Comancheros, The (1961): John Wayne in Michael Curtiz Western, Co-Starring Lee Marvin and Stuart Whitman

There is plenty of preposterous plot in the western The Comancheros, scripted by James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker, but it’s rather simple and played for fun–it’s more of a comedy than a horse opera.

The Comancheros

The movie, with direction officially credited to the ailing Michael Curtiz, continued the trend of positing Wayne’s hero against men of a younger generation, real baddies (Lee Marvin, before he became a star), good-bad (Stuart Whitman, in a rare appearance in horse saga), and Indian chieftains (Nehemiah Persoff).

For a change, Wayne doesn’t get the girl, and the romantic interest (Ina Balin) belongs to the younger men. Like “North to Alaska,” which preceded it, “The Comancheros” allows Wayne to develop his comedic skills and be more relaxed on screen.

It’s also one of their first movies to make allusions to Wayne’s real aging with a dosage of humor: Jake Cutter is described “that big, ugly man,” a trend that would continue in the future with greater self-mockery and playful reflexivity.

The movie became a more personal project due to the fact that two of Wayne’s real-life children, Patrick and Aissa Wayne, appear in the picture, neither very impressively.

Whitman, then a rising star, plays gambler Paul Regret, a man who has killed a man in an illegal gun duel in New Orleans in 1843. Avoiding arrest, Regret heads for Texas via a riverboat, where he meets and courts Pilar (Ina Balin), a beautiful adventure femme, who claims to be independent.

Arriving at Galveston, Regret is greeted by Texas Ranger Captain Jack Cutter, played by John Wayne. Cutter takes Regret into custody and the two start a long saddle trek to the Louisiana border Ranger Station. At first, the delusional “man of the world” Regret tries to bribe and outsmart Wayne, only to be told: “I wouldn’t try any city-slicker stuff on this poor old country boy.I’ve got what you might consider a weakness, I’m honest.”

During the journey, Regret makes one attempt to escape, which fails, then tries again and succeeds. Catching Cutter off guard, Regret hits him with a shovel. Cutter is forced to return to Ranger headquarters by himself, but you know that it’s only a matter of time before Cutter and regret meet againand have a showdown.

Also during the journey, the text makes references to Wayne’s philosophy off screen. Debating with Regret about justice, honor, and manhood, Ctter says: “Words are what men live bywords they say and mean. You must have had a real careless upbringing!”

Meanwhile, Cutter has to face another threat, the Comancheros, a ruthless outlaw band that supplies liquor and guns to the Comanches, thus inciting the Indians to attack.

A gun smuggler, who dealt with the band, is arrested and Cutter volunteers to assume his identity in order to penetrate the outlaw stronghold. Driving a wagonload of guns, Cutter stops at a small town near the Comancheros hideout, where he is approached by gun-runner Tully Crow (Lee Marvin) and decides to accept the latter’s offer of partnership on a gun deal.

Among the group of card players, Cutter is surprised to find Regret, and even more surprised when Regret doesn’t reveal his true identity. In a typical role at that juncture of his career, Lee Marvin’s Crow, drunk and losing, draws his guns, forcing Cutter to shoot him down in self-defense.

Regret is placed under arrest and Cutter takes him to Schofield Ranch, where a small group of rangers, headed by Tobe (Patrick Wayne, Wayne’s real-life son), informs Cutter of the menacing Comanches attack. The Indians’ assault is fought back by Cutter and Regret, in an act that vindicates his past and eventually leads to an office as a Texas Ranger.

Setting out for the Comancheros’ hideout, Cutter and Regret realize that the daughter of the chief (Nehemiah Persoff) is no other than Pilar, Regret lost love. Pila joins forces with the whites in their fight against her evil father. Setting the Comancheros’ gun powder afire, the whole village goes up in flames. Meanwhile, the Rangers have been tracking the Indians and a battle ensues. Cutter joins the Rangers’ fight, thus allowing Regret and Pilar safe escape to a new, better life.

You can spot in the supporting cast some of Wayne’s regulars, such as Bruce Cabot and Jack Elam. The picture’s production values are good, particularly color lensing by William H. Clothier, who shot in CinemaScope, and Elmer Bernstein’s vibrant music.

The action sequences were staged by Cliff Lyons, and it’s not clear how much of the final footage was actually shot by the aging and ailing Michael Curtiz, who was not comfortable with the Western genre in the first place.

The film’s producer George Sherman, who had directed Wayne before, shot at least three or four major sequences, and so did Wayne (both uncredited).

This is the last film by Curtiz. who died shortly after the shoot was over.

A hard-core republican, John Wayne asked assistant producer Tom Mankiewicz to remove his button of John F. Kennedy, who was elected president just months before the movie went into production.


Released: October 30, 1961
Running time: 107 minutes

Produced by George Sherman
Directed by Michael Curtiz.
Screenplay: James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker, based on the novel by Paul I. Wellman.
Camera: William H. Clothier.
Editing: Louis Loeffler.
Art Direction: Jack Martin Smith and Alfred Ybarra.
Music: Elmer Bernstein.
Sound: Alfred Bruzlin.

John Wayne as Capt. Jake Cutter
Stuart Whitman as Paul Regret
Ina Balin as Pilar Graile
Nehemiah Persoff as Graile
Lee Marvin as Tully Crow
Michael Ansara as Amelung
Bruce Cabot as Maj. Henry
Joan O’Brien as Melinda Marshall
Richard Devon as Estevan
Jack Elam as Horseface
Henry Daniell as Gireaux
Edgar Buchanan as Judge Thaddeus Jackson Breen
Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as Ed McBain (gunrunner)
Patrick Wayne as Tobe (Texas Ranger)