Sean Connery filmed one traditional Western: 1968’s Shalako. But two others have strong Western bonds (no additional charge for the bad pun) and deserve viewing by anyone who enjoys the genre.
It would have been interesting to see the individual seeking finance for the film: “So, what do you think about a Sean Connery Western featuring French sex-kitten Brigitte Bardot and directed by Edward Dmytryk—yeah, one of the Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy-era 'red scare.' Oh, and we’ll have Woody Strode playing a Native American. … Sounds kinda strange? Didn’t I mention that we’re adapting the Louis L’Amour book Shalako for screen?”
I can just imagine, though, the mention of the name Sean Connery at the time —1960’s biggest actor and cultural phenomenon—immediately got the green light for the project.
Well, the film went on and lost money at the box office. But how does it look through 21st century eyes?
The central plot revolves around a hunting party of European aristocrats led into Apache territory in 1880’s New Mexico by an opportunistic guide. Among the social elite is a beautiful French countess, Irina Lazaar (Bardot), who wanders off by herself. When she is attacked by Apaches, Shalako, a former Cavalry officer sent by the Army to escort the party off Indian land, shows up. He helps fight off the attackers, killing many, and Irina also kills a man in self-defense. Shalako is able to make a treaty with the Apache that if they give him until sundown, he will get the aristocrats off their land.
Shalako and Irina return to the main camp to tell them they need to leave. But the hunting party’s arrogance gets in the way, and they are determined to stay to Shalako’s annoyance.
Irina says to Shalako, “You don’t like us very much do you?”
Shalako, “No. You’re trouble. Stone-dumb, useless trouble. But, you, well, you’re too beautiful to die.”
Actually, he recognizes the countess has more humanity than the rest of the party, because when she had told the others she had shot an Apache, they seemed to think killing a “savage” wasn’t any worse than killing an animal. She’d reminded them he was a man and showed considerable remorse. And that, dear readers, is the only reason I can imagine that Shalako gives a damn beyond it being his job. With the rest of the party he’s been assigned to protect being so greedy, it’s a puzzle that he helps them at all.
Before Shalako leaves them, he shows them how to stave off an attack, and then begins his journey alone to convince the Army to help the wandering idiots. Hours later, from quite a distance, he sees the Apaches attacking and sets a fire high in the mountain to scare them off. It works and with a change of plan, he returns to the party to lead them out of hostile territory himself.
This time, he succeeds in convincing the party to leave, though several more in the group die and he has a climatic mano-a-mano with Mako (Strode), the Apache who had been gunning for him, with a bit of compassion from Mako’s wizened father.
Bardot is an acting standout in a uniformly fine cast that includes Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, and Honor Blackman. Having an African American play a Native American may ruffle many modern viewers. The story itself is well worn but having Connery and Bardot present gives the proceedings a fresh take. Worth a look but with reservations.
Just because the next flick is set in 1854 and involves a train doesn’t make The First Great Train Robbery (1979) a true Western, but there are enough fundamentals in play that most Westerns enthusiasts won’t nitpick. (Known in the U.S. as The Great Train Robbery, it’s not to be confused with the 1903 Edwin S. Porter film of the same name.) This particular movie was adapted and directed by Michael Crichton from his own more intricate novel based on an actual event—the first hold-up of a moving train in 1855.
Connery didn’t seem too out of place, to me, in Shalako but he certainly looks more at home playing Edward Pierce, a member of London's high society, who's also a crook making plans to steal a shipment of gold being transported cross-country to finance the Crimean War. Helping him out is his mistress Miriam, (the charming and underrated Lesley-Anne Down). She’s in love with Pierce, though she’s not so sure of his intentions toward her, especially when he must romance a socialite to further his scheme. Miriam inquires, “Do you ever tell anyone the truth?” Pierce pauses a moment before coldly responding with a calculating smirk, “The truth. No.”
The plan for the robbery is pretty straightforward. They must make copies of four bullion keys to gain access to the money. Each key is housed with a different individual. Enter Donald Sutherland who plays Robert Agar, a pickpocket and infamous screwsman, who makes duplicates faster than you can yell “Stop, thief!” The highlight of the film though is Connery’s daring traversal atop a speeding train; although one might wonder why he decided to don a Scottish cap at the last second, which may have been because if the actor’s toupee flew away, it wouldn’t be too hair-raising (last bad pun in this article).
The First Great Train Robbery is a lot of fun with Sutherland and Connery as perfect matches. It is not to be missed.
Much darker horizons await 1981’s futuristic Outland, a space Western set on Jupiter’s moon Io. Connery plays Marshal William T. O'Niel recently stationed at the base with his wife and son.
It’s a hardship tour-of-duty made worse when his wife unexpectedly leaves him to take their son on the one year trip back to Earth. However, he is quickly distracted as several individuals begin to go mad. One worker goes into the atmosphere without his pressure suit. Another cuts his suit open on purpose. “It happens here,” a doctor soberly informs him. With the doctor’s assistance,
O’Niel learns a strong amphetamine is being given to the workers to make them more productive. But the drug has one potentially lethal side effect … it can make them psychotic after 10-11 months of use, and, of course, the greedy corporate money-makers are willing to take that chance at the worker’s expense.
O’Niel intercepts a message from a corporate chief (played by the magnificent Peter Boyle) that an inside contact will spread the word on base not to trust O’Niel or protect him. This is coupled with the news that a shuttle is delivering a set of thugs to do in the meddlesome marshal.
Like Will Kane in High Noon, O’Neil finds himself standing alone.
When the sympathetic doctor asks why O’Niel is willing to risk his life, he responds wearily, “There’s a whole machine that works because everybody does what their supposed to. I’ve found out I was supposed to be something I didn’t like. That’s what’s in the program. That’s my rotten little part in the rotten machine. I don’t like it. So I’m going to find out if they’re right.”
Outland is very much a testament that human weaknesses will predominate and it takes just one human to stand up and fight the good fight. Though, the movie is a bit dated tech wise, it’s still worth the time, not just for Connery’s reliable acting but also the relevant message.