• Movies 4 You: Timeless Westerns - Rio Conchos / Take A Hard Ride / The Last Hard Men / Butch & Sundance: The Early Days



    Released by: Timeless Media
    Released on: July 30, 2013.
    Director: Gordon Douglas/Antonio Margheriti/Andrew V. McLaughlin/Richard Lester
    Cast: Jim Brown, Lee Van Cleef, Charlton Heston, James Coburn, Tom Berenger, William Katt
    Year: 1964/1975/1976/1979
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    The Movies:

    Timeless Media pairs up four westerns from the Fox catalogue for a pretty nifty quadruple feature! Though these four films were released on DVD previously from Shout! Factory, here, spread across two Blu-ray discs, they arrive in high definition for the first time.

    DISC ONE:

    Rio Conchos:

    Directed by Gordon Douglas in 1964, Rio Conchos follows Major James Lassiter (Richard Boone), formerly of the Confederate army, as he sets about on his mission to shoot and kill as many Apache Indians as he possibly can, an act of vengeance against the tribe that murdered his wife and child – until he catches up with Chief Bloodshirt (Rodolfo Acosta) who was the man responsible for the murders.

    Current army men Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) and Sergeant Franklyn (Jim Brown) take notice of Lassiter not for what he’s doing but for what he’s doing it with – his rifle is identical to those that were in a massive shipment of guns stolen from their brigade. The two men take Lassiter in under arrest but make a deal with him: if he’ll lead them into Mexico where they’re certain the stolen guns are being sold illegally to the Apaches by Colonel Theron "Gray Fox" Pardee (Edmond O'Brien) then they will spare his life. Lassiter agrees on the condition that he can bring his friend Juan Luis Martinez (Tony Franciosa) with him to make sure the Yankee’s don’t pull any funny stuff, and off they go, south into Mexico to get back the guns.

    Not too far removed from The Comancheros, made a few years earlier and also starring Whitman and written by Rio Concho’s writer, Clair Huffaker, this film holds up very well. The picture has a welcome grittiness to it that helps keep it exciting and a rough and tumble attitude that keeps the action coming at a pretty brisk pace. Boone’s character is the most interesting of the batch and he’s fleshed out with enough of a back story that, even if he is basically on a murder spree with a stolen gun, at least we can understand why he’d want to choose such a path. Whitman is his typically gruff but entertaining self here, and his camaraderie with Jim Brown works well here. Edmond O’Brien steals the show, however, as his character takes on a really interesting anti-establishment tone in the latter half of the film that makes him more than just a pissed off former Confederate soldier and more like a dangerous and subversive militia man capable of leading an uprising with his small band of loyal troops.

    Nicely shot and briskly paced, Rio Conchos is surprisingly dark and violent for a film made before westerns really started to go down that path (read that as post-Leone/Peckinpah if you like), but never to the point where it feels out of place or out of context in the story being told. The end result is a nicely assembled picture that makes good use of its cast and tells a fairly gripping story with a decent amount of style.











    Take A Hard Ride:

    The second feature was directed by the late, great Antonio Margheriti under his Anthony Dawson pseudonym in 1975. When the film begins, a cowboy named Morgan (Dana Andrews) comes into a sizeable chunk of money, enough that he plans to head to Mexico with his assistant, Pike (Jim Brown), to live the good life. Before they can get to the border, however, Morgan is shot dead, his dying wish that Pike take the money and bring his wife to Mexico. He obliges but soon word gets around that Pike is cruising around with all of this money, which of course just serves to pull all the lowlifes out of the woodwork.

    Chief amongst the thieves and killers who want a piece of Pike’s loot is a mysterious killer named Kiefer (Lee Van Cleef), who follows from a safe distance intent on getting the money for himself. Thankfully for Pike he picks up a few allies along the way in the form of a gambler named Tyree (Fred Williamson), a beautiful prostitute named Catherine (Catherine Spaak) and mute half-Indian martial arts master named Kashtok (Jim Kelly). Aside from Keifer, however, our group also has to watch out for Sheriff Kane (Barry Sullivan), a tough son of a bitch who wants Pike’s head.

