Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966)

As soon as the credits start to roll in Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966) you know you’re in for something very different. A knife suddenly appears to cut through the screen and immediately starts slashing apart the United Artists logo. This stunning gesture told audiences at the time that they were about to watch a very violent film but also a film that was going to defy expectations. DUEL AT DIABLO does that but it’s also one of the most entertaining American westerns produced in the ‘60s and a great example of why I appreciate that groundbreaking decade so much. Prejudices were being set aside and old Hollywood was forced to change with the times. DUEL AT DIABLO was made during the height of this transition and although it might not be considered a major film that contributed to the birth of “New Hollywood” it’s an important milestone in the western genre thanks to the pioneering performance of its star, Sidney Poitier.

The film’s basic premise will probably sound familiar to anyone who’s watched a lot of westerns. It involves a rugged ex-Scout named Jess Remsberg (James Garner) who is asked to help guide a troop of U.S. Cavalry soldiers through Southern Utah as they attempt to get horses and ammunition to a remote fort while avoiding Apache Indians who are determined to stop them. Jess shows little interest in lending a hand even though his friend, Lt. Scotty McAllister (Bill Travers) begs him to. We soon discover that Jess is on his own very personal mission to find out who murdered his Comanche bride.

Other unexpected characters are dropped into the story early on. One of them is a troubled woman named Ellen (acclaimed actress Bibi Andersson who was often Ingmar Bergman’s muse) who Jess finds dying in the Utah Mountains due to dehydration. As her story unfolds we discover that she was once kidnapped by the Apaches, apparently developed feelings for one of her male captors and eventually had his child. She was rescued by her husband (Dennis Weaver) but her only desire is to return to the Indians and care for her baby. She continually steals horses and runs away from her husband as well as the judgmental town folk who treat her appallingly because of the ordeal she underwent.

Finally there is Toller (Sidney Poitier), a veteran Buffalo Soldier who now sells horses to the U.S. Cavalry. Toller is a gentleman cowboy who likes to spend a lot of money on his wardrobe and is clearly enjoying his civilian life. When the U.S. Calvary realizes that they’ll probably face some danger as they attempt to deliver the horses he sold to them, Toller is also asked to accompany them on their journey. Sidney Poitier along with the rest of the cast (James Garner, Bill Travers, Bbi Andersson and Dennis Weaver) ultimately must band together when they find themselves trapped in the Desert Mountains with the U.S. Calvary and surrounded by angry Apaches.

While it’s clear that director Ralph Nelson took some inspiration from John Ford’s films (including STAGECOACH, FORT APACAHE, THE SEARCHERS, SERGEANT RUTLEDGE, etc.) as well as spaghetti westerns that were becoming popular at the time, there are lots of things that distinguish DUEL AT DIABLO from the studio films that came before it. First and foremost, DUEL AT DIABLO contains a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of Apache Indians who are allowed to share their legitimate reasons for attacking the U.S. Calvary. The film is also shockingly bleak and violent, as it doesn’t shy away from showing some of the Apache’s most brutal torture techniques. The characters in DUEL AT DIABLO are ornery, weather worn, bitter and tormented, particularly James Garner who had just come off a successful run in the popular television show MAVERICK playing a much lighthearted character. But amid the anger, mayhem and bloodshed the film also contains some incredibly tender and heartbreaking moments. Including an unforgettable scene with James Garner who is forced to kill his beloved horse after the animal is seriously injured. Bibi Andersson is also touching to watch as she tries to protect her child from the violence as well as the prejudicial attitudes expressed by others who aren’t comfortable with having an interracial baby in their midst. And last but certainly not least is Sidney Poitier’s magnificent portrayal of Toller.

