The title, and the towering presence of Lee Van Cleef, suggests a Spaghetti Western, so it’s something of a surprise to find that Barquero is resolutely American, produced by the independent Aubrey Schenck Productions and filmed entirely on location in Colorado. Considering the relatively high-profile of revisionist Westerns of the time, it’s surprisingly little known and deserves more attention, not least for the remarkable cast and the absolutely breathtaking scenery.
Barquero is the Spanish word for a boatman and in this movie he’s called Travis and played by Lee Van Cleef. Travis spends his days engaged in the back-breaking work of hauling a small barge from one side of a river to the other, connecting North America with Mexico. Naturally, being played by Ol’ Lee, Travis is a man of few words and keeps himself to himself, his only constant companion being the notably pneumatic Nola (Gomez). Travis likes to keep out of conflicts but finds himself reluctantly on the side of a group of settlers whose township is threatened by a particularly vicious band of outlaws led by Jake Remy, incarnated by Warren Oates at his most delectably sleazy. Having already massacred the inhabitants of one town, Remy plans to do the same again, take Travis’ barge across the river to Mexico and then burn it. Needless to say, Travis has other ideas and finds himself the unlikely saviour of the settlers, assisted by an old friend going by the unlikely name of Mountain Phil (Tucker).
The plot is a simple affair which mostly involves cross cutting between the two banks of the river but Gordon Douglas and the screenwriters manage to make quite heavy weather of it, stretching the film out beyond its natural ability to sustain the interest. Douglas was never a particularly inspired director – his finest moment being the great monster movie Them! - and his lack of style means that the violent set-pieces, in particular, lack edge and excitement; one wonders what Peckinpah or Aldrich might have made of the opening gunfight. But his measured pace does allow for more characterisation than might be expected and he does manage to build a certain amount of suspense in the latter half of the film. Somehow, though, he can’t make the geography of the film clear enough at the start – we aren’t initially sure which side of the river Van Cleef is on – and there’s a howler of a plot hole towards the end which would fox many better directors – if it’s so easy to swim across the river, why don’t the bad guys do it?
What works well about the film, however, is the characterisation and this is largely due to the efforts of the exceptional cast. Lee Van Cleef makes a solid centre for the story and the echoes of earlier films he carries with him – particular Colonel Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More – give the character considerable emotional weight. The great Forrest Tucker is a delight as the ant-eating Mountain Phil whose decision about whether to stick around for the final battle is never really in doubt. Kerwin Matthews does very well indeed with a character part as Jake Remy’s aristocratic Mexican sidekick and there are decent female roles for Mariette Hartley and Maria Gomez – although Hartley is hardly an acceptable substitute for the feisty Gomez, no matter how much Travis wants to sleep with her. Most of all, however, there is Warren Oates who is at the beginning of his 1970s glory days. He’s consistently brilliant here, whether giving in to drug-induced hallucinations or shooting at the river for no particular reason. Everything he does is carefully observed and adds to the sum total of the character; a trait of Warren Oates’ acting which continued for the rest of his career.
Barquero is one of the latest wave of Western Classics releases from Optimum and at least this time it is actually a Western, even if it’s not quite a Classic. The running time of 105 minutes is correct for the theatrical duration of 108 minutes quoted in the 1970 Variety review but IMDB lists the original running time as 115 minutes. Certainly, there doesn’t seem anything obviously missing from the film so perhaps the IMDB is mistaken.
The transfer is framed at 1.85:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. It’s a middling effort, the good points just about outweighing the bad. Colours are accurate and nicely striking and there’s plenty of detail for the most part, although some of the close-ups are a little too soft. On the other hand, in the early part of the film there’s evidence of over-enhancement which results in some unsightly artifacting. Still, it’s a fairly rare film and this widescreen edition is considerably better than any previous release. Incidentally, don’t worry about the texturing on the screen during the opening credits – it’s entirely intentional.
The mono soundtrack is generally acceptable although I had to strain to hear the dialogue in the first few scenes – an irritation compounded by the lack of subtitles.
There are no extra features at all.