Remy: ‘If I’d run into you down in Mexico, we’d have killed a bottle of tequila together.’ Travis: ‘We’d have killed something.’
The best thing about this solid Western is that it gives perennial supporting cowboys Lee Van Cleef and Warren Oates rare lead roles. Van Cleef had become a star in Italian Westerns, and was getting his only major US vehicle, while Oates had done showy bits (The Wild Bunch) and odd indies (The Shooting) before landing this flamboyant psycho villain. It has a pleasingly simple premise – Jake Remy (Oates), leader of an outlaw band, has just massacred a town and stolen a shipment of rifles he needs to get into Mexico, but Travis (Van Cleef), the ferryman, won’t let him have the use of his barge because he knows the villain will burn it (and probably kill him) to prevent the authorities from following. So, Travis and his tough old coot pal Mountain Phil (Forrest Tucker) ferry an entire community of ‘squatters’ across the river from their half-built town and Remy has to think up a way of forcing Travis to help him or seizing the rope-pull barge. For the entire film, the antagonists glare or shout at each other from opposite sides of the river – the climax even features a clever switch as Remy’s men attack in makeshift boats while Travis hauls everyone back to their original bank, so the two factions exchange positions but Remy still doesn’t get his rifles across.
Gordon Douglas (Them!, Zombies on Broadway, The Detective), an old pro director, is not quite comfortable with the way the Western was changing in 1970. The opening massacre ought to be Peckinpah-level in ferocity, as Remy shoots womenfolk (including the whore he’s spent the night with) and an entire townful of innocents, but it’s staged as bloodless action, almost for laughs, as if this were an Andrew V. McLaglen romp. Later, a complicated bit of sordid sex is included just because it was becoming obligatory in the genre – settler Anna (Mariette Hartley) offers to sleep with Travis if he saves her hostage husband; after he’s managed to get the man back without losing his barge, he takes her up on the offer of a night with ‘a real woman’, to the evident disapproval of his cigar-smoking, busty, rough gal regular bed-partner Nola (Marie Gomez). Though the actors play the scene well, there’s a weird missed connection – Gomez, an extraordinary presence who ought to have made more films, is so arresting that when Travis betrays her, the hero loses audience sympathy in a manner clearly not intended.
Remy is a spaghetti western-type maniac, a dope-smoking psychopath who prides himself on the silver-decorated hat he took from the outfit’s previous leader when he killed him to avoid being executed after a ritual horse-dragging, but he has a capricious, odd sense of fellow-feeling with his gang. He does the familiar bad guy bit of killing his own men when they disobey his orders – in the opening massacre, he shoots a thug who has taken time out to rape a local and then shoots the girl too – but, at the end, he is so moved and infuriated to see most of his gang dead and bleeding in the river that he shoots the loyal lieutenant (Kerwin Matthews, former Sinbad, in a rare romantic baddie role) who came up with the rowboat attack idea (‘you and your brains’). Tucker, fresh from the knockabout F Troop and a run of blowhard baddies, livens things up as a quixotic mountain man who despises the townsfolk but sides with his friend. Mountain Phil has friendly conversations with outlaws he has to torture or kill – he gets a great last line, too; shot by Remy, he lies wounded and tells the villain ‘one ain’t gonna do it, son’ before getting a revolver emptied into him.
In the Leone manner, the film casts craggy, toothless, mean-eyed, weird-looking character actors as Remy’s men – John Davis Chandler, Ed Bakey, Armando Silvestre, Terry Leonard. It has nice scenery, especially important since the whole plot hinges on geography, and wraps things up with a satisfying rifle duel across the water. Plus, there’s a soaring Dominic Frontiere score.