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Santiago (1956)

Tampa today is a bustling city on Florida's west coast, but at the tail end of the nineteenth century it was a very different place - an outpost, packed with soldiers by the thousands (future president Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders among them) awaiting orders to head for Cuba, which had been struggling for independence from Spain since the 1860s. Spain rejected a United States demand to surrender control of the island, and in 1898 the Spanish-American War flared up. That's the background for Santiago (1956), starring Alan Ladd as Caleb Adams, better known as Cash, a well-mannered warrior slightly reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart's sardonic hero in Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942). Although a 1956 review described Cash as an "arms entrepreneur," that's being too polite. He's really an old-fashioned gunrunner (at one point The Gun Runner was the movie's title), and true to his nickname, he's driven mainly by the profit motive - until unexpected events and inspiring encounters remind him that ideals are more important than money.

The tale begins near Tampa, where Cuban rebels are waiting for Cash and his fellow mercenaries to arrive with a shipment of weapons and ammunition. After fighting off hijackers in an action-packed opening, Cash and company make their delivery, only to learn that they won't get paid unless they take the goods all the way to Cuba, which means sneaking through a Spanish naval blockade along the way. Cash accepts the deal - for double the money - and loads his cargo onto a riverboat run by two Civil War veterans: the captain, Sidewheel Jones (Chill Wills), and first mate Sam (Don Blackman), a former slave. Nobody is allowed to carry weapons on board, which is a good thing, since a second gunrunner is transporting a consignment on the very same voyage, and he happens to be Cash's longtime enemy. His name is Clay Pike (Lloyd Nolan), and although he strikes an uneasy truce with Cash for their mutual benefit, it's clear that he can't be trusted very far.

Their journey takes them first to Haiti and finally to Cuba, where the last leg must be completed by wagon. Other participants include Doa Isabella (Rosana Podesta), hailed as the Cuban Joan of Arc for her courageous efforts on behalf of the rebels; Juanito (Francisco Ruiz), her brave eight-year-old brother; Cash's sidekick Trasker (Paul Fix), whose loyalty goes back to the time when they were booted out of the military together; and Pike's henchman Jingo (Frank DeKova), a treacherous and dangerous galoot. The celebrated Cuban poet, philosopher, and revolutionary patriot Jos Marti (Ernest Sarracino) also makes an appearance, although the real Marti had been dead and buried for three years by 1898, when this yarn takes place. We never see Antonio Maceo Grajeles, the high-ranking liberation fighter supposedly waiting for the munitions in the Cuban village of Santiago, but again, the actual Maceo died in battle near the end of 1896.

The historical blunders in Santiago were easily spotted and pointedly criticized by Cuban observers, and according to the entertainment trade paper Variety, a union of Cuban educators sent correct information to Warner Bros. via the American embassy, hoping to forestall such errors in the future. One hopes the studio took note, but anyone who knows Hollywood knows this was a very long shot. In any case, Americans didn't watch Santiago to learn about Cuban history, they watched it to see Alan Ladd swashbuckle his way through a fictionalized moment in Cuban history.

They got their wish. Ladd fights with his fists, shoots with his gun, kisses Isabella with his lips, soothes little Juanito at a tragic moment, and does a bit of swimming as a bonus. His effortless charm is equally on display; he looks swell in evening wear and shows off elegant table manners in one memorable scene, greatly amusing a bad guy who earns a swift comeuppance in return. Santiago was directed by Gordon Douglas, a trusty professional whose Ladd vehicles include The McConnell Story (1955), a Korean War drama made a year earlier, and The Big Land (1957), a western made a year later. His rapport with the star pays solid dividends. So does the casting, which bears out the underappreciated fact that savvy studios complement star personas with compatible supporting players. Here the most effective ones are Nolan, whose light hair and easy smile comport well with Ladd's pleasing demeanor, and Wills, whose extroverted acting is an excellent foil for Ladd's more understated style. They're every bit as enjoyable to watch as the luminary at the top of the bill.

To be more accurate about Hollywood history than Santiago is about Cuban history, though, it must be noted that Ladd's best days would be over before long. He had given his legendary performance in George Stevens's classic western Shane (1953) just three years previously, but the year of Santiago was also the year of Stevens's marvelous Giant, for which Ladd had declined the opportunity to play oilman Jett Rink, which became the last hurrah of James Dean's meteoric career. Generally weaker roles and struggles with lifelong psychological ills took an increasing toll on his star power as his death at age 50 approached.

Santiago doesn't rank with major Ladd achievements like Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire (1942), John Farrow's Two Years Before the Mast (1946), George Marshall's The Blue Dahlia (also 1946), and of course Shane, but it's a sturdier entertainment than you'd guess from the verdict of New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who called it a "deranged adventure drama," making it sound more eccentric (and perhaps more interesting) than it really is. "We do not recommend this...picture for abstract philosophers," Crowther wrote in the friendlier conclusion of his review, "but for concrete social observers it has its moments of fun." With that judgment I cheerfully concur.

Director: Gordon Douglas
Producer: Martin Rackin
Screenplay: Martin Rackin and John Twist; from a novel by Martin Rackin
Cinematographer: John F. Seitz
Film Editor: Owen Marks
Art Director: Edward Carrere
Music: David Buttolph
With: Alan Ladd (Caleb "Cash" Adams), Rosana Podesta (Doa Isabella), Lloyd Nolan (Clay Pike), Chill Wills (Captain Sidewheel Jones), Paul Fix (Trasker), L.Q. Jones (Digger), Frank DeKova (Jingo), George J. Lewis (Pablo), Royal Dano (Lobo), Don Blackman (Sam), Francisco Ruiz (Juanito), Clegg Hoyt (Dutch), Ernest Sarracino (Jos Marti)

by David Sterritt

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