Barquero

| April 26, 2015

In this 1970 western, Lee Van Cleef stars as the titular barquero (or boatman) Travis, a stoic yet sleazy sort who leads a group of squatters in a cross-river standoff against a gang of murderous thugs bent on procuring Travis’ barge so they can flee from the law into Mexico. In an interesting twist on the western hero, Travis comes to the townsfolk’s aid not as a man of honor, nor even entirely as a man committed to protecting what is rightfully his, though that sort of stubbornness is certainly a part of it. Travis’ primary motivation instead seems to be his sexual infatuation with a local married woman, who he at length devises reason to bed—something he and his cigar-chomping gal pal laugh about later. This makes Travis sleazy and unappealing, even as his single-mindedness makes him easy to root for.

Even if he weren’t easy to root for, I’d say “who cares if our protagonist is sleazy and unappealing?” For me the film is all about Warren Oates, who plays the bandit leader on encamped on the opposite side of the river. Now, Lee Van Cleef is pretty cool, I grant you that. The man was in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) AND Escape from New York (1981), which automatically places him well up there among the coolest people ever. To my mind, though, there just isn’t, nor perhaps was there ever, a performer who could match Warren Oates in my eyes.

Oates’ character Jake Remy murders a woman he had spent the night with when first we meet him, thereby immediately solidifying our distaste for his particular brand of callous hijinks. Then he and his gang proceed to gleefully murder every single person in that town some miles away from Travis and the squatters’ accommodations. But Jake’s hardly the sort of mustache-twirling embodiment of pure evil we get in so many westerns, be it Jack Palance’s psychopathic gun-for-hire in Shane (1953) or even Eli Wallach’s bandit leader Calvera in The Magnificent Seven (1960). As is Oates’ way, he plays Jake as villain who’s far more flawed, dafter, and all around more human than your average western villain—the kind of guy who becomes only ring leader by virtue of finding himself in the right place at the right time and by murdering his way to the top. He may not be what you’d call a born leader per se, but he’s most assuredly a savvy opportunist. The promise of just such a Warren Oates portrayal is precisely what drew me to Barquero and Oates delivered.

Director Gordon Douglas (Them! (1954)) here strives to create the sort of tension we find in other standoff-centered westerns like Rio Bravo (1970), only here such tensions don’t quite feel earned. The entire conflict is predicated on the fact that Jake’s gang needs Travis’ barge to cross into Mexico with their loot, but for whatever reason they can’t, won’t, or just don’t cross the river to claim it for themselves until the climax. Why it takes Jake and his right hand man (the actual brains of the operation) almost the entire movie to decide to float across the river themselves is beyond me. Granted, the majority of Jake’s men probably can’t swim, but they could surely just grab a log or a barrel and just head on over. They just don’t, and as a result the climax feels extremely forced.

Still, the film is interesting enough to warrant checking out if you’re a fan of westerns given its conflict’s unique premise alone. But of course it helps if you’re an Oates fanatics like myself or even a Van Cleef fan. The film makes its way to Blu-ray for the first time ever in North America thanks to Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line on April 28, 2015. While the release is barebones save for the theatrical trailer, the sharp and near pristine transfer of the Blu-ray alone make this the version of the film to own.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
Filed in: Video and DVD

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