"Charro" is for Elvis and his fans the film that got away. Finally, a role where Elvis does no singing at all and the results are not much better than the worst formula musicals. The failure of the movie is all the more frustrating because you can see in "Charro" the outlines of a much better film and maybe a different future in Hollywood for Elvis.
Written and Directed by Charles Marquis Warren, "Charro" tells the story of Jess Wade a former outlaw turned straight in a Western American near the Mexican Border in approximately the 1870s or 1880s. Jess was formerly a member of an infamous band of outlaws called the "Hackett Gang" run by the nefarious Vince Hackett (Victor French). Jess decided to go straight after hooking up with Vince's girlfriend Tracy (Ina Balin) who convinced him to leave the gang leaving Vince with egg on his face. Vince's humiliation is even more so since the script indicates that Jess was a kindred spirit and kind of like a brother to Vince. Their closeness is exacerbated by the fact that Vince's real brother- Billy Roy- is something of a mental defective unable to control his behavior or his appetites.
The circumstances of the departure leave Vince determined to get Jess. And he comes up with a great plan to ensure both revenge and a profit. He and the gang steal a cannon that was used in a major Mexican war victory and plan to sell it to the highest bidder. The Mexican government doesn't know it was the Hackett gang but one of their soldiers wounded one of the desperados with a shot to the neck during the get away. They believe this man will lead them to the rest of the gang and the cannon. The wounded man actually died after getting away but Vince puts it out that it was Jess who was wounded. As Jess has an outlaw reputation everyone believes it, even Tracy. (This is a big logistical flaw in the story, since Jess, who is mentioned by name in wanted posters, was affiliated with the Hackett gang most lawmakers would link them together and the whole gang would be suspect.)
To further the set up, Vince burns Jess on the neck with a branding iron. Not knowing what to do, Elvis turns up at a nearby town where an old friend of his is the sheriff and Tracy happens to live. In a stroke of movie coincidence (is this the only town in the west) Vince and his gang set up shop outside of town and Billy Roy (Solomon Sturges) goes into town for a good time. He goes to the saloon owned by Miss Tracy. She and Elvis tell him to get out and the sheriff comes in to "help" matters. Billy Roy winds up shooting the sheriff and Elvis carts him off to jail. The sheriff then makes Elvis a deputy setting up a showdown between him and Vince.
Vince promises to blow the town off the map with the cannon if Billy Roy is not released by sundown. Needless, to say Vince does not succeed in blowing the town off the map (although he does kill the sheriff with a cannon blast to his home) as Jess bests him in a showdown where Billy Roy is killed essentially breaking Vince. All this has won back Tracy's respect for Jess (somewhere along the line they parted after leaving Vince because I guess she thought he would never go straight). As he takes Vince back to Mexico, Jess promises to send for her.
Just from this summary of the plot, you can tell "Charro" has problems as the story is burdened by several cliche's including the bad man turned good for a woman, the show down at sundown, the lady saloon keeper. This is very surprising as Marquis Warren (at least according to the box) was the creator of "Gunsmoke", one of TV's most literate westerns and a show that was very unconventional for its time.
Of course the transition from series TV to film may explain many of the movie's deficiencies. Like most great TV series, "Gunsmoke" pulled its true greatness from the sum total of characters built over years of episodes. Series TV frees a writer of shows to skimp on character once in awhile and push story because viewers already have a sense of the characters and how they will act in any given situation. Character can be doled out in bits and pieces over a long period. A movie is a totally different discipline and you have to make your points all in one two hour shot.
Where you can most see this in "Charro" is in Jess Wade's character. He's a cipher given no definining characteristics and while other characters provide us with the insight on his intelligence and craftiness we hardly ever see any example of it. He defeats Vince by the time honored trick of holding a gun to his brother's head to insure an advantage in a shootout. Except for some sadistic taunts to Billy Roy we never see the side of him that pulled him to the wrong side of the law or the thoughtful nature that brought him back. He's rather a cardboard standard western action hero. He's brave of course but that's because he's the lead in a western movie nothing more.
Elvis doesn't add a whole lot to the role. He's professional but other than the flash of sadism he reveals in those scenes I mentioned with Billy Roy any other actor could have played the part with arguably greater success. In scenes, where Elvis is agitated he's very predictable with the same rhythm in his voice to express anger. Plus, he has absolutely no chemistry with Balin. In the scenes where he takes her in his arms his body language is absolutely stiff. It's as if he's never held a woman before or wants to keep her away. (Elvis does register some believable amazement as he watches the cannon roll down the hill into Billy Roy.)