    Made for the sole purpose of reuniting the three male leads from Three The Hard Way, this follow up film isn’t nearly as interesting, as exciting or as fun. It has its moments here and there, particularly when Kelly is zipping around the desert jumping off of big rocks and kicking bad guys in the face, but the plot really meanders a lot before picking up in the last twenty minutes or so. It’s a shame, when you consider just how great the cast is here and how much potential a movie like this had, but ultimately Take A Hard Ride is slow and occasionally even dull. Van Cleef, basically playing the same character he played in The Good, The Bad And The Ugly in this movie, adds some welcome menace to the proceedings in that way that only he can but it’s not quite enough. Williamson is as likeable as always here but Jim Brown lacks enthusiasm and while you won’t have to stretch to much to imagine the two hanging out as they do in the picture, but things just never really shape up to be as exciting as you’d probably hope for them to be.

    Margheriti’s direction is generally good in that he moves things along as quickly as was probably possible and he gets decent performances out of his cast and manages to craft a few memorable set pieces – but the script hurts this one. It just doesn’t give us enough action or adventure to hold out attention and it bogs things down to the point where they crawl.












    DISC TWO:

    The Last Hard Men:

    This 1976 film directed by Andrew V. McLaughlin begins in Arizona when a prisoner, a ‘half breed’ American Indian named Zach Provo (James Coburn), escapes prison with a half dozen fellow inmates tagging along. Now a free man, literally if not legally, Provo’s out to track down a now retired lawman named Sam Burgarde (Charlton Heston), the man who put him behind bars after a nasty firefight that left Provo’s wife dead – or so Provo believes.

    So, armed and ready, Prove sets out to track Burgarde down. Eventually he decides to kidnap Sam’s daughter, Susan (Barbara Hershey), to use as a bargaining chip. Sam, who may be getting on in years, is still very much the tough guy, however. He grabs his guns and hops on his horse and sets out into the desert, his old fashioned ways quickly going out of style, but soon to be proven no less effective.

    No stranger to the western movie, McLaughlin, who learned a lot of the tricks of the trade from John Ford, instead seems more influenced by Peckinpah. The Last Hard Men is, like a lot of Peckinpah’s work, set in the later days of the American west. Technology is on the rise, cars are replacing horses and old cowboys are becoming passé. Both Burgarde and Prove are, like the men in The Wild Bunch, portrayed as a dying breed and not necessarily comfortable in accepting the way that things are going in the world around them. As such, the movie is perfectly cast. Coburn is great as the angry and malicious revenge driven Provo while a curmudgeony Charlton Heston couldn’t be better as the retired lawman out to get him. These men are the right age for the roles, they’re not young and handsome but instead weathered and world weary and the picture as all the better for it. The involvement of the Michael Parks as the ‘new’ sheriff in town, Noel Nye and Christopher Mitchum as Susan’s husband to be, Hal Brickman, is also noteworthy.

    Furthering the Peckinpah connection is the fact that The Last Hard Men is not a picture that shies away from violence. The finale is bloody and tense as you’d expect it to be but leading up to that we get a few nasty shoot outs and at one point a reasonably graphic rape scene. This doesn’t feel gratuitous or particularly exploitative but rather it sets the tone for the story being told: this is a hard world, and as the title implies, these are men hardened by their environment.

    The picture is shot with a good amount of style and makes great use of some beautiful desert locations. The score is solid and the production values too. All in all, this is a well-made film and a surprisingly gritty one at that.












