Tuesday, August 07, 2018


SAVAGE PAMPAS is an original and complex and gritty and well-acted and visually striking Argentinian-Spanish-American co-production, shot in Spain, from 1966. It’s usually considered one of those Eurowesterns with an asterisk next to it, in that it’s not a solely European co-production and it’s set in the pampas frontier of Argentina.

Director Hugo Fregonese is well-known to fans of 60’s international co-productions, having directed one of the OLD SHATTERHAND films, the downbeat spy drama LAST PLANE TO BAALBECK, and the final entry in the 60s Dr. Mabuse films, THE DEATH RAY MIRROR OF DR. MABUSE. He was originally Argentinian, but went to Columbia University, and was married to American actress Faith Domergue. Since he had worked in Argentina, Europe, and the United States, he would seem to be the perfect choice for this Argentinian-Spanish-American production. When I think about those three films mentioned above, I remember how visually creative and memorable each is. With the OLD SHATTERHAND film, the incredible panoramic vistas of the faux-West (probably Croatia, then part of Yugoslavia) are breath-taking….in fact, that film was issued in 70mm in Europe, and SAVAGE PAMPAS was also filmed in 70mm and exhibited in that format in Argentina (one wonders if the producer of this film gave the gig to Fregonese based on his work in SHATTERHAND?). How I wish that in this lifetime I could actually see a 70mm theatrical screening of either film (or both). Alas, I doubt that will ever happen. If I had Jeff Bezos money, I could make it happen, but I don’t. I guess the best I can hope for realistically is a quality Blu-Ray viewed on a large TV screen (I have 27” presently, so I’ve got a way to go there).

The amazing cast—the kind of cast you find only in these off-shore productions, bringing together people you might not expect to have seen in the same film, in roles you would not expect them to be in—is headed by the great ROBERT TAYLOR, in one of his last roles (we’ve reviewed a few other 60’s Taylor items here—the feature THE DAY THE HOTLINE GOT HOT and the TV series THE DETECTIVES). I love Taylor’s 1960’s work. Some people criticize him for looking older, looking tired, looking uninterested, etc., but he used his age very well, never attempting to look younger, and bringing an understated gravitas to his roles. Taylor understood how much he could communicate with his face and his body and his mannerisms. He’d been a major star for 30+ years at this point, and he knew exactly what the camera would do with every blink of the eye or hand gesture or slight curl of the lip. Taylor plays an Argentinian military officer on the massive frontier, the Pampas, who is faced with inadequate supplies, not enough men, Indian attacks, and rampant desertion. He’s beaten down and burned out, but has an inner toughness and strength that radiates from within. When a new officer, a graduate of the military academy, is offered to him to replace a deserter, and the new man is praised as being “the 2nd in his class of 48 at the academy,” Taylor barks out, “why didn’t I get number 1?” Watching the 50’s and 60’s Robert Taylor, especially the post-1955 work, is to me a master class in acting....and his cigarette-scar
red voice gives authority to anything he says.

Pitted against Taylor is Australian-American RON RANDELL (presumably, no relation to Buddy Randell of The Knickerbockers!), who had an interesting career both in films and on the stage. B-movie fans might know Randell from being in the last Lone Wolf feature, THE LONE WOLF AND HIS LADY (1949), replacing Gerald Mohr in the role—a film I have always enjoyed and have watched 4 or 5 times in the last 20 years. Randell is having a blast as the over-the-top outlaw leader of the deserters—strutting and delivering his lines with the gusto of a Richard Burton or Orson Welles. I can imagine how entertaining Randell would have been on stage (he had some fine roles, including two Terence Rattigan plays). He even played Cole Porter (!!!) in the film KISS ME, KATE (which I have not seen). Hmmm, I’d love to compare that with Kevin Kline’s quirky performance as Porter in De-Lovely (which I have seen). Randell has allied himself with the local Indian tribe, figuring that they are united in their hatred of the Army forces (the Indians, especially their older leader, quickly realize what a slimeball they’ve allied themselves with). Obviously, that alliance begins to unravel.

If that’s not enough, former TV western star and future Eurowestern star TY HARDIN plays an anarchist (!!!) journalist who is embedded (as they said during the Iraq War) with Taylor’s military unit. He’s quite convincing and charismatic, and he and Taylor build a kind of strange alliance as they are both principled men, but with very different principles. Still, each sees something he recognizes in the other.

The plot, which I have not really mentioned and which by today’s standards is somewhat distasteful, deals with marginalized women who are given the choice of going to jail or “comforting” the soldiers….and Randell’s outlaw crew also have their own “comfort women.” To say that the presence of the women on the frontier affects the men’s behavior would be an understatement.

When you take the female element, the fact that there are multiple sides in operation here, each with differing agendas, that Taylor’s men are close to deserting at any point (and a number do), and that you really don’t know what is going to happen or who is going to survive, and then at the end you get quite a surprise, I’d have to say that SAVAGE PAMPAS delivers the goods. The three leads all give it their best, the Argentinian element should be a breath of fresh air to most viewers, and there is a fatalistic tone that rings true. And I can’t stress enough how impressive this film looks, with the endless and dry and ravaged Pampas plains so beautifully filmed in a desolate part of Spain. If you can find a copy, or watch it online, you should do it.

Perhaps what connects with me most about this film is that you have burned out but professional-in-spite-of-it-all characters (Taylor) and idealistic-but-beaten-down characters (Hardin) against a crazy power-mad psycho (Randell), all having to continue to fight battles which were started by previous generations and that nobody, save the power-mad psycho, want to fight and would give anything to not fight, but they all have their pre-ordained roles, and they have to play them. And in the end, there will be no heroes, many losers, and no one will win. Just like life....

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