Before DUEL AT DIABLO only one black actor (Woody Strode) had starred in a big-budget studio produced western aimed at general audiences. Poitier obviously had very few references to draw from but history tells us that African-Americans made up about 20% of the cowboy population following the American Civil War. Many freedmen (ex-slaves) experienced less prejudice in the Wild West and were able to find good work as cowpokes and ranch hands. Some also joined the U.S. Calvary as Buffalo Soldiers. Poitier’s character is a sort of mishmash of these African-American western heroes but what’s fascinating about DUEL AT DIBALO is there is no acknowledgment of his race. In the film Poitier is just another handsome cowboy and respected ex-solider. And while his superiors try to order him around, it’s made clear that he answers to no one but himself. He’s proud, independent, tough and smart but he also has a gentle side that’s exhibited in his tender interactions with Bibi Anderson’s baby. Poitier’s confident portrayal of Toller is a revelation if you’ve never seen the film before and it clearly paved the way for his future roles in films like TO SIR, WITH LOVE (1967) and THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967).

Director Ralph Nelson (who also has a small role in the film playing Col. Foster) had previously worked with Sidney Poitier on the Academy Award-winning LILLIES OF THE FIELD (1963). Both Nelson (who also directed REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, CHARLY, …TICK…TICK…TICK… and the extremely controversial western SOLIDER BLUE) and Poitier were both developing reputations for tackling challenging and thought-provoking films that dealt with important social issues of the day. It’s worth noting that DUEL AT DIABLO was shot in 1965 and released in 1966, just a year after the U.S. Senate had approved the Civil Rights Act. Racial tensions in the United States were running high and the film reflects that in the way that DUEL AT DIABLO deals with interracial relations. James Garner’s character is cruelly criticized for having married a Comanche woman and as mentioned before, Bibi Andersson’s character is trying to shield herself and her child from the prejudices of the times. Although Sidney Poitier is the film’s star, the race issues in DUEL AT DIABLO are all related to the interactions between whites and native Americans. And even more surprisingly, despite the grievances that the Indians in the film have with the U.S. Calvary, the soldiers are portrayed as upright citizens who are just following orders. Any race related ugliness or violence that transpires in the film is generally the fault of ignorant town folk while the soldiers come across as thoughtful men with a job to do.

DUEL AT DIABLO often focuses on the drama unfolding between the characters but it’s wound around an action-packed narrative that never gets preachy. The film greatly benefits from being shot on location and director Ralph Nelson along with cinematographer Charles F. Wheeler did a magnificent job of capturing the natural beauty of the Southern Utah landscape. The action sequences are pretty darn spectacular and smartly choreographed. It’s worth mentioning that the film’s stars (including Garner, Poitier and Andersson) did many of their own stunts, which lends the film an unexpected realism at times. The soundtrack by Neal Hefti (who also wrote the original BATMAN theme as well as scores for SEX AND THE SINGLE GIRL, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, LORD LOVE A DUCK, LAST OF THE SECRET AGENTS? and THE ODD COUPLE) has a distinctly ‘60s sound but it’s arguably one of the best western scores from a decade that brought us unforgettable work from composers like Elmer Bernstein (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) and Ennio Morricone (A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS).

Both the film and the soundtrack are readily available and shouldn’t be hard to track down. Just keep in mind that this is a film that needs to be seen in widescreen to be fully appreciated and if you have a good sound system you’ll benefit from the viewing experience even more. If you’re particularly squeamish you might be put off by some of the violence in DUEL AT DIABLO so please approach the film with caution. But viewers who appreciate a challenging film that refuses to conform to viewer expectations should enjoy this genre defying western.

Here’s a video for a fun documentary about the making of DUEL AT DIABLO that I found on Youtube. If the Youtube video is hard to see just follow this link.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWOnaztGxUw]

0 Response Ralph Nelson’s DUEL AT DIABLO (1966)
Posted By Susan Doll : November 8, 2012 6:44 pm

You target the most interesting movies! I have always thought Ralph Nelson should be better known than he is.

Posted By Susan Doll : November 8, 2012 6:44 pm

You target the most interesting movies! I have always thought Ralph Nelson should be better known than he is.

