The Comancheros is a 1961 Western Deluxe CinemaScope color film directed by Michael Curtiz, based on a 1952 novel of the same name by Paul Wellman, and starring John Wayne and Stuart Whitman. The supporting cast includes Ina Balin, Lee Marvin, Nehemiah Persoff, Bruce Cabot, Jack Elam, Patrick Wayne, and Edgar Buchanan. Also featured are western film veterans Bob Steele, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams and Harry Carey, Jr. in uncredited supporting roles.
When illness prevented Curtiz (director of Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood) from finishing the film, Wayne took over as director, though his role remained uncredited. Curtiz died shortly after the film was completed.
In 1843 roguish gambler Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman) escapes a death penalty after killing in a duel Emil Bouvier (Gregg Palmer), the son of a Louisiana judge. Regret claimed that he would have only wounded Bouvier if he hadn't sidestepped. He is captured by Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne) after a tryst with a mysterious lady, Pilar Graile (Ina Balin). Regret manages to escape, but is subsequently recaptured after a chance encounter with Cutter in a saloon.
In the process of returning Regret to Louisiana, Cutter is forced to join forces with the condemned to fight the "Comancheros", a large criminal gang headed by a former officer that smuggles guns and whiskey to the Comanche Indians to make money and keep the frontier in a state of violence. Cutter stops at a ranch owned by a friend when there is a sudden Comanche attack. During the attack Regret jumps on a horse and flees, but instead of making a clean getaway he soon returns with a unit of Texas Rangers and the attack is repulsed.
Eventually they infiltrate the self-sufficient Comanchero community at the bottom of a valley in the desert. Pilar reappears as the daughter of the wheelchair-bound but ruthless leader Graile (Nehemiah Persoff). After Cutter and the other Texas Rangers defeat both the Comanches and Comancheros, Regret and Pilar leave together for Mexico and Jake rides off into the sunset.
Wellman's novel had been bought for the screen by George Stevens who wanted to direct it after Giant (1956). However he then became interested in making The Diary of Anne Frank and sold the film rights to Fox for $300,000. Clair Huffaker was signed by the studio to adapt it for producer Charles Brackett with Gary Cooper to star. However, Cooper was in ill health and in early 1961 Douglas Heyes was announced as writer and director. John Wayne and Charlton Heston were announced as stars, but Heston dropped out and was replaced by Tom Tryon, then Heyes dropped out and was replaced by Michael Curtiz. Fox had the script rewritten by Wayne's regular writer James Edward Grant.
Whitman's character—Paul Regret—was the lead in the novel and Wayne's part had to be amplified for the film version. Wellman had envisioned Cary Grant as Regret as he wrote the novel. Gary Cooper and James Garner were originally set to be the leads but Cooper was in ill health and Garner had been blackballed due to a dispute with Jack L. Warner.
According to Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on the film as an assistant, Curtiz was often ill during production and John Wayne would take over directing.
Bosley Crowther called the film "so studiously wild and woolly it turns out to be good fun"; according to Crowther, "[t]here's not a moment of seriousness in it, not a detail that isn't performed with a surge of exaggeration, not a character that is credible."
Although set in Texas in 1843, the characters all use Winchester lever action rifles and Colt Peacemaker pistols, which were not available until 1866 and 1873 respectively. The Guinn Williams character is said to have stolen rifles from Fort Sill and to have served a sentence in the Yuma Territorial Prison, neither of which became operational until after the Civil War, 1869 and 1876 respectively. The Comanchero leader's status as a former Confederate officer is also anachronistic because the Confederate States of America did not exist until the onset of the Civil War in 1861.
Three years later Whitman was the lead in Rio Conchos, another film which had a remarkably similar plot to this one. In that film (which avoided the anachronisms of this film by being set after the Civil War), Whitman's character was the upstanding figure compelled to work with rogues who either had criminal pasts, or worked on the edge of the law.Dell Four Color #1300 (February 1962)