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Shalako

Shalako(1968)

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teaser Shalako (1968)

In 1880, a group of European aristocrats arrive in New Mexico where they have organized a hunting party led by their guide, Bosky Fulton. Even though their presence violates a territorial agreement with the Apaches, Fulton ignores it, placing his clients in great danger. When the Apaches stage a raid on the hunting party, Fulton escapes with the wife of one of the hunters and all of the supplies and ammunition. Those that survive the raid are rescued by Shalako, a former cavalry officer, who attempts to lead them to safety at a nearby fort. Before they can reach their destination, however, the Apaches return for retribution, forcing Shalako into a duel to the death with Chato, the son of the tribal chief.

Based on a book by the prolific Western novelist Louis L'Amour, Shalako (1968) had the makings of a classic frontier epic, including a unique premise that was rarely explored in Westerns: the confrontation between European civilization and the untamed wilderness and desolation of the American West. Edward Dmytryk, the film's director, however, referred to Shalako in his autobiography as "a prime example of a man hoist by his own petard. The man was I." His experience highlights all that can go wrong with an international multi-million dollar production even though on paper the project seemed destined for blockbuster status.

For one thing, Shalako paired two of the most popular sex symbols of its era - Sean Connery, who had just completed his fifth James Bond film, You Only Live Twice (1967), vowing never to do another one, and Brigitte Bardot, the French cinema's most famous export who would make this her first and last leading role in an English language film (Dear Brigitte (1965) doesn't qualify since she only appears in a cameo).

In addition to the sizzling combo of Connery and Bardot, Shalako featured one of the most impressive rosters of talent in international cinema at that time. From England, there were Jack Hawkins, Honor Blackman (who played Pussy Galore opposite Connery's 007 in Goldfinger, 1964), Valerie French and Eric Sykes, Germany was represented by Peter Van Eyck, Alexander Knox was a Canadian native, Stephen Boyd hailed from Ireland, and among the American actors were Woody Strode, Don "Red" Barry and Rodd Redwing. On the crew side, director Dmytryk, the son of Ukrainian immigrants, was a native of British Columbia who relocated to Los Angeles in his teenage years and Oscar®-winning cinematographer Ted Moore (A Man for All Seasons, 1966) was from South Africa.

Initially, Dmytryk didn't even want to do Shalako which was pitched to him by British publicist-turned-producer Euan Lloyd. He said he would consider it, however, based on two provisions: the inferior script would have to be rewritten (an assignment given to Dmytryk's friend, Jim Griffith) and casting major stars in the key roles was crucial. Dmytryk felt certain he was off the hook because Lloyd wouldn't be able to interest anyone of importance in the project but the joke was on him when Lloyd confirmed Connery and Bardot for the leading roles.

Once Dmytryk got over the initial surprise of Lloyd's successful deal-making, he buckled down to work on Shalako which was filmed in Almeria in southern Spain, the site of countless "spaghetti Westerns." In his autobiography, the director wrote, "I met Sean Connery at the Grand Hotel in Rome. We spent the first two hours watching the World Cup match. Scotland was playing West Germany, I believe, for the cup...I still wondered why he wanted to play a part which did not really seem to suit him as a person or as an actor. When I learned that he was getting $1,000,000, plus 100 percent of the profits from Spain, where he wanted to establish a winter home, I understood."

As for Brigitte Bardot, she had recently announced in a press interview, "Oh, I have never made a cowboy picture. I like to try something new." She even admitted she didn't mind Connery getting top billing: "I can't even say how much I appreciate the moral rest it is for me not to play the lead for the first time. Shalako is Sean's film. He carries all the weight on his shoulders. Usually in French films I did that with a few minor actors around me." Naturally, the publicity department had a field day promoting Bardot's involvement in the film, issuing statements to the press such as "The next twelve weeks will be full of fighting, retreating, climbing, riding and shooting. Nothing like it has happened to her before in a film."