Posted By Angelabsurdist : November 8, 2012 7:03 pm

This director impressed me with “Soldier Blue” as he attempted to draw a parallel with My Lai.

Your post was a pleasure to read.

Thank you.

Posted By Angelabsurdist : November 8, 2012 7:03 pm

This director impressed me with “Soldier Blue” as he attempted to draw a parallel with My Lai.

Your post was a pleasure to read.

Thank you.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 8, 2012 7:18 pm

Susan – Thank you! I tend to have eclectic taste & I often get bored with films that follow predictable narratives so I find movies like DUEL AT DIABLO really interesting. I also like a good western and DUEL AT DIABLO is one of the best from the ’60s. I’ve only seen a handful of Nelson’s films but he’s an interesting director who was really bucking convention. I suspect a lot more people (and critics) would appreciate his work today.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 8, 2012 7:18 pm

Susan – Thank you! I tend to have eclectic taste & I often get bored with films that follow predictable narratives so I find movies like DUEL AT DIABLO really interesting. I also like a good western and DUEL AT DIABLO is one of the best from the ’60s. I’ve only seen a handful of Nelson’s films but he’s an interesting director who was really bucking convention. I suspect a lot more people (and critics) would appreciate his work today.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 8, 2012 7:20 pm

Angelabsurdist – DUEL IN DIABLO is a much gentler film than SOLIDER BLUE but in its own way almost as provocative. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 8, 2012 7:20 pm

Angelabsurdist – DUEL IN DIABLO is a much gentler film than SOLIDER BLUE but in its own way almost as provocative. I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

Posted By Cary Watson : November 8, 2012 8:57 pm

I haven’t seen this one in a very long time, but I remember it fondly. Poitier made another good western with Harry Belafonte called Buck and the Preacher. It was very much about race, but it also worked as a straight up western. That poster for Duel is fantastic looking: a great example of ’60s film advertising.

Posted By Cary Watson : November 8, 2012 8:57 pm

I haven’t seen this one in a very long time, but I remember it fondly. Poitier made another good western with Harry Belafonte called Buck and the Preacher. It was very much about race, but it also worked as a straight up western. That poster for Duel is fantastic looking: a great example of ’60s film advertising.

Posted By Graham Rye : November 8, 2012 11:45 pm

Do you think you could correct everywhere in this piece you have referred to the title of the film as ‘Duel In Diablo’ when it should read ‘Duel At Diablo? As it is VERY annoying!!

Posted By Graham Rye : November 8, 2012 11:45 pm

Do you think you could correct everywhere in this piece you have referred to the title of the film as ‘Duel In Diablo’ when it should read ‘Duel At Diablo? As it is VERY annoying!!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 1:28 am

So sorry that’s all you got out of my piece, Graham. Mistakes happen. I only wish I had noticed them earlier. It’s the nature of “instant publishing” without an editor or any proof readers. Thanks for reading anyway… I think.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 1:28 am

So sorry that’s all you got out of my piece, Graham. Mistakes happen. I only wish I had noticed them earlier. It’s the nature of “instant publishing” without an editor or any proof readers. Thanks for reading anyway… I think.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 1:32 am

Cary – I haven’t seen BUCK AND THE PREACHER yet but it sounds really interesting. I suspect that I’d like it a lot so thanks for recommending it. As for that poster, isn’t it amazing? I really love the film posters from the ’60s. The artists knew exactly how to capture the energy & electricity in a movie. I can’t imagine anyone passing it by without wanting to buy a ticket to see it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 1:32 am

Cary – I haven’t seen BUCK AND THE PREACHER yet but it sounds really interesting. I suspect that I’d like it a lot so thanks for recommending it. As for that poster, isn’t it amazing? I really love the film posters from the ’60s. The artists knew exactly how to capture the energy & electricity in a movie. I can’t imagine anyone passing it by without wanting to buy a ticket to see it.

