A middling entry in the genre of blow-it-up big action spectacles, Paul Wendkos’ Spain-filmed western gives us all the excitement promised by the poster, but with some cardboard characters and lumpy storytelling. George Peppard is on the job, however, and once again proves he can carry a big picture, flaws and all.
Cannon for Cordoba
KL Studio Classics
1970 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 104 min. / Street Date October 31, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: George Peppard, Raf Vallone, Giovanna Ralli, Don Gordon, Pete Duel, Nico Minardos, John Russell, John Larch, Gabriele Tinti, Francine York, Lionel Murton, Hans Meyer, Aldo Sambrell, Luis Barboo.
Cinematography: Antonio Macasoli
Film Editor: Walter A. Hannemann
Special effects: Emilio Ruiz del Río
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Written by Stephen Kandel
Produced by Vincent M. Fennelly
Directed by Paul Wendkos
While providing backing for independent writer-producers like Billy Wilder, Walter Mirisch also shepherded various less ambitious war movies and westerns, notably sequels to his mega-hit The Magnificent Seven. The war pictures were made cheaply in England. The westerns were usually produced in Spain, imitating to some degree the Italo western craze that in 1969 was just beginning to taper off. Made on a sizable budget, 1970’s Cannon for Cordoba can boast great cinematography, higher production values and a more impressive cast than most spaghetti oaters.
Joining the trend toward high-end action thrillers like Where Eagles Dare, Cannon for Cordoba delivers on its promise for plenty of noise and action. To produce, Mirisch brought in Vincent M. Fennelly, whose background was almost completely in TV westerns, but who had just finished Guns of the Magnificent Seven, the second of three sequels directed by Paul Wendkos. The accomplished action star George Peppard keeps the picture on its feet, even though his big-studio career was in something of a free-fall. Peppard had been perfect as an insolent air ace in the giant production The Blue Max, yet he then turned up in much less worthy thrillers, especially at Universal. Then on a severe penny-pinching kick, Universal for a few years filmed everything in the cheaper half-frame Techniscope format, which made their movies look especially bad when pan-scanned on TV. Cannon for Cordoba is thankfully in full-gauge Panavision. It may not be first-rank goods, but it certainly looks good.
Stephen Kandel’s original screenplay is a week pastiche — either that or all of its good ideas were dropped during the shooting. Just before WW1, the murderous Mexican generalissimo Cordoba (Raf Vallone) is raiding border towns in Texas. General Pershing (John Russell) can’t use the regular army in Mexico, so he turns to an elite detail of adventurer-criminal-soldiers to go after Cordoba. Leading the secret mission is Capt. Rod Douglas. The first incursion is a disaster. Acting as double agents in Cordoba’s command, Douglas and his first officer Jackson Harkness (Don Gordon) must watch Cordoba’s sadistic commander Svedborg (Hans Meyer) roast Jackson’s brother alive. Cordoba learns where Pershing is keeping six new howitzer field cannons and prepares a new raid to steal them. Douglas gets word of an impending raid back to the Army, but it does no good — Cordoba’s men take the entire camp and make off with the train carrying the guns. Now Douglas is given a save-face mission: find and destroy the stolen cannon, and bring General Cordoba to justice. The skilled commandos are joined by the Mexican Army officer Antonio (Gabriele Tinti of Flight of the Phoenix, and the Mexican woman Leonora (Giovanna Ralli), who wants revenge against Cordoba for raping her and killing her family. As his men prepare to sneak into Cordoba’s hilltop fortress, Douglas comes up against two problems. Betraying the mission, Leonora immediately turns Antonio over to Cordoba. To carry out her personal vendetta, she pretends that she wants to be the generalissimo’s woman again. And the hotheaded Jackson Harkness has still not forgiven Douglas for letting his brother die, and promises to kill him when the mission is completed.
Cannon for Cordoba has sweeping action and rather good, if impersonal, direction by Paul Wendkos. He and the camera crew led by Antonio Macasoli keep the film frame alive with bold trucking shots and smart compositions. He also uses a camera crane frequently and well, insuring that there’s never a dull frame of film. George Peppard also seems right on task at all times. To join Cordoba’s ranks, Douglas pretends to be a rogue freebooter. Thus he spends the first couple of reels outfitted and behaving much like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Yet Peppard is not diminished — he projects his cynical and arrogant persona through most every situation.
The film is ’eminently watchable,’ which is limited praise. As if knowing that the audience will be undemanding kids and adults, it makes little or no claim on the thinking half of the brain. The ruthless cynicism then in vogue (thank you Misters Leone and Peckinpah) motivates torture scenes that surely disturbed the seven-year-olds that rushed to see the picture. Unlike films by those directors, and Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, we aren’t supposed to think about character motivation. Raf Vallone’s villain simply ‘wants those guns’ and grins as he anticipates another night with the luscious Leonora, and that’s all we ever learn about him. General Pershing and his nervous politico Colonel Hammond (Lionel Murton of The Battle of the River Plate) seem vitally committed to the fight, but disappear halfway through the picture. Crooked Gringo landowner Warner (favorite John Larch) is actually in league with the Mexicans, and is eliminated without too much fanfare.
Giovanna Ralli’s fiery avenger Leonora is decorative but unconvincing — she looks as if she spent her youth on the Italian Riviera, not suffering under the whip of a Mexican tyrant. That Douglas ends up respecting her action — even after she betrays his mission — is an odd touch that aligns with messy personal motivations in other Paul Wendkos movies, from The Burglar to The Mephisto Waltz.
