The Cohen Case Files: El Condor (1970)

Co-Written by Larry Cohen

I’m not sure what kind of film director John Guillermin was trying to make with El Condor, but it certainly wasn’t the film scripted by Larry Cohen and Steven W. Carabatsos. From Lee Van Cleef’s mugging performance to the light adventure score by Maurice Jarre, Guillermin seems to be trying to craft a rollicking buddy comedy/western. And while the script does seem to back that up at points during the first two acts, it’s only through increasingly grim plot twists in the third act that it becomes apparent the film should have been presented as something much darker.

Taking plenty of inspiration (also known as theft) from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, El Condor tells the tale of two outlaws forming an uneasy alliance as they seek a fortune in gold during the American Civil War. As far as plots go, it’s fine to swipe what was essentially just a reason for Sergio Leone to craft some stunning set pieces. But to go the extra step of casting Van Cleef is too much. That casting almost forces the audience to make comparisons between the two films. Not surprisingly, El Condor suffers from the comparison. But that’s far from the film’s most pressing problem.

Luke (Jim Brown) is a convict doing time in a hard-labor prison for blowing up train tracks that were built on land seized by the railroad. While in prison, he learns the story of a fortune in gold bars stolen from the Mexican treasury by an outlaw. That outlaw then had the gold stolen from him by a corrupt Mexican General named Chavez (Patrick O’Neal as the most Irish Mexican you will ever see). Chavez took his troops and created an impregnable fort in the middle of El Condor desert, where he has lived like a King ever since.

Luke escapes from prison and makes his way to the outskirts of the desert where he seeks out Jaroo (Van Cleef), an outlaw who plays the part of a buffoon to get others to let their guard down long enough for him to kill and rob them. Jaroo has a history of trading (ripping off) with the local Apaches and Luke wants him to make a deal with their Chief, Santana (Iron Eyes Cody), to have the Tribe act as their army in an assault on the fort.

After much wheel spinning involving deal making with the Tribe and jockeying for the leadership role between Luke and Jaroo, they finally arrive at the fort. That’s when the double crosses between Luke, Jaroo, Santana, and Chavez begin. Gumming up the numerous attempts by Luke to capture the fort is Claudine (Marianna Hill), Chavez’s mistress.

In a nice twist, Luke, Jaroo, and their Apache soldiers find themselves in control of the fort and the gold it holds by the end of the second act. But this means the rest of the film plays out like a pale remake of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as greed clouds everyone’s judgment. Jaroo’s threats of violence—presented as empty and comedic earlier in the film—become menacing and realistic.

A sudden shifting of tones so late in a film is a tricky business. Normally, I admire the ambition it takes to try such an audacious move—even if the film is unable to pull it off. But Guillermin doesn’t try to change the light tone he established early in the film. The clashing of Guillermin’s comedic tone with the ugly violence in the third act breaks the spell that El Condor is a fun romp.

But even before the third act darkness that overwhelms the attempt to keep the film light, there are moments that threaten to undermine Guillermin’s intentions. A protracted sequence that finds members of Chavez’s army taking women from a village with the intent of raping them is disturbing enough before it’s revealed that Luke and Jaroo are watching this happen. Sure, they eventually stop the men from actually raping the women, but not before Guillermin tries to mine the moment for some gratuitous nudity set to Jarre’s jaunty score. It’s a queasy series of scenes that at the time they’re happening simply feels like a temporary misstep. But when viewed in context of the third act and other cruel moments (Jaroo’s treatment of the Apaches, the regressive presentation of Claudine as a back-stabber who attaches herself to the strongest man available), it becomes clear that Guillermin has a very different intent for the finished film than what was on the page.

All of that said, Guillermin has his hands tied by Jim Brown’s uneven performance. A normally reliable presence as a badass with a soulful, reflective side, Brown is unable to portray the ambiguity behind Luke’s motives. Seemingly uncertain if Luke is supposed to be an antihero or hero, he mostly stands around looking grim when he’s not beating someone up. The one moment when he lets loose and has some fun by smirking while repeatedly insulting Chavez to his face is also the best scene in the film.

As if he’s attempting to compensate for Brown’s performance, Van Cleef goes too far over-the-top. While he is often fun to watch—he manages to steal Brown’s insult scene with a hilarious reaction shot and the horrified delivery of the line, “Goddamn, Luke!”—he follows Guillermin’s lead and plays the material for comedy to the eventual detriment of the film. By the time El Condor was filmed, Van Cleef was an experienced villain and anti-hero. Either of those archetypes would have been preferable to his decision to play Jaroo as comic relief. But Guillermin leans heavily on Van Cleef’s performance leading to some good individual moments at the expense of a coherent character arc.

Even with Guillermin’s attempts to keep the film an inconsequential action-comedy, hints of Cohen’s influence peek through in the form of political and racial ironies. Luke is an African-American man imprisoned by the Union for taking violent action against the practice of eminent domain—an action the Confederacy would probably tip their cap to, if he were a white man. There is a casual racism—and obvious allegory for slavery—in Luke and Jaroo’s attitudes toward the Apaches that implies they see them as nothing more than a resource to be used. But oddly enough, never once does Luke’s race come up in a story set during the American Civil War.

The avoidance of most potentially controversial points in the film is par for the course in Guillermin’s direction. If he had also avoided the dark turns in the plot, I might have actually enjoyed the film more as a fun, pulpy western. But his attempts to just bulldoze over the grim material while presenting the film as escapist fun is a tad insulting.

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