‘Rio Conchos’ or — Bleaker Than ‘The Wild Bunch’?!

Colin Edwards
3 min readFeb 19, 2024

Death makes its presence felt from the very moment ‘Rio Conchos’ (1964) opens as we witness ex-Confederate officer Jim Lassiter gunning down a group of Apaches in cold blood. Apaches killed his wife and child so Lassiter’s only reason for living, besides drink, is to slaughter them all.

When some Union soldiers arrest Lassiter they’re less concerned about his crime than where he found that rifle he used, a weapon that was part of a huge batch of repeating rifles stolen from the U.S. Army by some white men intending to sell them onto the Apaches. If Lassiter agrees to help a scouting group lead by Captain Haven (Stuart Whitman) track down and destroy the munitions before they can be sold on he’ll be granted his freedom.

As so a small group consisting of Lassiter, Captain Haven, Sergeant Franklin (Jim Brown) and Lassiter’s fellow prisoner Rodriguez (Tony Franciosa) set out with a wagon packed with 50 barrels of gunpowder to locate and destroy the rifles before they can be used for further slaughter.

From the above description ‘Rio Conchos’ almost sounds like a combination of a Western along the lines of ‘The Comancheros’ (1961) with ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) where what our protagonists are transporting is just as dangerous and lethal as what they’re heading towards. This helps give the film an obscene level of tension, excitement and imminent explosion momentum.

Along the way they encounter all sorts of various obstacles and characters, something which gives the film a great structure as well as allowing all five characters (they’re later joined by a female Apache warrior played by Wende Wagner) to learn how to work as a unit and it’s fascinating, and frequently humourous, watching this disparate group with competing motives gradually, if reluctantly, coalesce.

The most remarkable character they encounter is Colonel ‘Grey Fox’ Pardee (an amazing Edmond O’Brien), a former Confederate officer who owns a house with invisible walls (a wonderful visual touch that borders on genius) and who is determined to keep the war against the North going even though it’s patently over, and Pardee’s introduction and reveal is both hilarious and violent… which pretty much sums up the entire movie (I also love Pardee’s chandelier which almost steals the entire film by crashing to the floor and exploding with immaculate timing).

So there’s a strong streak of humour here but it’s deliciously dark and usually revolving around death which is lurking everywhere and no one, not even our heroes, are safe from it. At one point a baby even appears… and THAT dies too! I’m not spoiling anything by telling you this because it’s blatantly apparent from when it’s introduced that it ain’t going to be around for long. Besides, as the film goes on we feel ourselves becoming unsure whether or not we’re following a group of flawed “heroes” or actually a bunch of complete psychopaths.

This is most explicitly represented in Boone’s Lassiter who, when they finally reach their destination, leaves us wondering if he has maybe found something beyond himself and his murderous vengeance or if he is now where he ultimately longed, planned and desired to be all along — in the realm of indiscriminate killing with no consequences. It’s a shocking way to close a movie.

The incredibly prolific and eclectic director Gordon Douglas drives everything forward with a nicely dynamic camera, some gorgeous compositions and a use of space and landscape that almost rivals Anthony Mann’s, something given even more power by an excellent score by Jerry Goldsmith.

‘Rio Conchos’ is fantastic and might be even more nihilistic than Peckinpah’s ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969) because whereas in that film we witness a group of men nearing the end of their time finally taking a stand for something other than themselves here it doesn’t matter if Lassiter has reached any form of understanding or insight or not because the end result is exactly the same — total annihilation. Welcome to the very heart of death.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.