BR: 100 Rifles (1969)

May 12, 2020 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  KINO Lorber Studio Classics / Unobstructed View

Region: A

Released:  November 22, 2016

Genre:  Western / Action

Synopsis: An American bounty hunter, a bank robber on the lam, and a rebel leader in turn-of-the-century Mexico go against a fascist general determined to exterminate the state’s Yaqui population and quash an independence movement.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with Cinema Retro’s Lee Pfeiffer, and film historians Eddy Friedfeld and Paul Scrabo / Theatrical Trailer.




This may not be the greatest western produced near the end of the decade, but it’s an important marker of several transition points – of the western being re-embraced by studios after the success of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti westerns, the frankness in depicting violence and a high degree of cynicism, the shift from unwaveringly moral heroes to grey-tinted anti-heroes, and a trio of up-and-coming stars whose careers would redefine if not transcend the traditional star system, as fostered by the studios during the dying days of the iron-clad 7-year contract.

It’s also another fine example of Tom Gries’ work as director. Gries was a modest writer-producer-director who frequently drifted between TV and feature films, and earned deserved critical praise and Emmy wins (East Side, West Side, The Glass House) and Nominations Helter Skelter, QBVII). Gries made interesting dramas within traditional genres (his prior film, Will Penny is frequently cited as among his best, and reportedly features Charlton Heston’s finest performance) but he also crafted taut little action films that delivered far more production value and excitement within their modest budgets, and often gave their iconic stars works to show-off a little range beyond their steely screen personas.

It’s worth noting the cast’s billing order for 100 Rifles: Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, and then Burt Reynolds. The first is regarded as the first African-American action star; the second a studio contract player who controlled her image and later aspects of productions in spite of being built up as a sex goddess; and the third written off by critics as a Marlon Brando knock-off, stuck in TV and odd indie productions with B-grade classification. Perhaps that’s why 100 Rifles surprised audiences, and endures as one of the most enjoyable westerns likely released by studio Fox as a decent but unmemorable B-movie, shot in many of the same Spanish environs as countless spaghetti westerns. (The Main Title sequence is very much inspired by Italian genre entries which used solarized and stenciled graphics in a loose animated style.)

Based on a novel by Robert MacLeod and adapted by western scribe Clair Huffaker (Flaming Star, The Comancheros, Rio Conchos), director Gries rewrote the project  to improve its structure and flow, and relied on John Wayne’s former stunt double and a crack second unit team to choreograph unusually yet classically elaborate actions scenes, leading up to a spectacular battle in the Mexican border town of Sonora, where the film both begins and ends in a mix of victor and tragedy. (The only drawback are the extras whose ‘death performances’ are a little amateurish – they tend to move slowly and with slight puzzlement that detracts from otherwise fairly graphic violence.)

Brown is Lyedecker, a U.S. Marshall determined to bring bank robbing Yaqui Joe (Reynolds) back to the States, but the pair become ensnared in the activities of ruthless, dictatorial leader Verdugo (an absolutely excellent Fernando Lamas), who rules the state with his own army, and is determined to wipe out the indigenous Yaqui blamed for challenging his authority, and sabotaging the vital rail link that ferries arms and troops between Sonora and Mexico City.

Dan O’Herlihy is oily Grimes, the spineless, exploitive U.S. rail executive solely concerned with profit, and Hans Gudegast / aka Eric Braeden is Von Klemme, a patient but perpetually irked German “advisor” whose observations and suggestions are repeatedly rejected by emotionally-charged Verdugo. The consequences for ignoring fairly sage advice ultimately lead to Verdugo’s destruction, but it’s gradual, and the increasingly serious losses are deserved for the viciousness in which he slaughters and sacrifices human lives.

Kino Lorber’s badly needed Blu-ray sports a very lively and enjoyable commentary by Cinema Retro’s Lee Pfeiffer and film historians Eddy Friedfeld and Paul Scrabo, who pack a mass of production and career facts into their ongoing discussion, further elevating the status of this modest film in already giddy fans. It’s a movie some of the historians caught during its theatrical run, and many fans (like myself) caught on TV, being delighted by its firm position in what the trio brand the Americans in Mexico sub-genre, where gringos white and black meddle in local affairs, engage in near-death adventures, maintain unlikely alliances, and trade piercing barbs, often as the other suffers an especially embarrassing circumstance.

Joe and Lyedecker are arrested, escape, are re-arrested and slated for execution, escape, and ultimately aide the indigenous rebels in defeating a provincial despot. Reynolds plays Joe as a wise-cracking, agile but not too bright stud, while Brown’s Lyedecker aides Joe throughout the film but makes it clear at precise junctures ‘When it’s all over, I’m taking you back to jail.’ Whereas Reynolds and Brown are the film’s buddy-action heroes, Welch plays love interest Sarita, a full Jaqui whose father was string up by Verdugo’s goons, and who’s not-so-secretly allied with Joe in delivering rifles to the rebels – rifles funded by Joe’s bank job.

In 1969, Welch’s acting chops weren’t especially strong, and her Spanish accent is very ‘loose;’ it’s not exactly caricature, but not imbued with needed gravitas. The downside is her performance is initially the weakest, but as the story progresses, water tower-wet shirt sequence excepted, Sarita has more to do than be gorgeous – she is the de facto lieutenant of the rebels, and it’s believable she’d find Lyedecker’s ambiguous persona more intriguing than Joe, who’s pretty sharply defined as a goofball with an otherwise decent moral centre.

