Movie Review: The Deadly Companions (1961)
“An Unholy Alliance”
The Deadly Companions (1961)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Cast: Maureen O’Hara, Brian Keith, Steve Cochran
Synopsis: After accidentally killing her young son, an ex-Army officer escorts her across hostile Indian territory so that she may bury him next to his father.
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Brian Keith (The Yakuza, Young Guns), the poor movie producer’s John Wayne, roams the West with his hat planted firmly on his head to disguise the scars from an attempted scalping in Sam Peckinpah’s debut feature, The Deadly Companions. He’s Yellowleg, a former Union soldier who, in the five years since the end of the war, has been on the trail of half-mad black hat, Turk (Chill Wills – Rio Grande, McLintock!). Turk is the Confederate who tried to part Yellowleg from his hair before deserting to hook up with fellow bank robber, Billy (Steve Cochran – White Heat, Raton Pass).
Yellowleg finally catches up with Turk in a seedy bar. He’s perched precariously on an overturned barrel with a noose around his neck and his hands tied behind his back, and one’s reminded of Eli Wallach’s Tuco in a similar position in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, a film that was released five years after The Deadly Companions. It’s an intriguing scene, but, as with so much about this movie, its potential is never fully realised. For once, though, it’s not the director’s fault. The young Peckinpah’s hands were tied by Charles B. Fitzsimon, the movie’s producer, who refused to allow his young director to change one word of A. S. Fleischman’s pedestrian screenplay. Their strained relationship led to tensions on the set which were compounded by the fact that Fitzsimon was the brother of Maureen O’Hara, the film’s leading lady, who only spoke to Peckinpah unless it was absolutely necessary.
Yellowleg has to save Turk in order to exact his revenge, but before he does that, he talks the two men into helping him rob the bank in Gila City. A gunfight with the robbers who beat them to the job results in Yellowleg accidentally shooting and killing the son of Kit Tilden (Maureen O’Hara – How Green Was My Valley, The Miracle on 34th Street), one of the town’s prostitutes. O’Hara, normally a highly accomplished and reliable actress, is no more convincing as a prostitute than she is as a grieving mother, a result, perhaps, of that frosty relationship with her director. She was too old for the part, and a little too motherly to invoke the kind of desire she does in Billy, but she worked for scale in return for a cut of any profits, and got to warble the film’s Godawful theme tune.
Yellowleg is so filled with remorse over his killing of the boy that he offers to escort Kit on the dangerous journey across Indian territory to the ghost town of Siringo, where she plans to bury her son beside his father. Kit rejects his offer, but he goes anyway, and brings Turk and Billy along with him. You have to wonder why he doesn’t figure out a way to get Turk on his own in order to grab a few slices of revenge, but that’s just one of many deficiencies in the writing. Fleischman’s characters are mostly stereotypes, even if they are given a few interesting quirks, and they do nothing that surprises us. Keith holds it all together with laconic ease, and spars well with Cochran, but Wills is largely wasted in a role that we all know would have been so much meatier had Peckinpah been allowed to get his hands on it.
Although some of the themes which found their way into many of his subsequent movies can be found in The Deadly Companions, there’s not a lot of Peckinpah here, but the film wouldn’t enjoy even the modest reputation it does were it not for his involvement.
(Reviewed 1st November 2016)