Saturday, March 05, 2005

Review: Charro! (1969)


Jess Wade (Elvis Presley) is an outlaw who wants to leave his life of crime behind him. He deserts the group of criminals he once ran with, but evidently his old gang has a stop-loss policy and they come looking for him. The gang's head dirtbag Vince is none too pleased about Jess' lack of loyalty, and he frames Jess for a crime the gang has just committed. The crime in question is the theft of a Mexican national treasure, namely a gold-plated cannon. After the confrontation Jess rides to a nearby town where he seeks assistance from the sherriff who was once his friend and mentor. He also attempts to rekindle a romance with the beautiful woman who runs the local saloon.

Vince's half-crazy brother Billy Roy arrives on the scene and promptly shoots the sherriff during a row at the saloon. Jess takes over the job of lawman for his wounded friend and puts Billy Roy in jail. This does not sit well with Vince, who directs several vague threats at Jess to release Billy Roy or else. Jess refuses. Vince and his cohorts take the golden cannon up to the hills overlooking the town and start blowing the bejeebers out of it. One particularly well-aimed shot takes out the house where the ex-sherriff is recouperating. Rather than see the whole town reduced to toothpicks, Jess takes Billy Roy out of jail and into the hills where a showdown ensues. Jess shoots up his former gang buddies and after Billy Roy is accidentally run over by the cannon Vince sees that the battle is lost and gives up. Jess rides off into the sunset, bearing Vince off to face a legal nightmare in the criminal justice system of the Old West.


This film was a bit of an aberration for Elvis - no fast cars, no big song-and-dance numbers (the only song is the theme, sung during the opening credits), no girls in bikinis (although they do manage to squeeze in a hot woman - the saloon owner.) And that beard! Wow - rugged. Was Elvis trying to branch out into more serious roles? If so, I'm not sure a spaghetti western rip-off was his best bet. Mr. Presley does appear to be patterning himself after Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, but he lacks the necessary grit to pull it off. He's got the stubble, but he hasn't mastered the squint and his lips are pouty rather than being drawn into a line. It's not that he's bad - I actually rather enjoyed his performance. It's just so odd to see him play this character that it's hard to take the movie seriously.

Vince, the cruel and murderous gang leader, is played by Victor French. Victor French also played Michael Landon's grouchy sidekick on "Highway to Heaven" (among many other roles), and I couldn't quite reconcile this evil, villainous character with all those kind-hearted curmudgeons he would play later in life. Actually, though, Vince has a kindly side as well which undercuts his ability to menace. In one scene he slaps around his incompotent cohorts, then feels bad about it and apologizes. The guy can admit when he makes a mistake. You don't see that very much in villains.

Billy Roy, as portrayed by Solomon Sturges, has to be one of the most annoying characters in film history. Imagine Gary Oldman crossed with Ernest T. Bass. On speed. That mixture of insanity and stupidity really grates on the nerves. I wasn't able to muster up much sympathy for the guy, even when the golden cannon rolled down the hill and squashed him.

The lingering question I have about this movie is this: why is it called Charro!? Okay, there's one point in the first scene where a Mexican guy calls Jess "charro", but that's it. As far as I can tell it's basically slang for "cowboy." Is this really the best title they could come up with? It inevitably makes me think of Charo, the flamboyant Spanish entertainer whose main claim to fame was that whole "cuchi-cuchi-cuchi" thing. Is that what you want your viewers to think of when they watch your gritty western? I'm just saying.

Final Analysis

Charro! isn't really a Western. It's an Elvis vehicle. While being moderately successful at imitating the style of other 60's Westerns, without Elvis the film would be pretty unpalatable. Watching the King do his rough-hewn Western schtick will entertain his fans and aficionados of weird cinema, but don't expect the Magnificent Seven.


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