The poster campaign played up the hot attraction between Lyedecker and Sarita, showing the actors lacking major clothing, and there are a trio of risqué scenes which are fun, but Welch stays true to the character’s unwavering fighter, making the finale especially poignant.

Although sort of set during the 1800s, amid period details and great sets the stars’ hairstyles are firmly 1969, as are Welch’s costumes which overwhelmingly flatter her iron midriff – even epics like Doctor Zhivago (1965) dolled their cast in fashionable contemporary hairstles and makeup – but as the commentators point out, the cruelty of the era in which brutality was frequent is apparently quite true.

Verdugo is a despot who applies efficient and barbaric practices to ensure his wealth, stature, and power remain firmly rooted, but he’s not always tolerant of his German advisor, who seems increasingly bored with wasted efforts to offer constructive suggestions. The ongoing tension between Verdugo and Klemme is reflective of the active friction among all characters, and the finale is very satisfying, including an unexpected twist and heavy dollop of cynicism.

Slightly hidden within the film is Michael Forest (Atlas, Star Trek: Who Mourns for Adonais? and appearances in myriad TV westerns) as Sarita’s wordless right hand man Humana in Indian wig #14, and sexploitation cult actress Soledad Miranda has a small role as Yaqui Joe’s overnight squeeze. Miranda would film a mass of films between 1969-1970, including Jess Franco’s classic Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and She Killed in Ecstasy (1971), both released after her tragic death in 1970.

If the cast, energetic scenes, deprecating sense of humour and fantastic locations are the obvious draw, the gritty cinematography by Cecilio Paniagua (Lisa and the Devil, The Hunting Party) exploits the bleak, sand-blown landscape, while veteran editor Robert L. Simpson (Miracle on 34th Street, Inferno, South Pacific, Cahill U.S. Marshal) creates magical sequences, of which Verdugo’s horseback chase is a small masterpiece, moving from gliding camera to terrifying, steep moraines down which our heroes and their relentless pursuers trek.

The glue that holds all of the film’s elements together is Jerry Goldsmith’s score, which is inarguably one of the best action-western scores ever written. Goldsmith draws from the Mexican locations, the film’s visual palette, and the desperation of the characters to provide cohesion between the characters whose scenes and dialogue vary from deep introspection to loathing, lust, cruelty, and dry, mordant humour. The main theme goes through many guises, but it’s the layers of rhythms which push the tension just a little farther during the action scenes which in terms of length, are outrageously epic.

There’s much back-and-forth as power and the upper hand glides and is wrenched from one group to another, and Verdugo’s village massacre is one example where the heroes return, plot revenge, make their initial move on Verdugo’s compound which gets trashed, and while Yaqui Joe gets pickled in wine, Sarita and Lyedecker pivot in classic cinema lunacy from attempted rape to proper seduction. The morning after mess is discovered by Verdugo who loses his base of operations, physical wealth, and the perks of being a powerful scumbag – a small entourage of women who giggle at the opportunity to sponge bath their wannabe king.

The commentators make a very funny but spot-on observation: Verdugo has money, power, blind support from Mexico City, a savvy European advisor, and hot babes, yet he still wants more. Greed does lead to his downfall, but so does his stubbornness in outright rejecting Von Klemme’s ‘advice’ on strategic responses to the rebels. ‘This is my country,’ he reiterates in differing degrees of ire and great umbrage, leading Von Klemme to do what he can, smirk in silence, and like a master strategist, exits the debacle, sensing at the end his own use and personal safety are becoming more limited.

Whether the contrast lay in the original story or was brought out by the screenwriters and director, contrasting personalities and interests ensure whomever’s onscreen is never boring, or is merely part of some padding – hence the angry energy Verdugo spouts when Von Klemme remains almost physically inert. Reynolds has some sharp, funny lines, while Lyedecker just wants to complete a task he holds onto almost to the end – bring Yaqui Joe back to the U.S. for bank robbery.

100 Rifles is easy to dismiss as a B-grade western designed to fill screens during spring 1969, but it’s too well-crafted to be slighted so quickly. Whereas former matinee idol Fernando Lamas quickly ventured into TV and made just one more film – The Cheap Detective (1978) – Reynolds’ equity picked up after Deliverance (1972).

Welch’s next western, Bandolero! (1969) didn’t offer a better part per se, but the film’s tone and her character’s low-key persona yielded a stronger performance; she’s fun (and sometimes unintentionally funny) in 100 Rifles, but her acting is more assured in the former.

Jim Brown’s career in westerns continued to exploit his screen charisma and deft balance of action and bone-dry humour, especially in two more American in Mexico entries, John Guillermin’s hunt for treasure drama with plenty  of sadism and skullduggery, El Condor (1970), and Antonio Margheriti’s Take a Hard Ride  (1975).

Jerry Goldsmith also scored Tom Gries’ QBVII (1974), Breakout (1975), and Breakheart Pass (1975), and after appearing in Tom Gries’ series The Rat patrol (1966-1968) and 100 Rifles (1969), Eric Braeden would soon immortalize Victor Newman in the daytime soap The Young and the Restless in 1980.



© 2020 Mark R. Hasan





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