When Stephen Boyd first arrived in Hollywood, his first project was a western called “The Bravados.” The movie was filmed from January to April 1958, and it was released later that same year in the summer. The cast left for Morelia, Mexico on January 27th of 1958, but before leaving, some of them (including Boyd) were given extensive horseback riding lessons at the Fat Jones Stables in North Hollywood. “Fat Jones Stables was the top supplier of horses and horse wranglers to the movies for 51 years.” (https://stevesomething.wordpress.com/category/fat-jones-stables/) Stephen Boyd had never been on a horse before, so Fox Studios was going to transform this young Irishman into a gun-toting, tough, horse-back riding outlaw. And they did a great job!
“Four very saddle-sore performers are Stephen Boyd, Ken Scott, Barry Coe and Kathleen Gallant, who’ll go to Mexico to appear with Gregory Peck in “The Bravados.” None of the quartet ever has done any riding to speak of before. All have been taking lessons. As a result, the entire group was allowed to receive their out-of-the-country shots in the arm instead of the usual place.” (The Evening Independent, Jan 27, 1958.) Ken Scott, incidentally, would become one of Boyd’s best friends and golfing buddies. He appeared in two more of Boyd’s films – “Woman Obsessed” and later on “Fantastic Voyage.”
“The Bravados” Posters: capitalizing on Stephen Boyd’s ravishment of Kathleen Gallant in the movie
More adventures were to come on location in Mexico in the area of San Jose Purua, Morelia, Uruapan, and Guadalajara. The entire cast, except the Director, developed Montezuma’s Revenge. “Gregory Peck miraculously escaped serious injury or more when he rolled off his horse as the mount slipped and tumbled down an 80-foot cliff. Joan Collins got nipped by a scorpion. Stephen Boyd, the Irish Star, was kicked in the leg by his own steed and was rendered, you might say, horse de combat for a fortn’t. Kathleen Gallant, one time ‘Miss New Hampshire,’ making her film debut, was tossed by her own nag and landed unceremoniously on the hip pocket of her well-fitted jeans. Lee Van Cleef ripped a king sized gash in his shootin’ hand falling down another gully…” (Philadelphia Enquirer Apr 7 1958.)
Stephen Boyd would later mention that the “Bravados”, of all the movies he himself made, was his favorite. It is a remarkable performance, considering also the level of transformation Boyd undertook to become Zachary, the main villain of the film. The movie is based on a western novel by Frank O’Rourke and directed by veteran director Henry King (“The Song of Bernadette”). The excellent soundtrack by Alfred Newman (“The Robe”) and Huge Friedhofer (“Woman Obsessed”) is both rousing and unsettling. The cinematography of the prolific Leon Shamroy (“Cleopatra”, “The King and I”, “The Egyptian” and “Planet of the Apes) is also outstanding with the Mexican scenery and blue-lit night scenes.
The movie takes the basic revenge plot of the novel but turns it into something even more interesting. Gregory Peck portrays a tall, quiet, brooding man, Jim Douglas, who arrives in a quiet little town called Rio Arriba to watch four men hang. When he arrives he meets a former female acquaintance named Josefa, played by Joan Collins, who tries to rekindle their relationship with no luck. Douglas is hardened by the death of his wife, who was raped and killed by these men (or so he thinks) and who he has tracked to this town. When Peck meets the men in the jail, you finally get a look at the ‘bad boys’, and they truly emanate menace. Stephen Boyd plays Zach, the ringleader of a gang which consists of Parral, Lujan and Taylor, played respectively by Lee Van Cleef (“For a Few Dollars More”), Henry Silva (“Ocean’s Eleven”) and Albert Salmi (“The Unforgiven”). Boyd looks the part of an outlaw with a rugged, unshaven look, reddish hair, and a subtle Irish accent.
