Color, 1964, 107m.
Directed by Gordon Douglas
Starring Richard Boone, Stuart Whitman, Anthony Franciosa, Jim Brown, Wende Wagner, Edmond O'Brien

Color, 1975, 103m.
Directed by Antonio Margheriti
Starring Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, Fred Williamson, Catherine Spaak, Jim Kelly, Barry Sullivan, Dana Andrews, Harry Carey Jr.
Shout Factory (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1, 1.85:1) (16:9)

By the mid-1960s, the big screen western had largely become the domain of Europe thanks to a flood of co-productions pouring out all over the world, largely shot in Spain by Italian crews. The relaxed limitations on screen violence allowed directors like Sergio Leone to depict bullet wounds and beatings more brutal than John Ford would have usually dared, and soon other filmmakers would use the social upheaval over the Vietnam War to pull the genre apart in films like The Wild Bunch and Soldier Blue. Nevertheless, Hollywood still turned out an occasional straight-faced effort that still came out a little odder than intended, as evidenced by this pairing of westerns from the '60s and '70s originally released by Fox.

Better known today for its remarkable Jerry Goldsmith score than its merits as an actual movie, Rio Conchos cobbles together a colorful cast and now feels like the blueprint for the later, more famous 100 Rifles. The plotline is pretty boilerplate as Captain Haven (Whitman), an officer overseeing the shipment of two thousand rifles stolen and sold off to Apaches after the end of the Civil War, is selected to team up with Indian-hating former confederate officer James Lassiter (Boone) to track down the man responsible, Colonel Pardee (O'Brien). Under arrest for possessing one of the stolen guns, Lassiter is joined by a black officer, Franklyn (Brown), and a colorful Mexican, Juan Luis (Franciosa), who's been charged with murder. After capturing an Apache woman named Sally (Wagner) to help guide them, they go deep into Mexico and run straight into a violent showdown.

Spirited and efficient, Rio Conchos is a nastier-than-usual western for the time period and, along with the aforementioned classic score, is augmented with slick scope photography and precise direction from Gordon Douglas, a genre-hopping filmmaker busy since the '30s who first broke through with the giant ant classic, Them!, in 1954. His subsequent westerns were a stop down from this (an ill-advised '66 remake of Stagecoach and the following year's Chuka), but more interestingly, he helmed a trio of surprisingly nasty Frank Sinatra mysteries (starting with Tony Rome), one blaxploitation film (Slaughter's Big Rip-Off), and perhaps the most undignified swan song in directorial history, 1977's hilarious Viva Knievel! As most western fans have noted over the years, the source novel by Clair Huffaker (who co-wrote the screenplay) is almost the exact same plot as the earlier John Wayne vehicle, The Comancheros, which Huffaker also wrote; however, no one seems to care as the execution makes all the difference.

The cast is generally up to the task, with the always solid Whitman making a solid leading man and Boone offering one of his best performances as a morally conflicted rebel soldier. However, it's former NFL player Jim Brown (making his debut here, which led to The Dirty Dozen) and scenery-chomping Anthony Franciosa who make the strongest impressions here thanks to their juicy supporting roles. They make a solid team together, and it's a shame they couldn't have stuck around to make a follow-up film themselves.

Despite its fairly good reputation, Rio Conchos has been treated in a strangely neglectful manner through most of the home video era. It was barely released on VHS under Fox's Key Video banner in an atrociously cropped transfer, and the studio never saw fit to oversee a DVD release itself for many years. Shout Factory's release, licensed from Fox, marks the first anamorphic presentation of the film for American viewers, and it should be a treat for anyone who wasn't around to see it in theaters during its initial run. The quality here is very good overall, similar to a fine 35mm print, and properly framed for once, on par with the rest of Fox's usually excellent preservation of elements for their catalog titles. It doesn't have quite the razor sharpness associated with some westerns from the previous decade, but it still looks a lot better than, say, Rio Bravo.

Paired up with this film on Shout's DVD is Take a Hard Ride, an oddball star-studded western (also with Jim Brown) previously released from Anchor Bay. Most conspicuously for cult movie fans, this was the last genuine western directed by drive-in specialist Antonio Margheriti (credited, as usual, as Anthony M. Dawson), who had specialized in peculiar, genre-bending spaghetti westerns like the previous year's The Stranger and the Gunfighter when he wasn't doing gothic horror films or low-budget space operas. The plot is basically a manhunt for money as wrangler Pike (Brown) is entrusted with a hefty chunk of money from his late boss (Andrews) after a cattle sale, and as he tries to cross the plains, a hard-bitten bounty hunter named Kiefer (Van Cleef) and his associates set their sights on the dough. Our hero is joined by a motley crew including a suave gambler (Williamson), an Indian half-breed (Kelly), and a sexy single settler (Spaak) as the chase across the West picks up steam.

The chance to see three of blaxploitation's most memorable leading men together in a western is the real draw here, of course, though Brown obviously gets the majority of the camera's attention. Once again Jerry Goldsmith contributes the solid, harmonica-laced score (which, along with The Last Hard Men, was his farewell to the genre until Bad Girls many years later); it's no Rio Conchos, of course, but it's still vintage Jerry. This was also the last real attempt to make an international star out of Spaak, who had gotten moderate attention with her roles in The Cat o' Nine Tails, Hotel, and The Libertine; she's more interesting as a supporting character than a leading lady, a capacity she's better filled in the rest of her career.

Anchor Bay's previous release of this film was perfectly fine, so don't expect a massive increase in quality here. For some reason this particular western was shot flat instead of in scope, which might account for its peculiar odd-man-out atmosphere against its peers. Image quality is quite good throughout, though, and the English mono track sounds perfectly fine. Rio Conchos only has the original theatrical trailer, but Take a Hard Ride features the trailer (sourced from VHS) and two video interviews, the 16-minute "Spaghetti Soul" with Williamson (and his omnipresent cigar) and the 10-minute "Kashtok Speaks" with Kelly (against a violent orange background). Both of them offer thumbnail sketches of their start in the movie business (with Kelly talking about his karate background and his infamous kidnapping incident) and how they got involved with this odd international co-production, as well as the significance of heroic roles to the black community. Williamson also says he loves doing westerns because all you have to worry about is "shoveling the horse manure." Yee-haw!

Reviewed on 6/9/11.