This being a PG picture, the filmmakers have to find some excuse to tease sex scenes without crossing the line. Francine York provides a cooch dance in a costume that would be better suited for TV’s Laugh-In. But he way Douglas avoids being mauled by some prostitutes, and the way he remains strictly platonic with Leonora, put his credentials as a macho hero in some doubt. Oh, wait, the original poster compensates with artwork showing Douglas using one of the howitzers as if it were a shotgun — giving him a bigger tool than John Shaft or Truck Turner. At the end of the line for brainless action thrillers, Cannon for Cordoba substitutes firepower for passion.
Several roles would seem to have been cast from director Paul Wendkos’ TV pals. Nico Minardos’ Peter has hair and glasses that make him look like an anachronistic Albert Brooks plunked down in Revolutionary Mexico. The promising Pete Duel has a spirited attitude that brightens up every scene he’s in; his Andy is the class clown of this particular Dirty Half Dozen. But it’s practically Duel’s only theatrical film role — he would soon enjoy a hit with his own TV series, and then die unexpectedly in a suspected suicide.
The movie also has a heavy Italian contingent. Giovanna Ralli has a Mirisch connection through Blake Edwards laugh-challenged comedy What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? but I found no similar contractual linkage for star Raf Vallone. The roguish Aldo Sambrell has a small role but several close-ups — he’s ubiquitous in Italian, English and American films shot in Spain. I’ll bet he had a good agent; when we interviewed him back in 2004, he insisted that he was the ‘Marlon Brando of Spain.’
Some Italo movies around this time used the Mexican revolution to make political statements, usually rather obviously. In reality, a contingent of Pancho Villa’s troops did indeed cross the border and raid a couple of towns, which did prompt a U.S. Army incursion into Mexico and some bloodletting. Cannon for Cordoba only political statement is that Mexicans are sneaky and violent. Cordoba and his outfit aren’t revolutionaries, nor are they government troops. He’s instead his own nation, more like a villain in a James Bond movie. As if not wishing to risk bookings in Germany, Cordoba’s sadistic European advisor-commander Svedborg is Swedish. We know he’s sadistic, because Cordoba clearly says, “This is my most trusted commander. He is a sadist.” No character shadings there.
As I’ve tried to emphasize, Cannon for Cordoba is kinetic, noisy and great to look at. It maintains interest despite its flaws, but is ultimately undermined by a lack of finesse. The infiltration of Cordoba’s fortress is simply silly — the Mexicans have been told they’re under attack, yet throw a standard drunken bash to allow the commandos to waltz in and blow everything up. Svedborg is told that the prisoners might escape; he does nothing. After a lot of fireworks, the finale seems rushed, with unmemorable, perfunctory exits for heroes and villains alike. But hey — the film delivers the promised explosions, shootouts and violence.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Cannon for Cordoba is a stunningly good-looking transfer from film elements in great condition. Cameraman Antonio Macasoli makes every close-up a beauty — Ms. Ralli looks particularly ravishing. Major action scenes take place during daylight, but also play out in excellently filmed night shoots. Producer Fennelly only goes cheap on the cannon — I’m not sure we see more than one or two at a time — but otherwise this is one good-looking movie.
The picture has some so-so effects, but other camera tricks are brilliant. The landscape viewed through some arches in Cordoba’s hilltop fort is provided by a very large scenic artwork, placed outside the location set. Long shots of the fortress cliff are the work of Spanish effects man Emilio Ruiz del Río, who pulled off great illusions for John Milius, David Lynch, Ray Harryhausen and Guillermo Del Toro. One should check out the page on Cordoba at the Western Locations Spain website). Pictured just below is a typical Ruiz foreground matte, painted on masonite. As explained at the Matte Painting Encyclopedia,
“It was in 1955” … “when Emilio discovered a new system. He had just completed a painting of a cityscape on a huge sheet of glass. When Emilio arrived to the studio at the morning, he found the glass cracked. Probably caused by the extreme cold during the night. They did not have time to prepare a new glass, so Emilio asked the construction team to help him cut a wooden silhouette of the city. He then painted the required scenic effect over the masonite surface. The shot was a huge success and Emilio immediately saw the advantages of the painted cut-out over the old glass shot. There wasn’t the problem of unwanted reflections showing up on the sheet of glass, and it was more easily set up and lighter to handle.”
At about the 63-minute mark is an ambitious matte painting that greatly enlarges the size of the fortress. The camera executes a nodal point pan on Antonio and Leonora’s wagon, going right to left. The alignment is flawless, but if you watch closely, Antonio’s head clips the matte painting a couple of times.
Connecting Cordoba to the Mag 7 sequels is the busy music of Elmer Bernstein, which elevates the film with martial spectacle and high adventure cues. A couple of measures heard here and there remind me of Mag 7 ‘peasant’ themes, but they do the job well enough. I seem to remember debating whether or not to buy the record album — or was that LP for El Condor?
Audio commentaries by Nathaniel Thompson are always worthwhile, as he always comes prepared with production and company background, inside stories, and an informed perspective on the actors and their contributions. Nate also takes a fine attitude toward imperfect pictures — acknowledging the flaws without prejudice. The only problem with this track is that one of his contributors — Howard S. Berger or Steve Mitchell — hogs the microphone, frequently cutting off Nathaniel in mid-statement to go in a less interesting direction. Maybe it’s the coffee; I still found the track to be highly informative. The commentators are big fans of Pete Duel, who was apparently a big draw for kids about ten years younger than myself. From 1970 to ’77 or so I watched very little commercial television.
The disc extras round out with a number of trailers. There are no subtitles.
And remember — in proper Spanish, Cordoba is really Córdoba. You must channel your inner Ricardo Montalbán.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Cannon for Cordoba Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good -Minus
Supplements: Audio Commentary by Howard S. Berger, Steve Mitchell and Nathaniel Thompson; Trailer Gallery
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 5, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson