By Scott Ross
Shalako (1968) has a lot going for it, mostly what the filmmakers retained of the crisp little Louis L’Amour novel on which it is nominally — alas, not maximally — based. But it’s ultimately one of those exercises one regards more with sorrow than with anger.
Although no one, I think, not preternaturally deluded would deem L’Amour a great stylist — the original Shalako feels like a pulp novella padded out to full length by the use of very brief paragraphs — the scenarists were faced, as is always the case with any fiction of even minimal literary qualities, with insurmountable problems, the chiefest being that film is a literal medium. One cannot photograph thought, only an actor thinking — which I need hardly add is not the same thing. What L’Amour’s titular hero knows cannot be expressed in dialogue other than the most risibly self-conscious sort: How to read the signs of the earth about him, and to act accordingly. Shalako survives in his desert milieu because he thinks like an Indian. There’s some hint of this in Sean Connery’s likable, taciturn, performance, but hints, however expert, are not the same as tangible knowledge.
What was filmable was L’Amour’s rather ingenious central conceit: A genteel, largely European, hunting party in the Western desert, about to be set upon by a band of renegade Apaches led by Chato, up from Mexico. For reasons now lost, presumably, to the mists of time, the people behind Shalako ditched much of what the author had so generously set before them, and weakened thereby what little narrative thread existed in the source material. (They also — for budgetary reasons? — dropped the author’s sensible use of the Cavalry.) One senses a desire to portray the Natives in a slightly better light, by making the Whites’ violation, however inadvertent, of the treaty governing the reservation the reason for the attack. Yet in a prolonged, rather horrible sequence involving Honor Blackman, they managed to make the Indians far more brutal in act and aspect than would have been had the case had they followed L’Amour’s (admittedly somewhat threadbare) plotline. And that after virtually reprising Blackman’s roll-in-the-hay with Connery in Goldfinger, this time under the notably coarser persuasions of a black-hatted Stephen Boyd.
Shalako himself is rendered more or less as L’Amour wrote him, albeit with no attempt to justify Connery’s own obvious European origins. A more inexplicable misstep than this, however, is the casting — or, more properly, miscasting — of Woody Strode, lately an equally ludicrous Mongol warrior for John Ford*, as Chato. But even this is not so disastrous a misstep as eliminating from the picture the role of the silent assassin Tats-ah-das-ay-go, spooked by overhearing Shalako’s mention of his name and engaging in a memorable climactic battle with him, which, while ferocious, somehow emerges as an affaire d’honneur, at the climax of which Shalako salutes him as a brother warrior. Instead, the screenwriters (there were three, seldom a good sign) and the author of the “screen story,” elect to stage the combat as between Strode and Connery only to, in an utterly preposterous narrative leap, have it called as a draw by Chato’s chief and father… following which the Indians simply ride away, leaving the survivors fresh horses to ride. I trust Shalako’s compatriots were as gob-smacked by this as the audience.
A number of good actors manage to acquit themselves more honorably, including Boyd (whose character in the novel suffers a far gorier fate than in the picture, one L’Amour, wisely, or in deference to the sensibilities of the time, merely sketches in), Blackman, Jack Hawkins (who, post-laryngectomy, was dubbed by Charles Grey), Alexander Knox, Peter Van Eyck, Julián Mateos and Valerie French. In the feminine lead, Brigitte Bardot is lovely, but I found her thick accent largely unintelligible. Interestingly, Blackman has the more interesting role, although it is almost a paradigm of movie stardom that she plays a supporting part; conversely, male actors, as their careers ascend, get younger and younger co-stars. Connery does get one nice, Bondian wisecrack in gentle mockery of his pedigreed hosts: Faced with a scavenged pot-luck dinner he dryly intones, “I hope at least the wine is properly chilled.”
There is also, at onset and finale, one of those terrible attempts at a hero-building ballad, sung by a Mitch Milleresque male choir of the sort one might reasonably have thought died in the 1950s. Producers in those days, of course, always thought in terms of potential hit singles; by 1968 the form was as passé as a coonskin cap. To note that the insipid lyric was penned by Jim Dale does no honor to him, so forget I mentioned it.
If the foregoing suggests that Shalako is a waste of time, I can’t say I was bored by it, merely a bit annoyed. While Edward Dmytyk’s direction is merely competent, the editing is rather good. But what distinguishes the picture is Ted Moore’s sumptuous widescreen photography. As one ages, and newer movies grow increasingly less interesting, adult and intelligent, there is no small pleasure in watching a picture of less recent vintage that — even if ultimately lacking — in cinematographic terms anyway, satisfies through a rich palette and expansive photographic techniques. These movies remind you of the enjoyment even a minimally successful enterprise held when it was put together by professionals who were at least attempting to get at something. Since I can’t conceive of how L’Amour’s book could be successfully filmed, call Shalako less a missed opportunity than a hock improperly distilled.
*In the interesting 7 Women (1967) which was, sadly, Ford’s last picture.
Text copyright 2017 by Scott Ross