The cast also includes Stephen Boyd, Jack Hawkins, and Honor Blackman, Connery's co-star in Goldfinger. It is based on a novel by Louis L'Amour.
In 1880 in New Mexico, frontier adventurer Bosky Fulton (Stephen Boyd) and his men lead a hunting party of European aristocrats and their servants, along with a retired American politician and his wife, into Apache territory. When a French countess, Irina Lazaar (Brigitte Bardot), wanders off, she is attacked by Apache warriors on horseback. She is rescued by Shalako (Sean Connery), a former U.S. Cavalry officer with a personal interest in keeping non-Indians off Indian land. While on the way to returning her to the hunting party, they are surrounded by Apaches. They both promise the Apache chief they will get the outsiders off the land. The chief agrees, but his son, Chato (Woody Strode), tells Shalako he intends to kill him in battle.
Shalako urges the leader of the hunting party, Frederick von Hallstatt (Peter van Eyck), to leave, but he refuses and the two men soon despise each other. Shalako rides off to get the army to escort the party off Apache land, but the Apaches attack and would overrun the party but for a smoke signal ruse of Shalako from some distance away.
The devious Fulton takes advantage of the lull in the fighting; he and his men take the hunting party’s main stage coach, plus all the weapons and supplies, leaving the hunting party at the mercy of the Apaches. Lady Julia Dagger (Honor Blackman), seeing the hopeless situation of the party, decides to leave her husband, the pathetic Sir Charles Dagger (Jack Hawkins), and go along as Fulton’s lover. She and Fulton had previously teased each other in a sexually fraught manner.
Shalako returns to the stranded hunting party, which is re-equipped with weapons and supplies he had previously advised them to hide in reserve. He hopes to lead them on foot to a plateau where they will be temporarily safe. Shalako and von Hallstadt continue to feud, but over time their feelings evolve to mutual respect.
The Apaches attack the stage coach, killing all Fulton’s men as well as Lady Julia. Fulton, having watched her killing, joins up with the hunting party. After they rebuff an initial Apache attack, the humiliated Sir Charles challenges Fulton, and they fatally shoot each other.
Chato and some other Apache warriors come up behind the Europeans, catching them by surprise. Chato challenges Shalako to a one-on-one fight with spears. Chato loses and is about to be killed when his father, the Apache chief, intervenes. He gives safe passage to Shalako and the others in return for his son's life. Chato storms off, feeling disgraced. With the surviving members of the party safe, Shalako rides off into the western landscape, accompanied by Countess Irina.Sean Connery as Moses Zebulon 'Shalako' Carlin
Brigitte Bardot as Countess Irina Lazaar
Stephen Boyd as Bosky Fulton
Jack Hawkins as Sir Charles Daggett
Peter van Eyck as Baron Frederick von Hallstadt
Honor Blackman as Lady Julia Daggett
Woody Strode as Chato (Apache chief)
Eric Sykes as Mako
Alexander Knox as Sen. Henry Clarke
Valerie French as Elena Clarke
Julián Mateos as Rojas
Don 'Red' Barry as Buffalo
Rodd Redwing as Chato's Father
Producer Euan Lloyd was introduced to Louis L'Amour, author of numerous Western adventure novels, by his actor friend Alan Ladd. Over the years as Lloyd dreamed of becoming an independent producer, he kept in touch with L'Amour. He wanted to film his 1962 novel Shalako.
At one time Lloyd had lined up Henry Fonda and Senta Berger to star in the film, planning to shoot it in Mexico. Lloyd recounted that, at the time, many film distributors were reluctant to back a film starring Fonda, and increases in the cost of filming in Mexico made it impossible to pursue.
During a meeting with L'Amour, Lloyd recounted long lines at the cinemas in New York for the latest James Bond adventure film. L'Amour remarked that Sean Connery, who starred in the role, would certainly "look tall in the saddle". When Lloyd met Sean Connery and discussed the work with him, he learned that Connery was a Western fan since childhood. He was also keen to do the film as he had been promised $1.2 million and 30% of the profits out of the $5 million budget. Connery was available, as he had turned down playing Bond in On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
Lloyd obtained that film's planned original co-star Brigitte Bardot, Bond cinematographer Ted Moore, and Bond stuntman and action scene arranger Bob Simmons.
Bardot was paid $400,000 plus 12.5% of the profits.
Once Lloyd had Connery on board, many European and other film distributors were keen to finance the film. Distributors in 35 different countries agreed to provide promissory notes worth $5 million payable on delivery of the film. This enabled Lloyd to raise the $3 million necessary to start production and to sign Connery and Bardot. $1,455,000 came from ABC in the USA, with $2 million from elsewhere. Dimitri de Grunwald became involved in helping finance.
The film was shot in Almería, Spain. Whilst scouting locations when planning to film in the United States, Lloyd had noticed that many Native Americans were overweight. He did not think they looked menacing enough. Simmons recruited a "war party" of lean and mean Romani people (gypsies), whom he trained to ride and act like war-bent Apaches.
Simmons talked Connery into shaving off the droopy moustache which he had grown for the historic period. The investors perhaps remembered Gregory Peck's moustache in The Gunfighter, which was believed to have discouraged some of the public from attending. They feared the same might happen with Shalako.
Almería province was a favoured location for filming spaghetti Westerns. But, when Shalako was in production, Harry Saltzman's Second World War film, Play Dirty, set in the Libyan Desert, was being filmed on the same locations. One film crew had to wipe out the tyre tracks in the sand before filming the Old West, whilst the other had to pick up the horse droppings before shooting the Second World War battles. Once the gypsy Apaches, mounted on horseback, rode by mistake headlong into an attack on a Long Range Desert Group.
Lloyd gathered a strong international cast, including Connery's former co-star Honor Blackman from Goldfinger, as well as Jack Hawkins, Stephen Boyd, Woody Strode, Peter van Eyck, Alexander Knox, Eric Sykes, and Don Barry.
The film premiered in late 1968 to mixed reviews. Some critics thought the film was not as good as the other Westerns being made in Europe, in particular, the Italian westerns (known as "spaghetti Westerns") by which Sergio Leone, Lee Van Cleef, and Clint Eastwood were building their reputations.
Shalako was the 18th most popular film of 1969. It recorded admissions of 1,385,466 in France. However, according to Variety, because of its high costs the film recorded a loss for ABC of $1,275,000.
Later, Shalako became a cult classic; it has been regarded as having the hallmarks of a European Western.
Critics noted this was Sean Connery's first attempt to go mainstream in film and to distance himself from the James Bond role. Connery continued to experiment with other roles, although he starred in two more Bond films, Diamonds Are Forever and Never Say Never Again.
Shalako was released to DVD by MGM Home Video on May 25, 2004 as a Region 1 widescreen DVD and on November 3, 2009 as part of the 4-disc boxset The Sean Connery Collection, with Shalako as the fourth disc in the set, the others being Never Say Never Again, Cuba, and A Bridge Too Far.