It seems I’m on a bit of a “young Kurt Russell” roll here. I hadn’t really intended to be, but when channel surfing tonight, I came across Guns of Diablo, a 1965 film which not only features Russell, but another of my favorite actors, Charles Bronson. Well, with a pairing like that, I had to satisfy my curiosity. I was fairly optimistic, but it would seem in this case my optimism was a bit misplaced.
As it turns out, this Boris Sagal film isn’t exactly a film. Or rather, it wasn’t originally. It was edited from a pair of episodes from the television series, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, a western boy-adventure series that lasted one season. And the film most definitely shows its roots there, although for the duration of the film the focus isn’t so much on Jaimie (Russell) as it is on the wagon-master, Linc Murdock (Bronson).
The film starts with Linc rescuing one of the members of the wagon train after his wagon collapses while fording a river. The train decides to stop there for a few days while that member recovers, and sends Linc and Jaimie into the nearest town to get supplies. Even this early, part of the problem of adapting a few episodes of a series into a feature film is already apparent; the script assumes the audience is already familiar with the characters. Watching this 47 years after the one-season show ended, I most assuredly am not familiar with them. A little more work to establish the characters would have been helpful, but the film moves on to the plot, such as it is.
In town, Linc is surprised to encounter an old flame of his, Maria (Susan Oliver) — very surprised, as he thought she was dead. After some arguing and some brooding, we get an extended flashback of Linc — not yet a wagon-master — becoming a work hand on a ranch where Maria also works, run by the Macklin family. The owner, Ray Macklin (Morris Ankrum) is a reasonable man, but his three sons Dan, Carey, and Rance (Rayford Barnes, Ron Hagerthy, and Jan Merlin) are nearly psychotic, always ready to pick a fight with anyone. Rance has plans for Maria, and thinks (correctly) that Linc is making a move on “his girl”, and violence ensues… leading to the present day where a bitter, jaded Maria is married to Rance and the Macklin brothers have the run of the town. More violence ensues.
It seems like one third of B-movie westerns have the title “Guns of Something”, and a quarter have the title “Something of Diablo”. So it’s not really surprising that Guns of Diablo comes across as being a very generic, trite story. The villains are caricatures, the plot is mundane and a bit contrived, and the dialogue is something out of a soap opera. Bronson does his best with what he’s got, but it doesn’t have the enthusiasm of his earlier work in The Magnificent Seven; I get the impression he wasn’t all that impressed with the show’s scripts himself. As for Russell, well, he’s (obviously) even younger here than in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and it’s even harder to recognize him as being the person who will grow up to be, well, Kurt Russell. He’s still a very capable child actor, but he’s not putting any of his own spin on anything yet… and the script isn’t good enough to get by without some added spin. About the only real highlight here is Douglas Fowley as Mr. Knudsen; he brings the former prospector to life a lot more than the other characters on screen.
From what I read after watching the movie, it looks as though the film was spliced together in order to cash in on the rising popularity of Bronson and growing awareness of Russell. After having seen it, I suspect both of those actors would have preferred it to have not seen the light of day. It’s not exciting, and it’s not well-written. And talented though the actors are, they can’t rescue it from mediocrity.