Two of Lee Van Cleef's westerns CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER hit Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber.
Former Academy Award winner Philip Yordan (BROKEN LANCE) and blacklisted producer Bernard Gordon (DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS) – several of whose screenplays were fronted by Yordan – collaborated on a handful of co-production in Spain in the early seventies, the most notable being Eugenio Martin's HORROR EXPRESS and PANCHO VILLA. The Van Cleef vehicles CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER were filmed back-to-back utilizing some of the same supporting cast, locations, and costumes, and the screenplays – co-written by Yordan and, respectively, Milton Sperling (I WAKE UP SCREAMING) and Martin – feel just as recycled. In CAPTAIN APACHE, Van Cleef is "the redskin in cavalry blue" assigned by military to investigate the murder of the Indian Commissioner Collier (Luis Induni, THE WEREWOLF AND THE YETI) who last words were the enigmatic "April morning." With April just a few days away, he leans on the sheriff (George Margo, THE MOUSE THAT ROARED) who was with the Collier when he was murdered. He is not the only person who wants to know about "April morning" as businessman Griffin (Stuart Whitman, SHATTER) – who has been selling guns to the Mexican army – even offers up Collier's supposed killers in exchange for any information Apache may learn as well as tasking his hotelier mistress Maude (Carroll Baker, A QUIET PLACE TO KILL) with seducing the "red ass" to find out what he may be holding back. The suspected killers Moon (Percy Herbert, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND) and Snake (Tony Vogel, THE FINAL CONFLICT), however, are working for themselves and drug Apache with the help of a witch (Elsa Zabala, CURSE OF THE DEVIL) to learn what he knows about "April morning" only for him to discover the identities of the real killers in his delirium. With the real killers having been disposed of by their own cohorts, Apache is relieved of his duties. The meaning of "April morning", however, remains to be discovered and Apache finds his further efforts actively discouraged by everyone from Griffin to his own commander (Hugh McDermott, DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS).
CAPTAIN APACHE is a thoroughly disjointed mess in which the suspense of learning the nature of "April morning" dwindles each time someone says (or sings) the phrase. Van Cleef is laughable as an Indian (more so in loincloth when interrogating chief Diablo [Vito Salier, LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE]) and Whitman makes little impression as the suave bad guy while Baker could have done with more screen time and might have made a better villain than love interest. Although the usual Hollywood Indian and Mexican stereotypes are at play with Van Cleef and the supporting cast having bathed in bronzer, the script does attempt to address racism and turns some tropes on their head (in the climax "dumb Indian" Captain Apache having been screwed over by the new Indian Commissioner sarcastically asks Maude to teach him the ways of the white man, and she replies "First, you steal a horse…" to suggest he take action himself). The cinematography of British cinematographer John Cabrera (HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD) is rather bland apart from the gels and framing employed during Van Cleef's drug-induced trip. As if the Van Cleef spoken word theme song was bad enough, the film ends with the actor attempting to sing with the would-be romantic "April Morning" over the end credits. The lyrics to both songs were by Richard Morris, husband of the film's composer Dolores Claman who is best known for Canada's second national anthem "Hockey Night in Canada". The supporting cast includes Elisa Montés (TEXAS ADIOS) as woman widowed by Apache when her husband tries to ambush him, Ricardo Palacios (BLOOD OF FU MANCHU) as a Mexican soldier, CANNIBAL MAN's Fernando Sánchez Polack as a blind guitarist, WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT's Jess Hahn as a shifty priest, Yordan's wife Faith Clift (NIGHT TRAIN TO TERROR) as a rancher's wife widowed by and then set up in Maude's hotel by Griffin, CUSTER OF THE WEST's Charles Stalmaker as a sergeant under Apache, PANCHO VILLA's Dan van Husen and KELLY'S HEROES' Dee Pollock as a sibling pair of effete gunmen, as well as THE BLOOD-SPATTERED BRIDE's Dean Selmier and CAULDRON OF BLOOD's Milo Quesada. The film was one of five features directed by Alexander Singer (A COLD WIND IN AUGUST) whose near forty year career encompassed mainly episodic television ranging from THE MONKEYS and ALIAS: SMITH AND JONES to various STAR TREK franchises.
