Film/Classic logo

Duel at Diablo

Directed by Ralph Nelson, with James Garner, Bibi Andersson, Sidney Poitier, Bill Travers and Dennis Weaver, color, 103 minutes

Sidney Poitier and James Garner

Blue-ray edition

By Carter B. Horsley

The Western genre is huge and largely formulaic. Many of the best John Wayne vehicles such as "Stagecoach," "Red River," "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon," "The Searchers" and "True Grit" and other classics such as "Shane," "High Noon," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Jeremiah Johnson," "The Professionals," "A Man Called Horse," "One-Eyed Jacks," "Hang 'Em High," and "Dances With Wolves" painted their stories in simple brushstrokes. Even the few comedies such as "Cat Ballou" and "Blazing Saddles" were relatively one-dimensional.

Subplots and complex characters just got in the way most of the time with the broad sweep of landscape and action.

One of the most offbeat and finest Westerns is "Duel at Diablo." Indeed, it may well be the best Western for it combines sensational music, great photography, lots of action, many plot twists and turns and subplots.

Nothing is simple about this rather wild and violent story.

The film opens with Jess Remsberg, played by James Garner, rescuing a white woman, Ellen Grange, played by Bibi Andersson, from pursuing Indians in a spectacular landscape. He discovers that she is married to Willard Grange, who runs a store in a nearby town, and that he is very bitter because she had been kidnapped by the Indians and has an Indian baby, which is her own.

Remsberg is persuaded to guide a shipment of ammunition by Lt. McAllister, played by Bill Travers, who has also convinced horse-wrangler Sidney Poitier to join the expedition. Grange and his wife, and her baby, join the expedition for protection from the Apaches. Remsberg is sympathetic with Ellen Grange because his own Indian wife had been murdered by a white man.

The expedition gets attacked by the Apaches, led by Chata, played by John Hoyt, and not everyone survives.

The story crowds a lot of sympathies and antagonisms together, but does not linger long on moralizing. Indeed, the crossed loyalties of the principals change and one of the film's strong points is the ambiguity and dilemmas of personal values, especially in crisis.

It would have been easy for this movie to get lost in clichés, but it does not and hardly ever moves at less than a gallop. Dramatically, it packs wallops.

It's just plain thrilling.

Bibi Andersson

Bibi Andersson

Among the many surprises is the casting: Bibi Andersson, the Swedish actress who starred in many Ingmar Bergman films, has never been lovelier;

Sidney Poitier, as the rather dandified Army veteran who sells horses, is very convincing as a hero; Bill Travers, the Scottish actor who would make "Born Free" the same year, as an Army officer leading a patrol, is full of bluster; Dennis Weaver, as the bitter husband, is very unsympathetic and believable as a weak man; and James Garner as the scout who is the real hero has never been better.

Each star truly makes the agony of their character's dilemmas believable and the difficulties of survival in the pre-modern West very real.

Pride, hatred, love, and respect are the keywords here and they are writ large against a magnificent panorama of real and personal canyons.

The film is very sensitive to Native Americans and perhaps no other film so brilliantly captures the contradictions and happenstances that really did flourish in the shaping and forging of the "American" West. It does not accomplish this didactically, but compellingly through the dignity and suffering of its characters.

The film borders on the precipice of the preposterous, but manages to sidestep most clichés, thanks to its marvelously rousing score and Garner, who provides a vivid portrayal of a savvy, experienced, agile scout who is no longer young and fearless but tired and angry. He clearly has fallen in love with Ellen Grange, but his decency constrains him and the movie's grace is that it doesn't not capitalize on their possible relationship, nor bother with big issues of honor.

Survival is almost all.

The beauty of the film is that it is all about action, but in the end what lingers are its values, which are darn good.

The movie is based on Marvin H. Albert's novel, "Apache Rising," and its screenplay was written by Albert and Michael M. Grilikhes.

The cinematography by Charles Wheeler is fabulous, almost as great, stirring and memorable as the score by Neal Hefti that ties together its various plots. It is one of the best in film history, not for originality but for its anthemic power. A relatively simple theme, it is persistent, uplifting, and of great moment.

Nelson had previously directed Poitier in the movie, "Lillies of the Field" and four years after this movie would direct "Soldier Blue," another strong Western that was sympathetic to Native Americans.

Poitier's important presence in the film is almost too politically correct, but shock quickly dissipates because of his competence. The civil rights movement was still very vivid in the nation's conscience and Poitier's role almost begins to distract from the film's more important sensitivity to Native Americans, but the racism theme is balanced very nicely and the final scene is especially moving.

Winning and taming the West was not easy and not pleasant and not always honorable. It took a lot of guts by a wide assortment of people and "Duel at Diablo" is not only a fitting, grueling testament to such heroics but also an excellent counter to the stereotyped myths that dominated the Western film genre.

Personal torment, this film suggests, can be more difficult to conquer than political battles.

This film is ranked 80th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

Click here to order the Blue-ray version from

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects


Home Page of The City Review