio (I really wish Kelly had been part of Larry Cohen’s 1996 blaxploitation valentine Original Gangstas); watching them play off each other is a kick but this time around it’s Williamson and Brown who do most of the bantering as Kelly’s character has no dialogue at all. They mostly kick ass and blow shit up and Kelly gets to whip out his considerable….martial arts skills (What did you think I was going to say?). Spaak makes a decent if unexceptional female lead but she only makes an impression by virtue of the fact that she’s the only woman in the movie. The villains are an even more colorful bunch with Western movie icon Lee Van Cleef heading up the bunch with another of his trademark performances as a morally ambiguous character whose motive for hunting down Pike and company down may not be what you think it is. Van Cleef makes Kiefer one of the most intriguing characters in the movie. He’s supported by a cast of familiar faces including Barry Sullivan (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) as a corrupt sheriff, and Harry Carey Jr. (Tombstone), himself a great Western character actor, as a sleazy thug working with Kiefer who gets to take a dump on screen while singing “My Darling Clementine“. John Ford would be so proud.
Margheriti keeps the action tight and intense with lots of great stunt work thanks to stunt coordinator Hal Needham. There are plenty of explosions (one even creating a goddamn mushroom cloud), gunfights, dummies being flung around the set, and a ton of horses tumbling down a very steep hill. Jerry Goldsmith’s score is spry and reminiscent of the work of Dmitri Timokin and Max Steiner, adding immeasurably to the old school feel of the film.
Rio Conchos comes with a strong 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is probably the best the movie has looked. Every frame looks crisp and vibrant.
For Take a Hard Ride the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is a bit grainy but highly viewable. The 2.0 Dolby Digital mono audio track is solid and does the Goldsmith score a mighty service.
The sole extras for Take a Hard Ride are brand new interviews with Fred Williamson (16 minutes) and Jim Kelly (10 minutes) and a grainy theatrical trailer, which I remember seeing on one of those 42nd Street Forever trailer collections, are the extent of the extras for Take a Hard Ride. Fortunately the interviews are pretty golden. Williamson never turns down an opportunity to talk about his achievements in film and on the football field and his interview yields some interesting stories about the Hard Ride shoot and his friendship with Jim Brown. Even better is the interview with Kelly, who hasn’t done many interviews in the past for personal reasons which he goes into here. He also talks in detail about how his acting career began and how he came into being in Take a Hard Ride. All in all both interviews are well worth watching, but I just wished they were longer.
Rio Conchos comes with an original theatrical trailer and nothing else.
There are no thematic links between Rio Conchos and Take a Hard Ride, except that they both feature scores from Jerry Goldsmith and early appearances by Jim Brown. Oh, and they’re both pretty damn good western adventures full of unpretentious fun. This is a good double feature disc from Shout! Factory, and seeing as how you get both movies for $15 with some decent extras this is a deal no serious western fan should pass up.