Bandolero! (1968): In her first western film, Raquel Welch is being lustfully eyed by a gang of outlaws when one hard case drools the obvious, “She sure is pretty.” To which Dean Martin playing the part of Dee Bishop replies, “She’s not pretty. She’s beautiful. Beautiful as something real fine. Something you can’t never have, no matter how bad you want it.”
After a series of films including One Million Years B.C. and Fantastic Voyage that did little more than showcase her well-renowned beauty, Ms. Welch turned to a genre filled with dust, dirt, blood, and tons of testosterone. She elbows her way in, playing the widowed Maria Stoner, and holds her own against James Stewart as Bishop’s older brother and outstanding character actors like Will Geer and Arthur Kennedy. When Dee Bishop and his gang are about to cross into a dangerous territory, Maria says matter-of-factly, “Bandit country. They kill every gringo they can find.” Dee, noticing her relaxed poise, says, “You don’t look too worried.” Maria smiles, “I’m not a gringo.” A terrific scene and great acting from Welch. What’s not so great though, with corrective hindsight, is the portrayal of the bandits. Not one Mexican character has a speaking part, and their motives are bewildering (i.e., the scene in which the leader in the middle of a major shootout stops to rape Maria is simply gratuitous).
Even with this handicap, the plot based on a story by Stanley Hough (The Undefeated), delivers because of the always reliable Stewart and supporting work from Arthur Kennedy and Andrew Pine. Added trivia for aficionados: Larry McMurtry paid homage to Bandolero! by using Kennedy’s and Pine’s character names in his classic, Lonesome Dove.
Today’s generation may know Ms. Welch for her Foster Grant ads or a face that is brought forth on awards shows to see if she still has it.
Yep. Check. Next presenter, please.
But there was a time when the now seventy-three-year-old actress went from being a model to an actress who sought out parts that would distinguish her. Bandolero! at least proved she was bankable, finishing the year 1968 in the top-twenty grossing films and gave her chance to prove she was capable of acting with something on other than a bikini.
100 Rifles (1969): Raquel Welch teamed up with Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds for her next Western, based on the 1966 novel The Californio by Robert MacLeod and directed by the underrated Tom Gries, who helmed the celebrated Will Penny and one of my favorite 1970s films, Breakheart Pass.
In 1912 Mexico, an Arizona lawman named Lyedecker (played by Jim Brown) travels to a remote village looking for Yaqui Joe (Burt Reynolds), a half-Indian half-white bank robber who has stolen money to buy rifles for his people who are being oppressed by the government. Eventually the two squabbling adversaries develop a truce as they continue to tangle with the politics and suffering of the region. Welch plays Sarita, an Indian revolutionary. In the film’s opening, Sarita watches her father being hung as armed, grinning thugs stand about. When his death goes slower than expected and he’s struggling on the noose, she jumps on him to speed up the process. A very poignant opening that separates it from her first western (by 1969, the antihero was well established in film and Sam Peckinpah’s bloodletting was the trend). And, the plot about arming a subjugated people is a cut above other late-sixties limp fare that had begun to cripple the Western. Also, Welch began to look the part for the gritty Rifles role: the stylish Hollywood hair in Bandolero! gave way to long straight locks with her wiping a bandana over a sweaty brow as she rides and shoots with the best of them. Though, because sex sells, her curvaceous body is on display in an outdoor bath scene that leads an entire train of men to their ambushed deaths, and the famous lovemaking with Jim Brown (that now seem tame by our progressive times) was one of the first interracial sex scenes filmed. Even though the movie bombed at the box office, it holds up well.
Hannie Caulder (1971): Does it hold up as well? Maybe not so much. This old-style, B Western pumped up with lots of sex appeal turns out decidedly mixed results. The Clemens Brothers (Jack Elam, Ernest Borgnine, and Strother Martin) brutally gang rape Hannie Caulder (Welch), kill her husband, and then leave her for dead. She seeks revenge by enlisting Thomas Luther Price, a bounty hunter played by Robert Culp, to teach her how to use a gun.
The beginning of this film is extremely clunky as it shifts from sexual violence to exploitation of the victim. The camera lens glues to Hannie’s posterior as she gets out of a bath meant to shrink a pair of pants, and later, it follows her shapely backside into a saloon where a drunken cowpoke exclaims upon seeing only her rear assets, “God, that guy’s built”—a funny line that seems out of place for a woman who’s seeking revenge for the ruthless acts mentioned. Also, the trio of misfit rapists are presented more as a slapstick troupe when a hardcore approach, akin to Henry Fonda's in Once Upon a Time in the West, would have given the film the edge it craves. The oddness had even extended to a few promotional posters that featured a fetching Welch surrounded by smiling, laidback villains. Stupefying to say the least.
Once the story gets past the bumpy opening, there’s a well-choreographed gunfight on a beach—a welcome change of locale and pace—with a marvelous Christopher Lee cameo as a gunsmith. Welch's chemistry with Culp (gotta love a bounty hunter wearing eyeglasses) works as does the robust action in the final scenes as she exacts her revenge with cold precision. In this last Western for Welch, she continues to show great emotional depth—hinted at in Bandolero! and realized in 100 Rifles—that makes the movie worth a view, but overall, the film is a misfire.
After 1971, Welch turned to films like The Three Musketeers and Mother, Jugs, and Speed that highlighted her comedic talents, and she became a cultural icon to boot. For this cowboy though, I wish she had found a few more Western roles like Sarita that balanced her extraordinary beauty with action and believability. None of the three films reviewed here are near perfection, but I think all are worth a second look, especially 100 Rifles.