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Michael D. Moore
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Could have been a masterpiece, with Sergio Leone at the helm...
This was intended as a totally different kind of role for Elvis. It's the only movie in which Elvis does not sing at all (the theme song is played over the main titles). Unfortunately, the film doesn't really get off the ground. Not far off the ground, anyway. It's a real pity, too, because Elvis could have been superb and the movie a modern classic. Now it's just an interesting departure in a property sabotaged by substandard production values and script.
Elvis acts well throughout but not as well and convincingly as in the other Western drama that he did, 1960's "Flaming Star." The passage of eight years had dulled Elvis' enthusiasm for film-making and, hard on the heels of the taping of his phenomenal 1968 TV special (taped in late June) and one year before his July, 1969 return to the stage, Elvis' mind was on other things. Elvis, so eager in 1956 to get into dramatic roles, had become jaded by the fiscal realities that dictated that he squander his prodigious talent (to a great extent, at least) on subpar fare. Elvis does a competent job in "Charro!" but at some points he does not really seem to be 'into it.' I find that somewhat surprising, because Elvis loved guns, horses, and playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers and the film could have been a blast for him to do. I'm sure that he enjoyed some of the role's physicality, including the horseplay, gunplay, and fisticuffs, but at times he appears bored. In truth, this apparent ennui on Elvis' part is probably less a result of cumulative boredom with and contempt for the path that his film career had taken and more a reflection of him really not being given much to do within the script. The role could have been a lot grittier and Elvis' character more active and proactive. The branding scene and subsequent beating of Elvis' character is pretty brutal, but other than that most of the film seems sanitized. Yep, it has its violent spots but I think that it would have profited from more of it and more of a menacing feel, overall. It's a spaghetti western, man...it's SUPPOSED to be down 'n' dirty, violent, and un-PC. It's got a definite made-for-TV look and feel about it, especially compared with the contemporary 'spaghetti westerns' that were so popular (and by which "Charro!" is obviously inspired) but even with older Hollywood fare like "Shane."
After a promising start, "Charro!" comes across to me as a little bit dull. It has its moments, but they're too few and far between. I wouldn't say that it is a bad film, just that it's a wasted opportunity. Then again, the film came so late in Elvis' Hollywood career, right at the cusp of his return to where he really belonged -- the concert stage -- that perhaps it wouldn't have made a difference had the film been all that it could have been. Still...
The ending is a major anticlimax and the entire film just sort of lurches toward denouement. The key fault is that the story is weak. It doesn't really go anywhere fast and much of the scripting is substandard. The cinematography is also extremely unimaginative -- the potential was great, with those central-Arizona locations, but it's never fully exploited. Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone would have had a field day. It's nice to see Elvis wandering around in the desert instead of being filmed against a studio backdrop. Elvis, as always, is utterly fantastic when he's being menacing, angry, or just directing a withering stare at somebody. His role as Jess Wade is just a little too soft -- well, what I'm saying is that if his role were more directly like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name I think it'd play to some of Elvis' greatest acting strengths. Even without Clint's trademark squint, Elvis was always naturally adept at portraying a lot with just a look. Jesse Wade could still basically be a good guy without being all that nice about it.
Elvis looks cool in this movie, too. He'd have made a great spaghetti-western hero. The legend goes that Elvis felt uncomfortable with a beard and that the male members of the crew tried to put him at ease by growing their own facial hair out. Even Colonel Parker got in on the act.
The sad fact is that Elvis is terribly underutilized. So is everybody else. Just as I think that Elvis' character could have been at least a little harder, so could Victor French's bad guy have been...well..badder. I mean, he was bad, but he was no Lee Van Cleef. Overall, he and the supporting cast did a good job, but they, too, had little to work with. The fact that many were basically TV players perhaps only reinforced the TV-movie quality that I sense in this film. James Sikking (later the SWAT leader from "Hill Street Blues") revels in his role as 'Gunner' and Solomon Sturges is great as a psychotic outlaw. Ina Balin is also very good but she really doesn't have a big part in the film.
What this film really needed was Sergio Leone directing it with a stronger script. Think Elvis in the lead of "High Plains Drifter" -- it could have been done and it would have worked but, again, the material shortchanged the man's potential. The movie's poster promised "a different kind of role...a different kind of man," and it was a valiant effort. I like the film, overall, but it's far, far less than it might have been. At least they had Hugo Montenegro aboard for the music. I've always loved the ominous and atmospheric title song.
If only "Charro!" was a creative progeny of the excellent "Flaming Star," steeped in a late-60s spaghetti-western sensibility.
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