A big, loud, lusty western battle movie with sexy stars and zero brains, this was a big hit back in ’69, just before The Wild Bunch rebooted the entire genre. Jim Brown, Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds burn up the screen with action, even though the actual acting is on the weak side.
KL Studio Classics
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date November 29, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Jim Brown, Raquel Welch, Burt Reynolds, Fernando Lamas, Dan O’Herlihy, Eric Braeden, Michael Forest, Aldo Sambrell, Soledad Miranda.
Cinematography Cecilio Paniagua
Film Editor Robert Simpson
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Second Unit Director Chuck Roberson
Written by Clair Huffaker, Tom Gries from a novel by Robert MacLeod
Produced by Marvin Schwartz
Directed by Tom Gries
The Italian western phenomenon hit Europe in 1964 with Sergio Leone’s first blockbuster, but the wave didn’t strike America for several years, when United Artists released all three of the ‘dollars’ films in fairly fast succession. Knocked off its feet by the uptick in violence and action, Hollywood responded as fast as it could. Clint Eastwood had Hang ‘Em High out in 1968, and other big producers departed for Mexico and Spain with their own stories of double-crosses and mass slaughter. One of the earliest and most successful is a better production package than it is a movie. 1969’s 100 Rifles preceded the genre-bending The Wild Bunch into theaters, and grabbed up a fistful of ticket receipts from eager western fans.
Clair Huffaker and director Tom Gries adapted a novel by Robert MacLeod, whose previous book had been made into a western for Marlon Brando, The Appaloosa. The story shares elements with The Wild Bunch as well, although greatly simplified. In 1915 or so, the Texas lawman Lyedecker (Jim Brown) rides into the Mexican town of Nogales looking for a bank robber, Yaqui Joe Herrera (Burt Reynolds) — and lands in the middle of a war. Yaqui Joe is helping the Indian Sarita (Raquel Welch) deliver a shipment of U.S. arms to help the Yaqui Indians fight the local governor Verdugo (Fernando Lamas). Together with his German advisor Lt. Franz Von Klemme (Eric Braeden, aka Hans Gudegast) and witnessed by American railroad executive Steven Grimes (Dan O’Herlihy), Verdugo has decided to completely wipe out the rebellious Yaqui tribe. Yaqui Joe, Sarita, and eventually Lyedecker band together to lead the rebel army against Verdugo. They rescue the children from a slaughter, ambush a train and then use the locomotive to lead an assault on Nogales itself.
100 Rifles is a freewheeling big budget western epic with more shooting than a war movie, which is exactly what audiences wanted in 1969: don’t you know there’s a war on? Producer Marvin Schwartz (The War Wagon) hired an interesting mix of talent. Top-billed Jim Brown was making news as the biggest black star since Sidney Poitier, and Raquel Welch was by this time a very hot property. Burt Reynolds hadn’t busted into top stardom yet, but as an ex-stuntman he had a physicality that even Clint Eastwood couldn’t deliver. Director Tom Gries had just received good notices for Will Penny, although this battle tale has little use for sensitive acting.
The film alternates large action scenes with ‘smart’ dialogue exchanges, the kind that end with a snappy line to cue a big blast of music and a cut to more action. The Spanish locations provide the scenery and Jerry Goldsmith the rousing music score, but the acting is on the weak side. At this point in their careers Welch, Brown and Reynolds were good enough to bounce lines off of good actors, but they’re stuck with each other. Most of their readings don’t mesh well, as if each were acting separately. Jim Brown is steady but monotonous, the kind of player that reacts by not reacting. Burt Reynolds likes to chew scenery to grab attention, but he plays much of his dialogue as if he were in an animated cartoon. More often than not Burt will say something, and Brown’s answer won’t sound like an answer, even though the words are right.
Raquel Welch is really a special case. Still known as the babe in the fur bikini and a leggy walk-on for Bob Hope USO shows, Ms. Welch wouldn’t get a chance to really act for years. She’s the biggest surprise in 100 Rifles, as publicity had built her up as a Latin beauty. Her voice for the ‘fiery Mexican Indian’ Sarita seems false in both English and Spanish, as if filtered through earlier speech training designed to give her refinement. The script has plenty of Spanish dialogue, all of which sounds great until Ms. Welch gets involved.
Audiences were also hopped-up about the film’s interracial sex scenes, something that was still news in mainstream fare — and surely illegal in more than a handful of states. Welch and Brown get it on, or at least begin to, and the film even proclaims it on the poster. All we’re thinking is that Brown must weigh twice as much as Welch does, and looks four times as big.
