The cast. The 1960s appeal of this western (maybe that word deserves to be in quotes) is that it presents itself as a revisionist tale of the Indian Wars. We get the cavalry vs. renegade Apaches, but the lieutenant in charge (Bill Travers, with what sounds like an Irish accent) is a few bricks shy of a load.
An army scout (James Garner) offers to be the ballast at the center of the film, but it’s not his fault there’s no center. Given the role of a hard-nosed squaw man with vengeance on his mind for the man who took the life of his Comanche wife, Garner mostly glowers and doesn’t get the chance to use his gift for comic irony.
Instead, the irony in the script is parceled out to Sidney Poitier, whose talents lie in way different directions. “They call me Mr. Tibbs” comes closest to the kind of irony he can deliver, and that’s with the look of a man who’d happily slap you upside the head instead. Poitier is fine in other westerns where he gets to play a fiercely silent character (for instance, Buck and the Preacher). Here he just seems miscast.
|Travis, Poitier, and Weaver
Dennis Weaver is a fine actor, but he’s the heavy in this film, and the voice of Chester coming from the mouth of a character I’m supposed to dislike just doesn’t work for me. Bibi Andersson as his wife, wandering far from Ingmar Bergman’s chilly shores, is fine, except that she’s given a cardboard role and whole sections of the film go by without a word of dialogue from her. The plot wrinkle her character brings to the story is that she has fraternized with the Apache and is the mother of an infant fathered by the chief’s son. Through much of the film, she is carrying the baby in her arms.
Plot. In a nutshell, the Apaches are on the rampage and the cavalry is somewhere out in the desert Southwest trying to get them back on the reservation. A force of soldiers under Travers sets out on a journey from one fort to another. Along for the ride are Garner, Poitier, Weaver, and Andersson.
They are ambushed by the Apaches and left without food and water. Travers makes a run for the water hole at a place in the desert called Diablo. There they sustain one attack after another, their numbers gradually reduced to a handful. Garner strikes out alone for the fort and nearly dies of thirst before he gets there. Finding the marshal he’s been looking for and getting him at knifepoint, he learns the identity of the man who killed and scalped his wife.
Meanwhile, back in the desert, the last soldiers are dodging arrows until wagonloads of gunpowder and ammo are exploded before the Indians can get to them. And rescue arrives in the form of a contingent of cavalry soldiers. By that time, Travers has been fatally wounded, and Poitier has taken an arrow to the arm. Bibi prays until her prayers are answered, and the remaining Indians throw down their arms. Weaver has been tortured to within an inch of his life and begs to be put out of his misery by Garner, who hands him a pistol and turns away.
|Garner, Andersson, and baby
Credibility. Putting Poitier into a western, where his color is never mentioned, probably made a kind of sense for an audience about to see him in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). But Poitier is supposed to have been a sergeant in the Army, and there would not have been a place for a black officer commanding white troops at the time of the Indian Wars. While I suppose it’s possible, it’s also a bit of a stretch to buy him as a breaker of horses, especially when he dresses and smokes cigars like a riverboat gambler.
Movie audiences back then probably didn’t question the whole business of playing footsie across racial boundaries either. A white woman kidnapped by Apaches and rescued after a long absence might have given birth to a child she would risk her life to return for. But that mixed-race Indian child would surely not have been accepted without comment by other whites as this one is in the film.
The multicultural message is maybe meant as an answer to John Wayne’s fierce prejudice against Indians that we get in The Searchers (1956). But Ford’s portrayal of racial hatred in that film is probably far truer to history, at a time in the Old West when the only good Indian was a dead one, children included.
The jazzy theme music composed by Neal Hefti registers as another anachronism. A saving grace of the film is its location photography. The credits at the beginning tell us that it was shot in the deserts of southern Utah.
|Poitier, Garner under fire
Wrapping up. There’s always the chance that I’m missing a film’s merit entirely. This could be one of those times, and I would welcome dissenting opinions. To give credit where it’s due, the screenwriter was Marvin H. Albert, adapting the film from his novel, Apache Rising. A well-published writer under his own and at least two other names, he also wrote the novels on which The Law and Jack Wade (1958) and Bullet for a Badman (1964) were based.
Director Ralph Nelson came from a dozen years of TV work before turning to feature films with Rod Serling’s Requiem For a Heavyweight (1962). One other western among his credits is Soldier Blue (1970). Before Duel at Diablo, he directed Sidney Poitier in the groundbreaking and award-winning Lilies of the Field (1963).
Duel at Diablo is currently available at netflix and amazon. For more of Tuesday’s Overlooked Films, head on over to Todd Mason’s blog, Sweet Freedom.
Coming up: Herman Whitaker, The Settler (1907)