On the set, Dmytryk was more impressed with Bardot's photogenic qualities than her acting. "Brigitte has an amazing still-picture instinct," he said. "I was convinced that sitting for stills was really her first love, and that she acted in films only because it immeasurably increased her opportunity for such posing. She had no feel for acting and seemed to take no particular interest in it. But I always knew that a still photographer was nearing the set...when I saw Brigitte move to a suitable prop or background and settle herself into a fetching pose. Her instinct for the proper location and position was absolutely faultless; in that area, at least, she was a consummate artist."

The much anticipated sexual chemistry between Connery and Bardot during the filming of Shalako never amounted to much as both actors kept to themselves unless they were shooting a scene together. In fact, for most of the cast and crew it was not a fun picture to make. Co-star Honor Blackman later stated, "It certainly had nothing like the atmosphere of Goldfinger. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that Sean was going through a very difficult period in his life. And Brigitte didn't help either. She was surrounding herself with her entourage while Sean was otherwise occupied. Actually, she was very remote. She had never made a film out of France before and she was constantly making it very clear that she would never do one again. On top of everything else, Stephen Boyd was going through a strange period in his life - going round to everybody saying, "Peace." Eric Sykes was having trouble all the time with his hearing aid. We were all worried about Jack Hawkins' medallion, which hid the hole in his throat through which he tried to speak [He had recently undergone a laryngectomy and his voice was redubbed by actor Charles Gray in post-production], and Sean was, as I say otherwise engaged; he came and did his thing and then went off again."

Despite the marquee power of Connery and Bardot, Shalako failed to live up to its full potential as a Western or at the box office, but it wasn't a monumental financial failure on the order of the all-star 1969 epic Mackenna's Gold. It garnered mixed reviews from the critics with Roger Ebert noting "the long-awaited meeting between Connery and Miss Bardot is a flop. They look yearningly at each other a lot....but otherwise no sparks are struck." Some critics enjoyed the film, however, with Renata Adler of The New York Times proclaiming it "a good, long, old-fashioned, wide-screen Western." She also added "What makes it different from watching a good night of "Bonanza" or "High Chaparral" is not only the wide screen and the absence of commercials, but also sheer joy and humor with which Mr. Connery, Miss Bardot and other members of the cast...works out their well-written refinements on stock Western parts. Lots of shooting, galloping, terse dialogue - it is the perfect movie to see in a two-theatre town on a Saturday night."

Additional Trivia:
- Henry Fonda and Senta Berger were first considered for the two leading roles- Hal Hopper, one of the screenwriters, was a songwriter/composer and former member of the singing group The Pied Pipers. He also worked as an actor appearing in numerous television series (Maverick, 26 Men, Perry Mason) and such lurid fare as Kitten with a Whip (1964) and two sexploitation features by cult director Russ Meyer - Lorna (1964) and Mudhoney (1965).

Producer: Euan Lloyd
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Screenplay: J.J. Griffith, Hal Hopper, Scott Finch (based on a novel by Louis L'Amour)
Cinematographer: Ted Moore
Film Editing: Bill Blunden
Music: Robert Farnon
Art Direction: Herbert Smith
Stunts: Bob Simmons
Cast: Sean Connery (Shalako), Brigitte Bardot (Countess Irini), Stephen Boyd (Bosky Fulton), Jack Hawkins (Sir Charles Daggett), Peter Van Eyck (Frederick von Hallstatt), Honor Blackman (Lady Julia Daggett), Woody Strode (Chato), Eric Sykes (Mako), Alexander Knox (Henry Clarke), Valerie French (Elena Clarke), Rodd Redwing (Chato's Father).
C-113m. Letterboxed.

by Jeff Stafford

SOURCES:
It's a Hell of a Life But Not a Bad Living by Edward Dmytryk
Sean Connery: A Biography by Michael Freedland
www.afi.com
rogerebert.com
The New York Times

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