Still, though given lines like "a no good beautiful woman" even Marlon Brando would have struggled.
Balin herself is terrible but she doesn't have much to work either with as her character is the most stock cliche' in the picture. You never sense why this prim upright lady would be involved with either Jess or Vince.
To be fair to both Elvis and Balin, there are plenty of indications in the movie that Marquis Warren didn't know how to handle actors. James Almanzar and Barbara Werle who play the sheriff and his wife are just terrible. Werle looks as if she's in her first high school play. And even the bit players struggle.
The move from TV can be to blame here as well. In series TV, after the first few episodes where the cast finds their characters, the actors are on their own.
The shortcomings of the actors though also emphasize the shortcomings in Marquis Warren's script as French and Sturges come off better because their parts are a more interesting. Sturges overacts but he brings an electricity to the perverted Billy Roy that is sadly missing from the rest of the performances. Perhaps playing a bad guy freed him from the curse of underacting that affects the other members of the cast.
Big brother Vince (French in the movie's best role and performance) is another story. As written and played by French, he's a bad guy who doesn't know he's a bad guy. He's a bully and a killer who will do anything to get what he wants. He also though compensates a bartender for busting up his place in a shoot out with Jess. He apologizes to gang members after arbitrary outbursts. And despite constantly belittling his brother, he clearly loves him passionately. In fact, Vince's end comes largely through sacrifice for Billy Roy. He and the gang could move on and let the chips fall where they may for Billy Roy but Vince won't leave him behind. There is also an indication he loves Tracy and Vince as well. He's what is "Charro" is lacking in all other respects- a three dimensional character.
French brings him power and charisma and humor. You can see why men would follow him.
He also brings him pathos. The look of anguish on his face as Tracy describes Billy Roy's actions that led to his arrest really captures the self-delusion of the character. When Tracy tells him he can't blame their breakup on Billy Roy, we feel for him. This is even more so when Billy Roy dies. Holding back tears, he fires off the remaining shots in his gun as quickly as he can like a child in a tantrum. When he shouts, "Good Friend Jess Wade!" you can feel the wheels coming off his world. He's really a tragic figure who belongs in a better movie. (So does James B. Sikking's "Gunner" who seems to get off on committing crimes and his own prowess with fire arms using fire arms to committ them. He's evil cause it's fun.)
I'm not sure even Vince makes "Charro" worth a look for all but die hard fans though because the rest of the movie throws water on that fine role and performance. First, although Marquis Warren created a good character in Vince Hackett, his script emphasizes the wrong character relationship. The center of the movie is the Jess and Tracy relationship which is utterly predictable. The real heart of the movie should have been the relationship between Jess, Vince, Billy Roy and the gang.
My very favorite scene in the movie is where the gang shows Jess the victory cannon. It's less spite than showing off- "Look what we did without you Jess." You get the impression that the gang would let bygones be bygones if Jess would come back.
There are also holes in Marquis Warren's narrative thrust as well. While the idea of the stolen revolutionary cannon is compelling, Marquis Warren steers away from it and concentrates on the more pedestrian showdown. That the gang uses the cannon to their advantage, while its in their possession, to make them a law unto themselves is a great touch though.
The story also appears to have been hurt in editing as well. Sturges yells in one scene "How am I supposed to look at her when you cut out her face?" and the camera flashes to a picture of a naked woman with her butt cut out. As it's played, it's meant to be line fraught with meaning but the viewer has no idea what it refers to. Later Vince kills a character and Elvis in the big showdown doesn't mention him when he's trying to account for the whereabouts of all the gang members. How does Jess know he's not there?
You can see the difficulties in leaping to the silver screen in Marquis Warren's direction as well. The action in the movie appears to be constrained in most scenes and Marquis Warren seldom uses the wide screen to his advantage. There is no sense of space for the most part, an essential component of a western.
More than anything though the film is brought down by its conventions. The Hugo Montenegro (kind of a minor league Ennio Morricone, his score is ok. The big surging horn moments are bland but there are nice guitar motifs that emphasize the dark side of the film) score and Elvis' bedraggled bearded appearance lead us to believe that this is an attempt at the type of Spaghetti western pioneered by Sergio Leone. However, the movie is lacking any of the mythic elements that made Morricone's westerns. It also lacks their violence and sense of action. It also does not achieve the level of character development on a progressive TV western like "Gunsmoke". Instead, it comes far too close to the conventions of the B Western of the 1940s and 1950s despite some promising elements. So, therefore it was not the opportunity for Elvis that he and we would want.
Last edited by likethebike on Fri Jan 13, 2006 10:12 pm, edited 1 time in total.