Michael Curtiz's The Comancheros was a deceptively complex movie -- so enjoyable, that it masked some of the best character development seen in a John Wayne vehicle that was not directed by John Ford or Howard Hawks, and so well made that it got by with some of the most violent action seen in a major studio release of the era. It also bridged the gap between Ford's The Searchers and the upbeat buddy movies of the late '60s and '70s (The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, etc.). It's 1843 in the Republic of Texas, and Jake Cutter (John Wayne) is a two-fisted Texas Ranger who runs across a gang of white renegades, called the Comancheros, who are trading guns and other contraband with marauding Comanches from a secret hideout in Mexico. Substituting for a repentant gun-runner, he goes undercover as a partner with Crow (Lee Marvin), a vicious half-breed who is a contact man with the Comancheros and knows the whereabouts of their hideout in Mexico. But Crow manages to get himself killed, and Cutter is forced to throw in with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a bystander who also happens to be an itinerant gambler wanted for killing a man in a duel in New Orleans, to complete his mission. It turns out that Regret is a more decent man than most, and he and Cutter, despite some different outlooks on right and wrong, take a liking to each other. Their quest eventually takes them south of the border, where they find the Comancheros and their leader, Graile (Nehemiah Persoff), a bitter, brilliant cripple -- think of The Sea Wolf's Wolf Larsen in a wheelchair -- who has established a landlocked pirate society, and his daughter Pilar (Ina Balin). The only thing that keeps Cutter and Regret alive when they enter the camp is that Pilar and Regret have a history, and she still has feelings for him, enough so that she won't tell what she knows about Cutter and who he is. The two men must play on Graile's greed and Pilar's love in the explosive surroundings of the Comancheros' camp, while figuring out a way to stay alive long enough to get word to the rangers about where they are -- and to survive the attack that must inevitably follow.
Director Michael Curtiz was ill for part of the shoot, and Wayne took up the slack, but The Comancheros displays some of the same freewheeling charm and deep passions that informed classic films of his such as Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, and The Sea Hawk. Wayne and Whitman between them manage to evoke some of the rambunctiousness of Errol Flynn, and when Balin (one of the sexiest leading ladies ever to grace a John Wayne movie) arrives onscreen, the testosterone level shoots up even higher and the sexual sparks fly. The film's 105 minutes go by very fast, and this is a movie whose ending comes almost too soon. Curtiz's final film is one that leaves audiences with a smile, but also wanting more, which was a pretty good way to go out. John Wayne's daughter, Aissa Wayne (who subsequently went into a law career) appears in a small role.