These four actors make the outlaws the highlight of this film. Parral (Van Cleef) is the half-breed who seems to worry about everything; Lujan (Silva) is the stoic, cunning Native American who is the only one to survive the wrath of Douglas; Taylor (Salmi) is the gambler; and Zach (Boyd) is the unspoken leader whose main weakness his rapacity for women. Stephen’s Zachary is a perfect precursor to Ben Hur’s Messala – he seems to radiate evil intentions from the start, with his blue eyes glittering lustfully when he asks the sheriff why he didn’t bring them ‘a woman’.
The prisoners make their desperate escape from the jail, but not before Zach nabs a female hostage Emma, played by Kathleen Gallant, for his own libidinous needs. The renegades immediately start to turn on one another as the townspeople and Douglas (Peck) are in hot pursuit. Meanwhile, Zach plays a cat-and-mouse game with the kidnapped girl Emma, toying with the rope she is bound with suggested arousal and trying to get a moment alone with her. His plans keep getting interrupted.
There are even glimmers of the Sergio Leone spaghetti western “For a Few Dollars More” in this film as Gregory Peck keeps a photo of his wife and daughter in a gold pocket watch. Lee Van Cleef carries a similar, sentimental pocket watch in “For a Few Dollars” as he seeks revenge for his sister. The scene in which Douglas takes his revenge on Parral (Van Cleef) as he pleads his innocence is especially unsettling – it feels more like an execution than justice. Douglas catches up with Taylor next in the woods. The posse finds Taylor hanging upside down from a tree, dead, after Douglas has had his way with him. The sheriff’s early reproof of Douglas for suggesting using a tree instead of a gallows for the outlaws (“They came here to be hanged, not lynched”), echo back to the audience disconcertingly.
The climax comes when Lujan, Zach, and Emma approach a small cabin looking for food and fresh horses. The cabin is owned by one of Jim Douglas’s neighbors, a miner named John Butler ( played by Gene Evans) . Ironically, as we shall see later, this is the man who actually killed Douglas’s wife and raped her – not Zach (Boyd). Once inside, the renegades ransack the cabin and shoot the miner as he tries to run off with the gold he stole from the Douglas ranch. Zach is left inside with Emma alone and the inevitable, fateful confrontation occurs.
The rape scene, which is filmed with brutal effect with no soundtrack music, happens very fast. Zach lunges across the cabin room as Emma tries to escape. With the entire back of her dress already ripped asunder, the helpless girl is roughly seized by Zach and their struggle continues inside. The cabin door slowly swings open with the actors out of sight, but we hear the sound of the girl’s guttural cries of anguish and Zach’s brutish growls. We don’t see what’s happening, but the effect is even more chilling.
All the while the serene Lujan waits patiently outside as he greedily hides the gold found on the dead miner. The two abscond from the scene as soon as Lujan sees what he thinks is the ‘posse’ approaching. It’s actually Josefa and the sheriff.
Meanwhile, Douglas has broken off from the townspeople to seek his own personal vendetta, eventually finding Zach in a small Mexican cantina across the border. Once again Douglas presents his gold pocket watch and the photo of his wife to Zach. He goads the baffled Zach into a gunfight and kills him. Then, unrelenting, Douglas chases down Lujan to his family home.
It is here where Douglas finally understands that he’s been chasing the wrong men this whole time. Lujan explains where he found the gold. Peck plays this scene perfectly. Horrified and sickened by this revelation , he braces himself on the ground and clasps his hands together as he realizes just how far his revenge has taken him. He was about to kill both Lujan and possibly Lujan’s wife and child. Guilt-ridden, Douglas returns to Rio Arriba to find solace with Josefa and his own young daughter and the grateful townsfolk.
Boyd is brilliant in the role of Zach, and indeed, his excellent performance in this film foreshadowed his upcoming role in “Ben-Hur”. After “The Bravados” was completed in late April of 1958, Boyd was notified that he had been awarded the coveted role of Messala in William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” for MGM. He was on a plane to Rome to start filming this iconic biblical epic the next month. Next to Messala in “Ben-Hur”, “The Bravados” might be Boyd’s best villainous role.
This would be Boyd’s first western, but certainly not his last. He would film an additional five westerns later in his career. More on those to come in future blogs.