Posted By Graham Rye : November 9, 2012 2:31 am

I did enjoy your piece and it has made me want to watch DUEL AT DIABLO again very soon. So thanks for that! I remember seeing it in the cinema when it was first released in 1966 and being pretty blown away by it. And THE PROFESSIONALS in the same year – a film I could watch once a week every week for the rest of my life. That good! Westerns have always been my favourite form of film entertainment, and in the 1960s they were made in their dozens. There was barely a week went by without the next western film poster being pasted on the quad-size hoarding in front of our local corner shop, a tobacconists & confectioners. Those were the days!

Posted By Graham Rye : November 9, 2012 2:31 am

I did enjoy your piece and it has made me want to watch DUEL AT DIABLO again very soon. So thanks for that! I remember seeing it in the cinema when it was first released in 1966 and being pretty blown away by it. And THE PROFESSIONALS in the same year – a film I could watch once a week every week for the rest of my life. That good! Westerns have always been my favourite form of film entertainment, and in the 1960s they were made in their dozens. There was barely a week went by without the next western film poster being pasted on the quad-size hoarding in front of our local corner shop, a tobacconists & confectioners. Those were the days!

Posted By Graham Rye : November 9, 2012 2:36 am
Posted By Graham Rye : November 9, 2012 2:36 am
Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : November 9, 2012 3:15 am

Never liked Soldier Blue very much.
But love “Duel At Diabolo”.
William Katt watched that Movie in De Palma´s Carrie.
I will try to watch more Ralph Nelson Films.

Off Topic.
Kimberly,will you write something on “Skyfall”?

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : November 9, 2012 3:15 am

Never liked Soldier Blue very much.
But love “Duel At Diabolo”.
William Katt watched that Movie in De Palma´s Carrie.
I will try to watch more Ralph Nelson Films.

Off Topic.
Kimberly,will you write something on “Skyfall”?

Posted By Doug : November 9, 2012 3:32 am

You might find this interesting:
http://www.librarything.com/topic/132044
The person on whom “The Lone Ranger” is supposedly based
was a former slave, Bass Reeves. I heard this story on the
“Things you missed in history class” podcast from How Stuff Works.
I linked to the librarything post as it’s a quick read rather than a long listen.

Posted By Doug : November 9, 2012 3:32 am

You might find this interesting:
http://www.librarything.com/topic/132044
The person on whom “The Lone Ranger” is supposedly based
was a former slave, Bass Reeves. I heard this story on the
“Things you missed in history class” podcast from How Stuff Works.
I linked to the librarything post as it’s a quick read rather than a long listen.

Posted By SergioM : November 9, 2012 11:57 am

Love this film. Unfortunately I have that crappy non-anamorphic MGM DVD of the film from a faded print. Talk about a movie in serious need a blu-ray remaster.

Posted By SergioM : November 9, 2012 11:57 am

Love this film. Unfortunately I have that crappy non-anamorphic MGM DVD of the film from a faded print. Talk about a movie in serious need a blu-ray remaster.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 1:58 pm

Graham – I love THE PROFESSIONALS as well! It’s such a great film with an incredible cast. And Richard’s piece is terrific. It’s also a reminder that I should curse more in my own write-ups. THE PROFESSIONALS would make a great double feature with DUEL AT DIABLO if someone wants to see two of the best American westerns made in the ’60s. Like yourself, I love westerns and grew up watching them with my dad. He was a cowboy himself in Nevada for awhile. Worked on a big ranch there and loved to ride. Today when I watch a good western it’s a lot like eating comfort food. There’s something about westerns that makes me want to watch my favorites again & again.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 1:58 pm

