In 1970, a couple years before he was SLAUGHTER and BLACK GUNN, Jim Brown was the manly hero of the western EL CONDOR. He plays Luke, who’s introduced chained up in a prison labor camp. But the Union army has a mission that could use his special set of skills, so they make him an offer he can’t refuse: if he’ll sneak in and blow up a train for them, they’ll give him his amnesty papers.
Just kidding, he can refuse! He’s already been through that whole suicide mission thing before in THE DIRTY DOZEN. This time he breaks his chains, shoves the papers in the captain’s mouth and escapes. This is one badass reversal of expectations I’m gonna assume belongs to Larry Cohen (RETURN OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), who’s credited as screenwriter along with Steven Carabatsos (TENTACLES, HOT PURSUIT). Luke is a Han Solo who stays selfish. Instead of fucking around with war shit and learning a greater cause, he goes on his own mission to try to get Emperor Maximilian’s gold that, according to legend, is in the El Condor fortress, protected by the strongman Chavez (Patrick O’Neal, SILENT NIGHT BLOODY NIGHT, THE STUFF, UNDER SIEGE).
Luke tracks down an “old drunken fool” called Jaroo (Lee Van Cleef, HIGH NOON, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE!) who he heard can recruit an army of Apaches to help attack El Condor. Van Cleef is funnier than I’ve ever seen him, and it’s an early example of the interracial buddy movie (six years before SILVER STREAK). Luke is the cooler and more competent one, although Jaroo gets some laughs at Luke’s expense, like when he tricks him into an unwanted duel with a small but tenacious Apache warrior. Luke just picks the little guy up and tosses him, but he keeps jumping on his back and shit.
Jaroo is always trying to act like he’s King Shit, so when he gets embarrassed because he attacked a stagecoach to steal a trunk that ended up to just be full of clothes, he starts yelling. “Well damn it Luke, they’re my Apaches, I’ll run ’em any way I want to, and if I want to make a raid, ain’t nobody gonna stop me!” Luke just stands there and doesn’t say anything until Jaroo yells “Luke, JUST SHUT UP!” This is a strong arguing method.
The movie doesn’t really acknowledge Luke’s blackness. Like, they could’ve made him a slave at the beginning, but they made him a prisoner, surrounded by white prisoners. It’s very possible that it was written without Brown in mind. But as in SLAUGHTER and other blaxploitation he uses his sexuality to intimidate the white (or I guess Mexican?) villain, openly declaring his attraction to Chavez’s kept woman Claudine (Marianna Hill, MESSIAH OF EVIL, THE GODFATHER PART II). And his race makes his complete disinterest in the civil war a more extreme act of anti-hero Not Giving a Fuck.
These boys get into plenty of trouble. They get tarred and feathered, tied to posts on the desert floor, get taken prisoner on purpose so they can bomb the fortress. Jaroo is the bigger scoundrel of the two, but his soft side is revealed when he befriends a little boy.
“You know, me and you got somethin in common. I’m a bastard too,” he tells the kid.
“Yeah. Ain’t it great? Most people are.”
And he even gives him a gold nugget. But later, when faced with what appears to be a giant vault full of gold bricks, he goes a little gold simple. His brotherhood with Luke is tested. Luke accuses him of selling out when he takes a deal for a wagon full of the bars, and they have a fist fight on top of the moving wagon. Luckily Luke knocks him off before it BLOWS THE FUCK UP… turns out they loaded him up not with gold but with painted lead and dynamite.
And the best thing about this scene is that Luke probly had no idea that was going on. But he can play it off like he did.
The bigger trouble is when they go back for the real gold and the chief (Iron Eyes Cody, ERNEST GOES TO CAMP) finds out about it. That’s when Jaroo really fucks things up. Luke and Jaroo end up just the two of them in a fortress full of dead bodies with an army outside and no means to carry all the gold away.
Early in the movie in one of those kind of boring villain-establishing scenes we see Chavez doing a bullfight on horseback. And at the climax he’s on a horse with a sword dueling Luke, who is unarmed and on foot. Is Luke more powerful than a bull? We’ll find out.
Although the appeal is mostly in the personalities of these two characters bouncing off each other, the movie has an epic feel because of the huge battle scenes with so many Apaches and French soldiers on horseback, and the giant adobe fortress set which was built for the movie (and re-used in, among other things, CONAN THE BARBARIAN). And there’s so much fire, explosions, towers tipping, wagons flipping. I love the scene where they silently scale up the walls with ninja foot spikes.
There’s a bunch of nudity during a brothel attack and in what must be an early version of a typical scene where the whole army is distracted by Claudine undressing in front of her window. She spots the attacking army and you expect her to tell on them, instead she uses her boobs to help them out.
Roger Ebert gave EL CONDOR 1 1/2 stars and talked about it as part of a new trend of violent movies. His description at the beginning sounds like a friend recommending it to me: “This movie is arguably not more violent than SOLDIER BLUE, but its violence is on a vaster scale. It kills hundreds instead of dozens. It uses firebombs as well as cannons. There are fewer rapes, but on the other hand more disembowelments and tortures.” He’s exaggerating (sorry – no disembowelments that I remember) but with its violence and nudity this was one of the early R-rated movies. (The first was another Jim Brown movie, the Richard Stark adaptation THE SPLIT.)
I did not know until researching this review that in the ’90s, before Iron Eyes Cody died, his half sister said that he was actually Italian-American and had been faking being Native American. (He denied it.) You learn something new every day. Hopefully more than one. But if not, this is the one I learned today.
The score is by Maurice Jarre – not too shabby, because he had an Oscar for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. HOUSE OF WAX director Andre de Toth is credited as producer. The director is John Guillermin (SHAFT IN AFRICA, THE TOWERING INFERNO, KING KONG ’76, KING KONG LIVES).