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A girl is saved by a miracle after she falls from a cliff in the Argentine Andes, and is blessed with healing powers. A shrine is built on the site, and a whole city grows around it, rich with gold from the grateful worshipers. Ruiz, an evil and sadistic general, captures the city, confiscates the gold, and closes the shrine. But the Gaucho, the charismatic leader of a band of outlaws, comes to the rescue. Written by
John Oswalt <email@example.com>
A genuinely offbeat adventure story from the last great days of silent cinema
Douglas Fairbanks wrote, produced and starred in this unusual and entertaining movie at the height of his career, and the guy sure was in his prime: you'll never find him looking as virile, athletic and sexy as he does here. Sight unseen I assumed that The Gaucho would be another escapist swashbuckler flick, cut from the same cloth as Doug's earlier vehicles and aimed primarily at boys, but it proved to be a real surprise, a combination action/adventure/morality tale with a heavier atmosphere and a darker sensibility than any other Fairbanks film. Whether or not its oddness comes as a pleasant surprise is up to the individual viewer, but for my part I enjoyed the change of pace and appreciated the filmmakers' boldness in attempting something so off-the-wall.
How is The Gaucho different? For starters, Doug himself is different. Based on what little I knew beforehand I figured the title character would be an essentially decent bandit chieftain, a pseudo-Hispanic Robin Hood complete with a new band of Merry Hombres, once more pitted against the wicked forces of authoritarian rule. And in fact that's pretty much what he is, but he's also a flawed character who must mature in the course of the story, thus presenting a challenge for our leading man, who, as even his most dedicated fans admit, was never the most nuanced of actors. Here Doug is still very much the star of the show, but he's playing a decidedly selfish man who doesn't seem all that interested in avenging injustice or fighting for the peasantry. The Gaucho is no Robin Hood: he's cocky and arrogant, and in the early scenes his self-confident machismo is emphasized to the point of obnoxiousness. Like many a silent movie hero the Gaucho has a trademark physical gesture, a one-handed cigarette lighting trick, but once he's exhibited this bit two or three times we begin to roll our eyes and feel he's just begging to be taken down a peg or two.
It's also noticeable that, all of a sudden, Doug is attempting to fill the dance shoes of the recently departed Rudolph Valentino. When he played Robin Hood or the Black Pirate Doug's attitude toward his leading lady was more respectful than passionate, but the Gaucho represents the most maturely sexual character Fairbanks would take on in his screen career. Doug's tango with Lupe Velez is as steamy as any sequence he ever played, even incorporating a hint of S&M when he lashes his partner to himself with a sharp twirl of his bolo. These early scenes suggest that our protagonist -- who has apparently already won the day, and has everything he needs to be happy -- must be riding for a fall. This is where the story's moralizing kicks in, as the Gaucho is compelled to recognize that there are forces at work in the universe even greater than himself.
A pronounced element of religious mysticism is introduced in the prologue, when a gravely injured girl on the brink of death is visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The girl is healed, whereupon she herself heals a dying baby. (The Virgin is played by Fairbanks' wife Mary Pickford, with a gravity that is unfortunately somewhat undercut by her bizarre, spinning halo.) This dollop of Hollywood Godliness, usually the province of Cecil B. DeMille, is interwoven throughout, and some viewers may find the going a bit sticky. Personally I didn't have a problem with it, perhaps in part because the 'religious' sequences are presented with such straightforward earnestness; and perhaps because, if ever a hero needed to find God, it's this one.
Where matters of taste are concerned one might also question the introduction of the subject of leprosy into the scenario. The condition is identified only as the 'Black Doom,' but from the context it's perfectly clear what disease was being represented. Whatever your response, Fairbanks deserves credit for sheer moxie, and for attempting to stretch the boundaries of what was considered permissible in an adventure film. He could have played it safe and re-worked Robin Hood, or cranked out another Zorro sequel, but he took a risk, and all things considered I feel he pulled it off. And it's worth noting that the story's heavier material is counterbalanced by more typical scenes of rowdy play and athleticism. Fairbanks the canny showman also gives us two spectacular sequences: in the first, a house is dragged from its foundations by a team of horses, and later there's an amazing cattle stampede that looks quite fearsome and dangerous. The Gaucho also gives us the young and wildly sexy Lupe Velez, who takes a far more active role in the proceedings than most of Doug's other leading ladies.
All told it's a helluva show, and well worth seeking out. It may not be for all tastes, but no one can call The Gaucho a routine swashbuckler. I would include it with Douglas Fairbanks' most entertaining and accomplished works.
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