Alain Delon and Dean Martin Comedically Duel for Love in the Texas Territory.
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL GORDON/1966
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 5, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
With the ailing classic Hollywood Western heading out of remission, this 1966 cornball comedy attempts to take a good-natured swipe at it as it goes down. With the genre’s many ingrained tropes baked into the cultural consciousness at this point, having a little fun at its expense is harmless if not also pointless.
Yet, one thinks of when Mel Brooks opted to spoof Star Wars in 1987. That franchise was at its deadest, but Brooks’ naysayers were ultimately proven wrong. For the retained durability of the source material, Spaceballs has not only persevered, but somehow thrived. Though Texas Across the River is not the same type of spoof, and though it’s neither as pointed or as relevant as Spaceballs, its revival on Blu-ray positions it for a similar second life. But don’t get too excited just yet…
As the classic Western was riding out (spurred on by the rise of the violently obtuse spaghetti Western, giving way to America’s own brand of revisionist Western), other venerable cultural elements were going right along with it. One big one was the relevance of the Sinatra “Rat Pack”-style of cross-board entertainers. In the dawning age of rebellious rock n’ roll as a new fixture, there was no longer much interest in that tuxedos-and-martinis brand of patriarchal Big Band and Vegas high rollin’. Texas Across the River is a kind of an in-spirit repository for all of the above.
Rat Pack royalty Dean Martin and Joey Bishop both figure prominently into the film’s unlikely ensemble. Established Rat Pack hierarchy dictates that Bishop be relegated to being Martin’s sidekick. Established genre casting practices dictate that while Martin gets to be a rascally and romantic gunman, Bishop will be his smart-mouthed broken-English-speaking Native American comedic buddy. Indeed, Bishop’s role of the friendly Indian Kronk is one of many representationally bristly casting examples to be found here.
Racial sensitivity aside (which is how the Western operated for much of its prominence), Martin and Bishop are otherwise fine in their silly roles, treading water creatively but not making any waves, either. Rising French lothario Alain Delon is a co-lead and the character on which the story hinges. When his wedding to Rosemary Forsyth’s southern belle is thwarted by a jealous Cavalry officer, things take a turn for the worst, sending him on the run to the unsettled territory of Texas.
Once there, he enters into an uneasy alliance with Martin and Bishop and ends up rescuing an attractive Indian maiden (Tina Aumont, here billed as Tina Marquand) from being sacrificed in some sort of rattlesnake death ceremony. Separated from the other guys, Martin stumbles onto Forsyth, who’s made her way from Louisiana to Texas in search of Delon. Of course, this is while she’s bathing in a pond. And unbeknownst to them, a sneaky Indian just stole her clothes, and left, trapping her buck nekkid in the drink. (He stole her clothes, then left?) This randy moment pinpoints Texas Across the River squarely as a product of the James Bond 1960s: no nudity, but a little somethin’-somethin’ for every single friggin’ poster and trailer generated for the film.
Film historian Samm Deighan, who’s commentary tracks I’m usually onboard for, takes some pretty big swings with this one. Unfortunately, from her immediate pronouncement of Texas Across the River as a hilarious gem to her read of Joey Bishop’s “redface” as some sort of meta critique of the longstanding filmmaking practice of casting Caucasians in native roles, I can’t quite follow her on this one. That said, in her defense, Deighan suggests several indigenous sources for further reading on the ever-dicey representation issue. I don’t think that this is a case of a commentator contorting against her better judgment to advocate for weak film; Deighan establishes herself as a true appreciator of this movie. Her commentary, being the only bonus feature besides some trailers (including for this film, proclaiming it “The swingin’est fun romp that ever fractured the frontier!”), is nevertheless absolutely worth a listen.
As the film’s story unfolds, lovers’ feelings flare and tangle along the mostly not-funny path to The End. Though many may find Texas Across the River an amusing and even uproarious lark, I’m not among them. The movie, directed by the talented and previously blacklisted director Michael Gordon (Woman in Hiding), feels like a rickety wagon with no covering rolling away and in danger of being permanently upended by a thin tree or a small stone. The Blu-ray’s superior resolution really brings out some of the film’s odd and scattershot use of bluescreen technology. Suddenly at random moments, Dean Martin or whomever will sport a garish blue outline. It paints Texas Across the River as something less than carefully planned or cared about.
The images used in the body of this review are credited to DVDBeaver and visually reflect the image quality of Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. The main image does not reflect the image quality of this Blu-ray. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing this Blu-ray review copy.