Villa Rides (1968) dir. Buzz Kulik
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Does the name Buzz Kulik ring a bell? Well, it probably shouldn’t because he’s essentially a proficient hack who delivered thousands of hours of American series television, a few forgettable features and a handful of decent made-for-television movies. On the plus side, most of his television work is from the Golden Age and anyone who camera-jockeyed shows like “The Twilight Zone”, “Gunsmoke”, “Perry Mason” and, among many, many others, “Have Gun – Will Travel” can’t be dismissed entirely. He also delivered the goods on two of the best dying-sports-star TV-weepers of all time, “Brian’s Song” and “Babe” as well as an extremely memorable movie-of-the-week thriller called “Bad Ronald”.
In spite of the abovementioned, however, it’s still a disappointment that he is the director of the all-star feature western “Villa Rides” – not because his work is bad, but because the material suggests just how good the picture might have been if its original screenwriter, Sam Peckinpah, had had a shot directing it.
After the studio butchery of “Major Dundee” and his unfair firing from “The Cincinnati Kid”, Peckinpah, that late, great iconoclast of contemporary cinema, took a few gun-for-hire jobs during an extremely low point in his career when he was essentially persona-non-grata in the business. One of these jobs was to write a screenplay about the legendary Pancho Villa.
Watching the picture, one is occasionally distracted from the proceedings by constantly trying to imagine the picture it could have been. On the surface, it tells a relatively simple tale wherein a barn-storming American aviator (Robert Mitchum) runs guns to the Mexican army, witnesses a genocidal slaughter of a Mexican village (a result of his sale of the guns) and his eventual switchover to fight the good fight during the Mexican Revolution with Pancho Villa (Yul Brynner) and trusty right hand (Charles Bronson). From that point on, lots of things blow up real good.
But that’s about all they do in Kulik’s hands. Blow up.
This is unfortunate. Few American filmmakers had just the right feel for Mexico and could bring equal amounts of sentiment, sorrow and brutality to the proceedings. Peckinpah was at the top of this very small list. Considering that Peckinpah’s script (rewritten by Robert “Chinatown” Towne) is replete with tougher-than-nails men’s men who begin on opposite sides of the fence and eventually bond by causing violence for the greater good, one looks in vain for the sadness and obsession that infused much of Peckinpah’s work.
Alas, it is not really there in the final product.
What remains is an engaging stalwart cast and some not-unexciting action scenes. “Villa Rides” has a good amount of entertainment value and makes for fine Saturday afternoon home viewing. One can’t sneeze at this in any, way shape or form. However, knowing who wrote the film and seeing, from time to time, almost-trademark Peckinpah themes and situations within it, one longs for more. Even the extreme proficiency and entertainment value of the action scenes pales in comparison to the mere THOUGHT of what Peckinpah might have brought to them if he were at the helm.
We’ll never get it, of course. It’s not there. It’s solid western action – no more, no less. If you’re able to forget the pedigree of the screenwriter, a rollicking good time can still be had.
And that, finally, ain’t nothin’!
It’s just not Peckinpah.
“Villa Rides” is available on DVD from Legend Films.
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