Graham – I love THE PROFESSIONALS as well! It’s such a great film with an incredible cast. And Richard’s piece is terrific. It’s also a reminder that I should curse more in my own write-ups. THE PROFESSIONALS would make a great double feature with DUEL AT DIABLO if someone wants to see two of the best American westerns made in the ’60s. Like yourself, I love westerns and grew up watching them with my dad. He was a cowboy himself in Nevada for awhile. Worked on a big ranch there and loved to ride. Today when I watch a good western it’s a lot like eating comfort food. There’s something about westerns that makes me want to watch my favorites again & again.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 2:00 pm

Ghijath – I don’t remember that scene in CARRIE at all so you’ve got me curious about revisiting the movie again. Especially since it’s one of my favorite De Palma films. As for SKYFALL, I plan to see it this month but not sure if/when I’ll write about it unless inspiration strikes.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 2:00 pm

Ghijath – I don’t remember that scene in CARRIE at all so you’ve got me curious about revisiting the movie again. Especially since it’s one of my favorite De Palma films. As for SKYFALL, I plan to see it this month but not sure if/when I’ll write about it unless inspiration strikes.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 2:03 pm

SergioM – The movie would undoubtedly benefit from I great transfer that’s been lovingly restored & released on blu-ray. It’s such a great looking film but a lot of the prints floating around are downright awful.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : November 9, 2012 2:03 pm

SergioM – The movie would undoubtedly benefit from I great transfer that’s been lovingly restored & released on blu-ray. It’s such a great looking film but a lot of the prints floating around are downright awful.

Posted By SergioM : November 9, 2012 2:08 pm

At least The Professionals is on blu-ray and looks spectaclar. So is Richard Brook’s later western Bite the Bullet which also got a great looking blu-ray transfer. But that’s only a limited release on the Twilight Time label

Posted By SergioM : November 9, 2012 2:08 pm

At least The Professionals is on blu-ray and looks spectaclar. So is Richard Brook’s later western Bite the Bullet which also got a great looking blu-ray transfer. But that’s only a limited release on the Twilight Time label

Posted By Kingrat : November 9, 2012 4:55 pm

Speaking of the poster, you have to love that “and introducing Bibi Andersson.” Granted, the audience that hadn’t seen Ingmar Bergman films had probably never heard of her.

Thank you for the warning about the violence. Critics today often seem to take for granted to a lot of gruesome violence and sadism is no big deal, but to some of us it is. Because DUEL AT DIABLO deals with Apaches, ULZANA’S RAID (which has its torture and gruesome scenes, too) might be an interesting point of comparison. APACHE in the early 50s portrays the Apaches sympathetically, with the blue-eyed Burt Lancaster in the title role.

Posted By Kingrat : November 9, 2012 4:55 pm

Speaking of the poster, you have to love that “and introducing Bibi Andersson.” Granted, the audience that hadn’t seen Ingmar Bergman films had probably never heard of her.

Thank you for the warning about the violence. Critics today often seem to take for granted to a lot of gruesome violence and sadism is no big deal, but to some of us it is. Because DUEL AT DIABLO deals with Apaches, ULZANA’S RAID (which has its torture and gruesome scenes, too) might be an interesting point of comparison. APACHE in the early 50s portrays the Apaches sympathetically, with the blue-eyed Burt Lancaster in the title role.

Posted By david hartzog : December 18, 2012 12:08 am

excellent review of one of my favorite films. i originally saw it in a movie theatre and never forgot it. got the video, got the dvd, even a replica of the poster. wheres the bluray? nice review, thanks.

Posted By david hartzog : December 18, 2012 12:08 am

excellent review of one of my favorite films. i originally saw it in a movie theatre and never forgot it. got the video, got the dvd, even a replica of the poster. wheres the bluray? nice review, thanks.

Posted By SergioM : May 10, 2013 12:34 am

Diablo is playing several times this month on the MGMHD cable channel in high def. So at least there will be aa opportunity to see it in a really great looking restored version

Posted By SergioM : May 10, 2013 12:34 am

Diablo is playing several times this month on the MGMHD cable channel in high def. So at least there will be aa opportunity to see it in a really great looking restored version

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