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By the mid-60s, James Garner was ready to move on from his TV series, Maverick, which first brought him to the attention of the public. Swearing he was through saddling up on screen, he nevertheless signed on as both star and co-producer of Duel at Diablo (1966). Garner was enticed into the role largely because of working with the respected director Ralph Nelson and a sterling cast made up of Oscar-winner Sidney Poitier, Swedish actress (and Ingmar Bergman mainstay) Bibi Andersson in her first American picture, and character actor Dennis Weaver, in a departure from his role as the stiff-legged, good-natured Deputy Chester Goode on the TV series Gunsmoke (1955-64). Garner's decision was well-justified by the resulting healthy box office (he was then a star with a reliable record for hits) and good reviews for the film, many of which focused on his fine portrayal as an ex-Scout bent on revenge after his Indian wife has been murdered and scalped by a white man.
Garner and Poitier, as an ex-soldier turned horse-breaker, join a cavalry group escorting a shipment of ammo to a remote fort, a simple-enough plot built around a fairly standard Indians-versus-cavalry formula, but Nelson keeps the action moving (the caravan is repeatedly attacked by Indians) and the drama intense with strong underlying racial themes. All this is helped by solid performances from all the actors, many of them cast against type.
The film's director had enough of a pedigree to have it identified in some releases as Ralph Nelson's Duel at Diablo. Not exactly a household name today, Nelson began his career with a major role in bringing innovative and quality productions to live dramatic programming in the early days of television. He won an Emmy for the hard-hitting drama Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), and brought the story to the big screen in 1962. His work often focuses on issues of race, ethnicity, and prejudice: Lilies of the Field (1963), which earned Sidney Poitier an Academy Award, the first for an African-American actor in a lead role; the controversial pro-Indian Western and Vietnam allegory Soldier Blue (1970); and A Hero Ain't Nothin' But a Sandwich (1978), with Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. In Duel at Diablo, however, Poitier's race is never an issue. The film is concerned instead with the plight of the American Indian.
Poitier had more on his mind than racial issues at the time of shooting. He had been carrying on a passionate but mostly secretive affair with actress-singer Diahann Carroll (they were both married at the time), who was pregnant at the start of production. Impatient with the uncertainty of their relationship, Carroll decided to have an abortion, spurring the usually cool-headed Poitier to a furious outburst and precipitating the end of their attachment.
Duel at Diablo features former stuntman and frequent Western supporting player Richard Farnsworth in a small un-credited role. Farnsworth was Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actor for Comes a Horseman (1978) and as Best Actor in David Lynch's The Straight Story (1999). He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in October 2000 after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Director: Ralph Nelson
Producer: Fred Engel, Ralph Nelson
Screenplay: Marvin H. Albert, Michael M. Grilikhes
Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler
Editing: Fredric Steinkamp
Art Direction: Alfred Ybarra
Music: Neil Hefti
Cast: James Garner (Jess Remsberg), Sidney Poitier (Toller), Bibi Andersson (Ellen Grange), Dennis Weaver (Willard Grange), Bill Travers (Lt. McAllister), William Redfield (Sgt. Ferguson), John Hoyt (Chata), Eddie Little Sky (Alchise), John Crawford (Clay Dean), Kevin Coughlin (Norton), Richard Farnsworth (uncredited).
C-105m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon