The Revengers (1972)
“He bought six men out of hell and they brought it with them.”
Director: Daniel Mann
Cast: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Woody Strode
Synopsis: The life of peaceful rancher John Benedict (William Holden) is torn apart when his family is massacred by a gang of marauding outlaws and his farm is destroyed.
The role of avenging (or, strictly speaking, revenging, I suppose) father John Benedict could easily have been written with John Wayne in mind, although William Holden, who was more than ten years younger than Wayne, is himself too old for the role. His age means that the temporary change of character that affects him in the middle of the film never really convinces. He’s re-united here with Ernest Borgnine, his co-star from The Wild Bunch (1969), but this movie isn’t even worthy of comparison.
Benedict is a horse trader who returns home from a trip just in time to enjoy an idyllic meal with his family before they’re all slaughtered by marauding Indians led by Tarp (Warren Vanders), while he’s off hunting. Strangely, a couple of Indians even kill the dog that Benedict has taken along with him and attempt to steal his horses, but make no attempt to kill him too. Benedict immediately sets off in pursuit of Tarp, who’s a white man with a milky eye, and the Indians but, knowing that alone he will be no match for all of them, he makes a brief diversion to a prison where he enlist six inmates, ostensibly to work in a mine. Once away from the prison, though, Benedict has the prisoners disarm their escorts and gives them the choice of taking off on their own or accompanying him on his mission in return for clothes, wages and freedom. That’s right, he’s working on creating his own dirty half-dozen…
Now, we all know that in the real world these killers would be off in a shot after first robbing Benedict and probably killing him, and to be fair to the movie, they do initially do just that, although Benedict prevents them from taking his life and his horses at gunpoint. The trouble is they come back drunk or hungover, suddenly overcome by their consciences, and it’s around this point that you realise that The Revengers isn’t going to be the movie we hoped it was going to be. The prisoners are particularly thinly drawn, with only Borgnine’s rascally — and hugely irritating — Hoop standing out. In his early scenes, he keeps emphasising his patriotic American-ness (the prison’s in Mexico) in order to persuade Benedict to choose him as one of his Magnificent Six, thereby marking him out as a scoundrel and not to be trusted. There’s not much by which we can tell the others apart, other than their nationality. One of them, Chamaco (Jorge Luke), gets it into his head that Benedict might be his illegitimate father, another is a freed slave (Woody Strode with hair), and that’s about it — the others are just sweaty scenery.
This unlikely gang eventually catch up with the renegade tribe and wipe them out — with the exception of Tarp, who manages to escape. So the chase continues, with a brief montage sequence which informs us that they doggedly pursue Tarp across every conceivable Western landscape over the course of more than a year. By this time that unconvincing change of character in Benedict has taken hold, and he’s become barely distinguishable from the former prisoners with whom he continues to ride. Even the colour of his shirt changes from white to grey (it will later become white once more when Benedict gets his act together). The story does take an unexpected diversion at this point, but it’s not really enough to generate much interest from the audience.
Benedict enjoys a brief, not-quite romantic, interlude with an Irish woman played by Susan Hayward, who was in pretty good shape for a woman in her mid-fifties. In fact, although she was a year older than Holden, she looked a good ten years younger than him. She didn’t outlive him though; Hayward died of brain cancer a few years after The Revengers, which was to be her last theatrical movie, while Holden lasted until the early Eighties. Hayward is only on screen for ten minutes or so, but she provides a welcome diversion from the company of a bunch of dull and sweaty men, even though her Irish accent is decidedly wonky.
The Revengers perhaps doesn’t finish in the way we might expect it to, but the fact that it doesn’t means that it has no choice other than to present its audience with something of an anti-climax. It’s also quite an abrupt conclusion, particularly as it seems to have taken them — and us — such a long time to reach it.
(Reviewed 30th July 2013)