The Appaloosa could be worse. Director Furie apes styles he doesn’t understand how to use—his Leone-esque angles, the Acid Western—with what’s a fairly traditional Western, albeit just with a Mexican supporting cast. Well, okay, so Marlon Brando is the only gringo playing a gringo. All the other White people are supposed to be Mexican. You can tell from their makeup. Even the actual Hispanic actors are wearing a pound of makeup. The scene where Brando tries to darken his skin—it’s not clear he’s trying to actually appear Mexican, it seems like it has more to do with his monologue about his adoptive (Mexican) father and wishing he looked like him or something. But it turns out it’s not. Anyway, in the scene Brando uses coffee grounds to do it and sister-in-law Miriam Colon tells him it doesn’t work; you wish he’d just asked her what she was using.
Colon is married to Rafael Campos, Brando’s adoptive little brother. Or whatever. Campos isn’t good. You feel like it’s not his fault. The whole thing with Campos and Colon’s family is really forced. Maybe because Campos is exaggerating everything—exaggerated Mexican accents are going to be a thing, Appaloosa establishes real early on—but also because Brando’s in this goofy wig, fake beard thing. With the Western hat version of a Robin Hood hat. Brando’s appearance itself is distracting. It takes him a while to clean up too, long enough it seems like he might be in the makeup the whole movie. It’s distracting. You can’t watch him without wondering if they really thought the beard looked real enough.
But he does clean up. Just in time to do a Speedy Gonzales impression. See, it’s not clear Brando’s trying to appear Mexican when he decides to go into Mexico to get his prized horse—the titular Appaloosa—back from bandit leader John Saxon. Not until he’s sitting in a bar and bad guy Alex Montoya forces Brando to drink pulque to show he’s tough enough to be in bar. Montoya comes over to chit chat after Brando shows he’s legit and Brando goes into full Speedy Gonzales. It’s kind of beyond cringe, quickly getting into the “Greatest American Actor” humiliates himself in studio Western territory. Like, Brando wasn’t doing too great to start—the fake beard gets in the way of his mouth and the wig’s goofy—but he wasn’t doing a hideously bad Mexican accent opposite a Hispanic actor also doing an amped up Mexican accent. It’s like exploitation in action.
And it’s also bad. Montoya’s a lousy villain. Though I guess it doesn’t matter because Brando’s a lousy hero, going towards that Acid Western turf; he wants to get his horse back because it’s the key to him finally repaying Campos for everything his father did for Brando and he acts like a badass—he starts the movie confessing to a priest about all the men he’s killed—but it turns out, it’s all talk. Brando’s best scene—maybe only good scene—is when he talks about his inability to accomplish his mission. There’s some halfway good scenes in other parts, but it’s hard because Saxon’s effective without being good and Brando’s good without being effective.
A lot of the problem is the script—by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee–which tries not to be exciting. But then you’ve got Furie trying to bring tension to everything; he and editor Ted J. Kent also don’t know how to time the action for tension. It might just be Brando’s too laidback. The whole thing’s hard to take seriously. Again, if Furie knew why he was using the techniques he was using… it’d be better. The film’s sound design is way too bland. And the inserts in the third act—cutting from medium shots to close-ups—never match. Brando and sidekick Anjanette Comer are in one position in the two shot, in obviously different ones in their close-ups.
Comer’s a whole other thing, playing Saxon’s “wife.” She’s in a pound of brown face, she’s not very good, and her backstory is a mess.
Half okay, half bad music from Frank Skinner.
Good photography from Russell Metty.
The first act has its cringe moments, the second act’s plodding, but the movie does seem like it’s at least going to do something interesting. Then the third act is rushed and the finish itself pointlessly cops out. Unless Brando refused to shoot an actual ending.
But, yeah, could be worse. Probably couldn’t be any better though.
Directed by Sidney J. Furie; screenplay by James Bridges and Roland Kibbee, based on the novel by Robert MacLeod; director of photography, Russell Metty; edited by Ted J. Kent; music by Frank Skinner; produced by Allan Miller; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Marlon Brando (Mateo), John Saxon (Chuy), Anjanette Comer (Trini), Miriam Colon (Ana), Rafael Campos (Paco), Emilio Fernández (Lazaro), Alex Montoya (Squint Eye), and Frank Silvera (Ramos).