The only slightly better-plotted BAD MAN'S RIVER opens with Roy King (Van Cleef) and his gang – lusty Angel (Simon Andreu, NIGHT OF THE SORCERERS), suave Ed (Gianni Garko, NIGHT OF THE DEVILS), and dumb Odie (Jess Hahn, THE GRAND DUEL) – making one last heist before parting ways. Unfortunately, King makes the acquaintance of Alicia (Gina Lollobrigida, DEATH LAID AN EGG), a lonely widow travelling with a priest, drunkenly agrees to marry her, and is quickly committed by the priest-cum-doctor while Alicia makes away with his money. Blasting his way out of the state hospital, King rounds up his old gang in the town of their last bank job, but he has a more lucrative line of work for them this time around. After evading the band of bounty hunters the sheriff has set upon them with a promise to split the reward, King's gang boards the riverboat Ariel where they meet Montero (Daniel Martin, CRYPT OF THE LIVING DEAD) who hires them to blow up the Saint Joseph mission where the Mexican army has an arsenal. When King discovers that Montero's wife is Alicia, he starts to suspect that things are not as straightforward as they seem. After carrying out the deed, they learn from Alicia that double agent Montero's reasoning for blowing up the arsenal was not for the revolution but for the one million dollar check in his name that he is to carry across the border, cash, and purchase replacement weaponry. In pursuit of Montero – and learning that the man they know as Montero is an imposter and meeting the real one (James Mason, LOLITA) – Alicia and the gang wind up captured by the revolutionaries – lead by Colonel Enrique Fierro (Sergio Fantoni, VON RYAN'S EXPRESS) shortly before their stronghold is besieged by the Mexican army lead by General Duarte (DJANGO's Eduardo Fajardo). Once sentenced by the revolutionaries to be shot, King and his gang are offered their freedom by Fierro if they can silence the general's cannon.
Bigger in scope and marginally more capable of meeting the film's needs budget-wise, BAD MAN'S RIVER strives for BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID-esque comedy but fails more often than not. Besides the same mission set and bell tower from CAPTAIN APACHE, the film also recycles the train compartments from HORROR EXPRESS (as well as Christopher Lee's fur hat and coat). The Franscope cinematography of Allejandro Ulloa (NIGHT OF THE WEREWOLF) is a tad more creative, and the film once again has lyrics by Richard Morris, although the score was composed by Waldo de los Rios (THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED). The vocals were by Richard Morris again but performed by the band Jade Warrior, including another annoying spoken theme song, irritating choral interjections, as well as a surprising touch of acid rock during a ghost town showdown. Van Cleef is better as steely-eyed villains or morally-ambiguous heroes, and the film would have been better-served by a more charismatic actor for King (even Mason might have been an interesting choice). Lollobrigida has the showier role but manages to be overshadowed by Diana Lorys (THE AWFUL DR. ORLOF) as a female revolutionary who bristles at the attention Fierro shows Alicia, and TOMB OF THE BLIND DEAD's Lone Fleming as the senorita who blows Angel's cover during the mission job. The supporting cast includes such interesting presences as Ricardo Palacios as another Mexican soldier, and Dan van Husen as one of the bounty hunters, TENDER FLESH's Aldo Sambrell as a bandit collaborating with the Mexican army, CASTLE OF FU MANCHU's José Manuel Martín, and WEREWOLF SHADOW's Barta Barri.
Released theatrically by Scotia-Barber, CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER was released on VHS by Paragon and then a number of PD labels throughout the eighties and nineties. At the dawn of DVD, they fell into the hands of the company TV Matters along with the other Scotia-Barber titles and made their digital debuts courtesy of Geneon's barebones "Cinema Deluxe" DVDs utilizing the same panned-and-scanned masters. Licensed from Ignite Films (who seem to have acquired the Scotia International library, including titles once claimed by Yordan himself), CAPTAIN APACHE and BAD MAN'S RIVER's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray transfers look very similar: utilizing print elements that were slightly-faded, not extensively cleaned up, but nevertheless better than anything that has come before. The distortion in the center of the screen during any panning or tracking shots is a defect of the Franscope anamorphic lenses that would not have been as noticeable on curved projection screens theatrically. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono tracks are of similar quality. The extras on both are trailers for BARQUERO and SABATA. (Eric Cotenas)
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