    Butch & Sundance: The Early Days:

    Directed by Richard Lester, this 1979 film explores the early part of the story told in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid with Tom Berenger and William Katt in the roles made famous by Robert Redford and Paul Newman. The story, such as it is, tells us how the two titular outlaws first met and then goes on to explore the consequences of some of their earliest heists and misadventures together. When we first meet Butch Cassidy is looking to make a name for himself. He wants to be famous and makes no qualms about that whatsoever, even going so far as to pay a hobo to walk around town and spread word of his legend. Unfortunately the hobo refers to him as Dutch Cassidy, but he gets an A for effort. As he comes to partner up with Sundance, we realize who is doing most of the work here and who is really concerned with getting what he can out of the heists and who is really concerned with playing celebrity outlaw and reaping whatever rewards he can from that status.

    You could call this film free spirited or you could call it plot-less and disjointed - you'd be right either way. This is really just a series of bumbling heist set pieces strong together by the thinnest of storylines and there's really very little at all to the plot. That said, the movie works thanks to the charisma that Berenger and Katt show in the lead roles. You can't help but like these two guys - if they're not as charming and suave as Newman and Redford were before them, well, that probably won't shock anyone but they are very good in their parts here. Quite frankly, they make the film watchable. Guest spots from a young Brian Dennehy, an instantly recognizable Christopher Lloyd are fun, and look for Peter Weller and Jill Ekineberry to pop up in supporting roles before the end credits roll, but this is Berenger and Katt's show all the way and the two do make the most of it.

    Directed by Richard Lester, whose career was at a commercial dead end for a while after his masterful The Bed Sitting Room (released on Blu-ray from the BFI - see it now and be amazed!) went over the heads of the audience of the day and completely flopped. It's come to be regarded as a bit of a masterpiece over the years but it put him in a bad spot so far as finding work. He tumbled around on various project, some good, some bad, but shows a confidence here and a knack for pacing that helps the film along quite a bit. Lester has a good eye and sense for working humor into situations that may not always call for it and that helps make the movie as watchable as it is. All in all, if the film isn't a classic the way the movie that inspired it is regarded to be, it's still a perfectly entertaining and wholly enjoyable picture in its own right.













    Video/Audio/Extras:

    All four films are presented in their proper aspect ratios in AVC encode 1080p high definition. The upgrade over the standard definition presentations is noticeable in both detail and texture. Colors generally look good throughout each of the four movies with a few day for night shots here and there sticking out a bit. Print damage is never an issue even if some minor specks are present, while the natural looking amount of film grain shows that no overzealous noise reduction has been applied. There’s a bit of shimmer here and there but otherwise, these are solid, film-like transfers.

    Each picture gets a DTS-HD Mono mix, no alternate language options or subtitles are provided. Clarity is fine across the board. Gun shots have some power behind them, dialogue remains clear throughout each movie and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion. Some noticeable flatness is present, as is often the case with older mono mixes, but the audio here seems true and fitting for the movies represented.

    DISC ONE – EXTRAS:

    Rio Conchos sees only the trailer included, but there are some extras included for Take A Hard Ride. The first extra of note is an interview with Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, cigar placed firmly between his teeth, who speaks quite affectionately about making this movie and about his love of westerns. Coming across as a pretty friendly and down to earth guy, Williamson has nothing but good things to say about his co-stars and about his experiences on this film. Also interviewed on this disc is Jim Kelly who talks about his experiences on the film, about what makes his character interesting and what it was like working with his co-stars.






    DISC TWO – EXTRAS:

    The extras for Butch & Sundance include a trailer and an interview with William Katt in which he talks about working on this particular film and offers up his thoughts on the picture. Extras for The Last Hard Men are limited to a theatrical trailer. Both discs contain movie selection and chapter selection by way of some static menus.





    The Final Word:

    Four solid westerns are offered up in this two disc set in fairly good quality and at a price that’s more than fair. The set isn’t loaded with extras but neither is it barebones, all of the supplements from the previous Shout! Factory DVDs having been carried over. Lots of entertainment value to be had here, recommended.