One of the most unusual westerns ever filmed, Duel at Diablo deals with a number of clicheish situations in a refreshing, fascinating manner. More engrossing than entertaining, the intense emotion and delicately intertwined subplots are almost hypnotically effective in holding the viewer’s attention. James Garner, Sidney Poitier and Dennis Weaver headline an excellent cast. Beautiful locations and an eerie soundtrack add to the overall power of the production. This film is probably too violent for many young viewers, but will prove a most satisfying experience for western buffs who prefer gritty realism to the more common shlocky horse operas. Duel at Diablo will never be found in a listing of top westerns, but it belongs there. In fact, it holds its own in any movie library, regardless of genre.
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I grew up watching westerns on VHS, but I felt I had out grown them when I reached High School. The few I still liked were either more modern or ones that I had seen at just the right age for me to accept them as part of the natural order of things and that was that (Same reason Errol Flynn is the only Robin Hood and Tyrone Power is Zorro, anybody else is just an actor). Other westerns I watched seemed silly and cheesy, simplistic stories of good and bad with no depth. It was around this time when I saw the Big Country and Duel at Diablo for the first time. In these films, I saw for the first time westerns that were more than cowboys and Indians.
Duel at Diablo has many plot lines, from the common Calvary vs. Indians to James Garner seeking vengeance for his Indian wife. But the film is really about how people survived in the west. Nobody in the film is a “bad guy,” although some are more morally reprehensible than others. Everyone just wants to get by with their life, to live with the freedom that was the dream of the American West. Unfortunately, as history taught us, everybody’s dream conflicted. The film does not pull punches when it comes to showing how both sides felt they had a legitimate claim to the land but also that members of each side understood the other’s claim.
Finally, to address another reviewer who pointed out what he considered major and blatant flaws in the movie. The first is the soundtrack, which I enjoyed and I wish I could find a recording. It is a bit bouncy at times, but not in happy-go-lucky way. It seemed to me to more exemplify that through all the sorrow and hardship, people did find joy in their lives, that they believed all the work was worth it to live as free men. The second flaw referred to Sidney Poitier’s character, commenting on the fact that people seemed remarkably tolerant for a time that the reviewer felt was not. In fact, this is one of the movies strengths. The film demonstrates that capability was valued far more highly than skin color. They cannot afford the “luxury” of being racist; they have more important things to worry about. It was at a later point, historically, as settlements grew and became stable, that racism would have set in. But on the frontier, as isolated as these people are, they cannot afford to drive away a man as obviously talent or capable as Sidney Poitier’s character.
All-in-all, a very well done movie and my favorite western to date.
I love a good western, and Duel at Diablo certainly contained enough elements of the classic western movie to keep me interested throughout it’s 103 minute running time, but some flaws seemed a bit obvious.
The movie centers on a plot to deliver a cache of ammunition from one fort to another through a harsh and foreboding desert land. The troops are green and inexperienced, and the desert terrain is the least of their worries as a local Apache tribe has decided to mount a last stand against the injustices heaped upon them and attack the convey and steal the munitions in an effort to free themselves and their spirits from the poor treatment and paltry reservation land given to them by the uncaring government.
James Garner plays Jess Remsburg, an experienced scout who has a personal interest in following the convey to their destination as he believes the murderer of his Native American wife is there. Sidney Poitier is also along for the ride, as Toller, an ex-army man turned horse dealer that supplies the cavalry with raw mustangs. Turns out he won’t get paid for his recent delivery of horses as they are not saddle broken and he must ride with the convey and tame the horses along the way. The other recognizable actor is Dennis Weaver, who plays Willard Grange, a merchant who must get a load of supplies to the fort, and wheedles his way to tag along with the cavalry, despite protests from the lieutenant in charge, as the lieutenant thinks speed will be of the utmost importance, with the Apache tribe on the warpath and the lack of experience in his troops. Also, there is yet another interesting subplot involving Grange and his wife, Ellen, played by Bibi Andersson. Seems at some point prior to the events in the movie, she was kidnapped by the Apaches and escaped only to return to a disappointed husband and unfriendly townspeople as she has now been ‘spoiled’ with her extended contact with the Apache tribe. She has a special interest in returning to the tribe, which is revealed later in the movie.
The director does a wonderful job maintaining continuity between the various plot threads, and conveying the sense of danger between the harsh environments and the disgruntled Native Americans on the Warpath. The fighting is done with a sense of realism and seems quite brutal at times, but never really goes over the top and there is very little glorification of the old west, as seen in many other westerns. The various subplots do provide a nice sense of depth for the main characters, helping the audience develop a feeling of familiarity towards the characters, even the Native Americans. I never got a sense that the movie was portraying the Native Americans as bad guys, and the cavalry as good guys, but just people doing what they had to do based on either orders from superior officers, in the case of the cavalry, or the need for survival and a tired sense of being pushed around a regulated to less than hospitable lands by an uncaring government, in the case of the Native Americans.
The flaws of the movie, in my opinion, are few, but somewhat noticeable. The biggest one was the music. The western score was tinged with a sort of bouncy beat that detracted seriously from what was being shown on the screen. It would, almost in a humorous fashion, counteract the urgency and danger in specific scenes. Another issue I had, a subtler one, was the character Toller, played by Sidney Portier. He’s an excellent actor, and I have no problems with his performance, but since this movie was probably set in the early to mid 19th century, I found it really odd how accepting all the Caucasian characters were of having an African American so closely in the midst as I believe the was a lot more racial intolerance at this time than the movie would have you believe. Sure, there was some towards the Native Americans in the movie, but no one seemed to notice Toller was an African American, and the cavalry troops certainly didn’t seem to mind taking orders from him after their lieutenant was injured. On the flipside, it was refreshing to think that things could have been this way back then, but realistically, I doubt it. The total absence of any racial tensions between Toller and the Caucasian characters seemed to really stand out.
All in all good, solid western movie, with some pretty violent scenes that portrays both sides of the conflict in a seemingly real sense, allowing for empathy to develop for both sides, showing us the world is not black and white, figuratively speaking. The picture is in wide screen format, and is crisp and clear showing many beautiful desert landscapes between all the killing. The audio was quite good, also, sounding clear und unmuddled. There are subtitles available, but I didn’t need to use them as I could hear all the dialog clearly. Throw in a trailer and that’s it for the special features, but, as always, I’d prefer an excellent print and good audio to gobs of useless features…