The movie delivers plenty of exciting violence, with the three stars heavily integrated into big action set pieces. Jim Brown was certainly physical, if not a fully trained stunt person. He performs some fairly impressive leaps and runs, and when he throws a bundle of dynamite a hundred feet, it actually goes where it’s aimed. Burt Reynolds had already proved himself the most physical actor around, with wall-to-wall hairy stunts in his Spaghetti western Navajo Joe. Here he pulls off impressive leaps and landings, often onto ordinary unprepared surfaces. We wonder if Reynolds had to play some of the movie in pain from minor injuries — it doesn’t look like it. Burt and Brown endure one battle chained together at the wrists, and use that arrangement for a number of excellent action gags, including a trick with a brutal horse fall that would give the ASPCA conniption fits. Kids sneaking into the ‘R’- rated 100 Rifles would have thought this the best action adventure ever. It does look like a real train is wrecked in the last battle.
I’ve never seen special credit given to Chuck Roberson, a good cowboy actor seen in many John Wayne movies. But he was a stuntman from way back, and took a credit for second unit direction on this film and the next year’s Beneath the Planet of the Apes. If Roberson is responsible for some of the big action scenes in this show he ought to be up there with director Tom Gries. The blocking of the various gags and stunts is excellent — they even pull off a machete gag with a breakaway arm. It does look like one stunt didn’t come off right, or was discarded in editorial. General Verdugo gets shot in the arm, and in a pre-wound angle we see a thin bit of fishline extending from his arm. Was it to pull something away, or to jerk the arm as if it were shot? I’ve seen pro physical effects men work some pretty impressive tricks with gags just as simple.
100 Rifles is big in scale but small in ambition. There are only two conflicts to worry about — Lyedecker’s attempt to arrest Yaqui Joe and the war between the Yaquis and General Verdugo. Fernando Lamas is merely okay as the cruel General — he rides the horses, executes prisoners personally and wears a pair of chrome pistols like General Patton. Lamas was always a weak link back at MGM, and in his later pictures there never seemed to be much there. Much better is Eric Braeden’s German advisor. A good hand with thoughtful German characters, Braeden plays Lt. Von Klemme as a straight shooter, counseling his boss to stop taking the anti-Indian campaign so personally, and when Verdugo has gone to far, to finish the job and kill them all. Braden chooses to underplay and easily steals every scene from Lamas.
The most entertaining actor in view is the great Dan O’Herlihy, who would eventually play The Old Man in the first two Robocop movies. His railroad executive has no political agenda; he just reacts to Verdugo’s outrageous killings and for a while becomes a prisoner of the heroes. O’Herlihy plays as if it is all really happening to him — he’s the only one seriously concerned about getting hurt.
Hardly anybody else has lines but there are some standouts in the supporting cast. The easily recognized Spanish actor Aldo Sambrell is Verdugo’s first lieutenant; he’s a pleasure to see simply because he’s in everything, as if local laws required his participation. Old pal Michael Forest is a Yaqui muscleman action guy backing up Sarita, but given little if any dialogue — Forest started long ago with Roger Corman, and played the title role in Corman’s dime store sword ‘n’ sandal movie Atlas.
And horror fans will want to see the sexy scenes with cult actress Soledad Miranda, who made a number of Jesus Franco films before dying at an early age. Her nudity earns the film its ‘R’ rating. Getting into the ‘boy fun’ spirit, star Raquel Welch plays a scene beneath a railroad tower waterspout in a sheer wet something-or-other. Her contract excluded nudity but she compensates by — fondling herself! I guess Ms. Welch decided that if Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds can risk breaking their necks, she could flaunt some of the sex symbol cred she had built up.
100 Rifles is a lightweight but reasonably diverting action picture from a year when Italo oaters were the rage. For a film about adventurers battling Mexican armies, it’s better than the drawn-out El Condor but nothing compared to Sergio Leone’s Duck You Sucker, which by comparison plays almost like a David Lean picture.
See also Sergio Mims’ Shadow and Act article
‘100 Rifles’ and the Rise of the Black Action Hero
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of 100 Rifles is a good encoding of this Fox release from 1969. Some scenes seem a bit yellow but colors overall are very good. The picture is so sharp that we can see when fish line is used in effects gags. We also get to closely examine Burt Reynolds’ brown body makeup, which doesn’t seem natural but stays on somehow even in the sweaty heat. He must have felt a mess, covered in grease in all that dirt and dust.
Kino throws on a trailer gallery of other western offerings. The laid-back commentary gives us a friendly discussion between Cinema Retro magazine publisher Lee Pfeiffer and his happy cohorts Eddy Friedfeld and Paul Scrabo. They’re experts on the pop cinema of the ’60s, and have plenty of information to offer on the stars and director Gries.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Good –
Supplements: Commentary with Lee Pfeiffer , Eddy Friedfeld and Paul Scrabo; trailer gallery
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 12, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson