Six Gun Reviews, our look at westerns from around the world, is back… and this week Jonathon Dabell takes a look at Shalako (1968), a British-German co-production starring Sean Connery, Brigitte Bardot and Stephen Boyd.
By the end of the 60s, Sean Connery was anxious to escape the typecasting that goes with playing a popular screen character. He had recently quit from the role of James Bond after appearing in his fifth film as the character (You Only Live Twice), although as fate would have it he would be lured back in 1971 for Diamonds Are Forever. In his ongoing effort to show the world he could be a successful actor (and a genuine box-office draw) away from 007, he accepted several diverse roles across a number of different genres. One of these was the title role in Shalako, a western adapted from a novel by the prolific Louis L’Amour.
Despite having a fine cast and dependable director, Shalako emerges a disappointingly unambitious and conventional western. Apart from the starry cast, it has little to distinguish it from a hundred standard programme fillers made in the 40s and 50s. It’s not a bad film per se; the problem is that with so much talent in front of and behind the camera, and a substantial budget to play with, one would expect a grander end product.
Connery’s character, Shalako, is presented as a mysterious loner, the tough and leathery type who we suspect from the word go can handle himself in a fight and in the sack. He rides across the vast landscape alone, yet everyone seems to know and respect him, even if grudgingly. Beyond that, little is told about his background, and we are basically asked to accept that oldest of western cliches: that he is a tough and honourable man in a tough and dishonourable world. You can see why, at a surface level, the role looked an attractive proposition from Connery’s point of view.
It represents a heroic leading role in a new (well, ‘new’ for the actor) genre, headlining a cast of some distinction… but the part doesn’t allow the big Scot to get into the skin of a fascinating multi-layered character, to really act. It’s a fairly boring, one-dimensional role. Much more interest is gleaned from watching the fascinating disparate supporting characters – a gallery of assorted rogues, toffs, egomaniacs and adulterers – as they crack under the strain of their desert adventure. The fate of the various supporting characters as they dwindle in number is by far the most enjoyable aspect of the film.
A hunting party consisting of self-important, egotistical aristocrats is led in the Wild West desert by the roguish Fulton (Stephen Boyd). This aristocratic bunch is made of various bored and frustrated Europeans desperate to relieve the tedium of their lives. They include Count Von Hallstatt (Peter Van Eyck), Countess Irina (Brigitte Bardot), the elderly Daggett (Jack Hawkins) and his sexually unfulfilled wife Lady Daggett (Honor Blackman). During their travels through the barren wastelands, they come across a drifter named Shalako (Connery) who explains that they are on Apache territory and that the army has sent him to move them along immediately.
Shalako is particularly annoyed because he knows that the guide Fulton is aware of – and flagrantly untroubled by – the fact that he has led his subjects into Apache country. Initially the aristocrats find Shalako’s warning laughable, and party leader Von Hallstatt refuses to relocate. Soon, however, an Apache war party led by Chato (Woody Strode) turns up, and starts attacking the Europeans. Fulton abandons the group to their fate – but not before stealing their stagecoach and jewels – and it is left to Shalako to protect them from the warmongering Apaches.
Edward Dmytryk directs the film in workmanlike, by-the-numbers fashion. Dmytryk’s back catalogue included such revered classics as The Caine Mutiny (1954), Raintree County (1957) and The Young Lions (1958), so he certainly had the right credentials helm a film like this. He generates sporadic flashes of tension, and stages the various shootouts and sieges decently enough, but a general air of indifference hangs over the film which neither Dmytryk nor his actors can dispel.
Connery and Bardot are cast presumably for sex appeal – they were widely considered ‘beautiful people’ of their generation, and by throwing them together in a sweaty desert adventure the producers obviously intended to capitalise on their appeal. L’Amour’s novel had been earmarked for a movie adaptation for several years, with Henry Fonda and Senta Berger initially sought by producer Euan Lloyd for a Mexican-shot production. This never materialised, and in the end the film was shot on location in Almeria, Spain, with Connery and Bardot in the leading roles.
The anticipated on-screen chemistry between them never really materialises – for such a supposedly ‘sexy’ pairing it’s a decidedly sexless film; on the rare occasions that it manoeuvres them into romantic situations the story loses pace and urgency. It’s not so much that the stars don’t gel together; more that the script gives neither of them much to do.
As with most westerns the location photography is appropriately dusky and spectacular (as mentioned already, Spain stands in for the American Wild West). On the whole, though, Shalako is nothing more than a watchable, somewhat uninspired Euro-western, lacking the panache and style of its contemporary ‘spaghetti’ cousins.
MoM Rating: 5/10