A fairly standard Louis Lamour western. Shalako, the hunter and tracker has to save a party of European hunters who are in danger from an Indian uprising.
“But why attack us? We’re just a hunting party.”
These days it’s tough to carry a sequel much less a franchise if you’re not donning a superhero costume. In 1968 after playing James Bond for five films Sean Connery decided to call it quits in hopes of salvaging his career beyond dry martinis and witty catchphrases. Before returning to 007 once more in 1971 for Diamonds are Forever Connery accepted a number of different roles that he hoped would showcase his talents beyond the gentlemen spy.
Connery’s career escape included the title role in the Euro-western Shalako. Directed by Edward Dmytryk and based on a Louis L’Amour novel, Connery would find his character’s boots easy to fill. Shalako is a mysterious yet honorable ex-army loner who acts as peacekeeper for the New Mexico Apache reservation. Add some impressive charm and confidence and you’ve essentially got 007 on a horse. With an impressive cast of international actors including Brigitte Bardot, Jack Hawkins, Honor Blackman, and Peter van Eyck the film looks great on paper and certainly was an easy choice for Connery. Well that and his million dollar paycheck helped, too.
The film opens on a crawl listing the European big game hunters that headed to the American West including Dickens and Kipling. We meet our group of European aristocrats on a hunting safari through New Mexico led by the shady Fulton (Stephen Boyd). Unfortunately he hasn’t been completely honest about the dangers they could face on their excursion into Apache territory. The well groomed Countess Irina (Brigitte Bardot) is brought on this far reaching escapade by Sir Charles (Jack Hawkins) and Lady Daggett (Honor Blackman) in hopes that she’ll agree to marry Baron Frederick Von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck). Along with them are Senator Henry Clarke (Alexander Knox) and his unsatisfied wife Elena (Valerie French). Thanks to Fulton and his men cornering a mountain lion, Irina cracks off a close shot which is dually rewarded with a champagne toast. Bardot is dressed completely in black with a top hat and enough black mascara to drain a magic marker. It’s quite a sight to behold just a few minutes into the film. When Irina is cornered by some Apache riders, Shalako rides in to serve his brand of frontier justice to save her. Obviously, he fancies her instantly.
Shalako makes a deal with the Apache to get the Countess and her party off the reservation before sunrise. They return to the party’s encampment to find them preparing for a formal dinner complete with fine china and crystal stemware. Shalako informs the Baron of the impending Apache slaughter if they stay on the reservation. He laughs it off insisting they’re protected by an American army that has a consistent record of breaking treaties with “those savages”. Angered, Shalako calls him a stupid son of a bitch. “If you had any breeding, I’d kill you” the Baron replies. Shalako rides off to the Army outpost in hopes that they’ll intervene before the Apache arrive at sunrise. When he returns there are far more troubles than he expected.
Shalako is a fine western with some thoroughly engaging moments. Those familiar with it will certainly remember the high points including the rousing theme song that introduces the film (and gives away the entire plot three times). “SHALAKO! Would gamble his life to own a woman!” Memorable also is the mountaintop boudoir scene with Bardot and the awkward rope climbing scene toward the film’s 3rd act. On the commentary track, Alex Cox indicates that the studio needed a “safe pair of hands” on the production. Shalako being such an international production from financing, locations, and cast/crew it’s no wonder the studio needed stability in the director’s chair. Throw in two giant sex symbols of the time and the last thing you want is a wild card helming a rather simple production.
Dmytryk tells a rather cut and dry story but it’s the little subplots and violent moments that truly steer this film for me. Sure, Connery and Bardot carry the narrative thrust of the film, but for being sex symbols they’re rather boring with a complete lack of chemistry between the two. Honor Blackman has a far more interesting romantic subplot than Bardot’s “will she or won’t she” conundrum. Blackman’s Lady Daggett not only has a romantic interlude with Fulton, but she gets corpse blood sprayed in her face twice and is on the receiving end of a rather suggestive ritual by the Apache involving a handful of dirt. After the opening scene of Bardot shooting the mountain lion her character, unfortunately, becomes less interesting. I suppose it’s no surprise that her acting career faded right after Shalako and her interests in animal welfare took over. Connery fairs well in the film thanks to a character he can navigate with little difficulty. The supporting cast is quite good including Woody Strode as the Apache warrior Chato and comedian Eric Sykes as Mako the safari’s lone manservant.
The premise alone of the European hunting party in the West ambushed by Apache warriors is enough to grab my attention. The juxtaposition of the regal appointments, class warfare, and politics against the dusty landscape of New Mexico’s Apache reservation makes for an interesting multi-layered film. Thankfully Dmytryk also offers up enough tense action sequences to balance the proceedings even if the 3rd act slows down a bit.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Shalako arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics label. The film is pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc and housed in a standard keepcase with reversible artwork. Once the disc is loaded you arrive at a static menu screen after a quick KL logo. Included in the package is a 12-page Studio Classics booklet with artworks from their impressive catalog.
Presented in 1080p with a 2.34:1 aspect ratio Shalako looks great in HD but not perfect. Clarity is an issue with prominent noise and flickering evident from the opening frames. Once Connery and Bardot are on screen things clear up a bit. Blacks are deep in costuming and colors pop nicely even if the color palette is rather drab at times. Film grain is apparent and plentiful. I would like to see the film a bit cleaner in terms of dirt and artifacts though. Those looking for a gritty presentation of the film will be pleased with Shalako on Blu-ray.
Saddled with a 2.0 DTS-HD MA sound mix Shalako sounds as good as it looks. Dialogue exchanges are fairly clear and action effects carry through. Scoring is loud and full as it ought to be in this type of genre fare. Some pop and hiss is noticeable throughout the feature but never distracting. I turned on the optional subtitles given the international cast’s handling of the dialogue. Bardot’s dialogue is especially difficult at times to understand. Fans of the western genre will do good to crank up the volume from the start for maximum enjoyment.
Audio Commentary: Commentary from director Alex Cox
The Hunting Party (HD 3:01)
The Great Train Robbery (HD 2:51)
Viva Maria (HD 3:08)
Meteor (HD 3:36)
Cuba (HD 1:55)
The Offence (HD 1:51)
Shalako is an offbeat Euro-western held together by an impressive cast. Though a seemingly traditional western in a time of genre reinvention, Edward Dmytryk’s film has some impressive action sequences and interesting characters making it more than just a watchable snoozefest. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray package for Shalako offers a respectable A/V presentation. The Alex Cox commentary track is well worth the purchase given the cult director’s knowledge of the genre. Recommended.