As soon as the credits start to roll in Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966) you know you’re in for something very different. A knife suddenly appears to cut through the screen and immediately starts slashing apart the United Artists logo. This stunning gesture told audiences at the time that they were about to watch a very violent film but also a film that was going to defy expectations. DUEL AT DIABLO does that but it’s also one of the most entertaining American westerns produced in the 1960s and a great example of why I appreciate that groundbreaking decade so much. Prejudices were being set aside and old Hollywood was forced to change with the times. DUEL AT DIABLO was made during the height of this transition and although it might not be considered a major film that contributed to the birth of “New Hollywood” it is an important milestone in the western genre thanks to the pioneering performance of its star, Sidney Poitier.
The film’s basic premise will probably sound familiar to anyone who has watched a lot of westerns. It involves a rugged ex-Scout named Jess Remsberg (James Garner) who is asked to help guide a troop of U.S. Cavalry soldiers through Southern Utah as they attempt to get horses and ammunition to a remote fort while avoiding Apache Indians who are determined to stop them. Jess shows little interest in lending a hand even though his friend, Lt. Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers), begs him to. We soon discover that Jess is on his own very personal mission to find out who murdered his Comanche bride.
Other unexpected characters are dropped into the story early on. One of them is a troubled woman named Ellen (Bibi Andersson) who Jess finds dying in the Utah Mountains due to dehydration. As her story unfolds we discover that she was once kidnapped by the Apaches, apparently developed feelings for one of her male captors, and eventually had his child. She was rescued by her husband (Dennis Weaver) but her only desire is to return to the Indians and care for her baby. She continually steals horses and runs away from her husband as well as the judgmental town folk who treat her like a pariah.
Finally, there is Toller (Sidney Poitier), a veteran Buffalo Soldier who now sells horses to the U.S. Cavalry. Toller is a dandy-like gentleman cowboy who likes to spend a lot of money on his wardrobe and is clearly enjoying his civilian life. When the U.S. Calvary realizes that they’ll probably face some danger as they attempt to deliver the horses he sold to them, Toller is asked to accompany them on their journey. Sidney Poitier along with the rest of the cast ultimately must band together when they find themselves trapped in the Desert Mountains with the U.S. Calvary and surrounded by angry Apaches.
While it’s clear that director Ralph Nelson took some inspiration from John Ford’s films (including STAGECOACH, FORT APACHE, THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, etc.) as well as spaghetti westerns that were becoming popular at the time, there are lots of things that distinguish DUEL AT DIABLO from the studio films that came before it. First and foremost, DUEL AT DIABLO contains a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Apache Indians who are allowed to share their legitimate reasons for attacking the U.S. Calvary. The film is also shockingly bleak and violent, as it doesn’t shy away from showing some of the Indian’s most brutal torture techniques.
The characters that populate DUEL AT DIABLO are ornery, weather-worn, bitter, and tormented. Particularly James Garner who had just come off a successful run in the popular television show MAVERICK playing a much more lighthearted character. But amid the anger, mayhem, and bloodshed the film also contains some incredibly tender and heartbreaking moments. Including an unforgettable scene with James Garner who is forced to kill his beloved horse after the animal is seriously injured. Bibi Andersson is also touching to watch as she tries to protect her child from the violence as well as the prejudice expressed by others who aren’t comfortable with having an interracial baby in their midst. And last but certainly not least is Sidney Poitier’s magnificent portrayal of Toller.
Before DUEL AT DIABLO only one black actor (Woody Strode) had starred in a big-budget studio produced western aimed at general audiences. Poitier obviously had very few references to draw from but history tells us that African-Americans made up about 20% of the cowboy population following the American Civil War. Many freedmen (ex-slaves) experienced less prejudice in the Wild West and were able to find good work as cowpokes and ranch hands. Some also joined the U.S. Calvary as Buffalo Soldiers. Poitier’s character is a sort of mishmash of these African-American western heroes but what’s fascinating about DUEL AT DIBALO is there is no acknowledgment of his race. In the film Poitier is just another cowboy. And while his superiors try to order him around, it’s made clear that he answers to no one but himself. He’s proud, independent, tough and smart but he also has a gentle side that’s exhibited in his tender interactions with Bibi Anderson’s infant. Poitier’s confident portrayal of Toller is a revelation if you’ve never seen the film before and it clearly paved the way for his future roles in films like TO SIR, WITH LOVE (1967) and THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967).
Director Ralph Nelson (who also has a small role in the film playing Col. Foster) had previously worked with Sidney Poitier on the Academy Award-winning LILLIES OF THE FIELD (1963). Both Nelson (who also directed REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT CHARLY, …TICK…TICK…TICK… and the extremely controversial western SOLDIER BLUE) and Poitier were both developing reputations for tackling challenging and thought-provoking films that dealt with important social issues of the day.
It’s worth noting that DUEL AT DIABLO was shot in 1965 and released in 1966, just a year after the U.S. Senate had approved the Civil Rights Act. Racial tensions in the United States were running high and the film reflects that in the way that DUEL AT DIABLO deals with interracial relations. James Garner’s character is cruelly criticized for having married a Comanche woman and as mentioned before, Bibi Andersson’s character is trying to shield herself and her child from the prejudices of the times. Although Poitier is the film’s star, the race issues in DUEL AT DIABLO are all related to the interactions between whites and native Americans. And even more surprisingly, despite the grievances that the Indians in the film have with the Calvary, the soldiers are portrayed as upright citizens who are just following orders. Any race-related ugliness or violence that transpires in the film is generally the fault of the ignorant townfolk.
DUEL AT DIABLO often focuses on the drama unfolding between the characters but it’s wound around an action-packed narrative that never gets preachy. The film greatly benefits from being shot on location and director Ralph Nelson along with cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler did a magnificent job of capturing the natural beauty of the Southern Utah landscape. The action sequences are often breathtaking and smartly choreographed. It’s worth mentioning that the film’s stars (including Garner, Poitier and Andersson) did many of their own stunts, which lends the film an unexpected realism at times. The soundtrack by Neal Hefti (who also wrote the original BATMAN theme as well as scores for SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, LORD LOVE A DUCK, LAST OF THE SECRET AGENTS? and THE ODD COUPLE) has a distinctly 1960s sound but it’s arguably one of the best western scores from a decade that brought us unforgettable work from composers like Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) and Ennio Morricone (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS).
Both the film and the soundtrack are readily available and shouldn’t be hard to track down. Just keep in mind that this is a film that needs to be seen in widescreen to be fully appreciated and if you have a good sound system you’ll benefit from the viewing experience even more. Viewers who appreciate a challenging film that refuses to conform to viewer expectations should enjoy this genre-defying western.
by Kimberly Lindbergs and originally published on TCM.com November 8, 2012