Interestingly, Presley's last four narrative movies--Live a Little, Love a Little (1968), Charro! (1969), The Trouble with Girls (1969), and Change of Habit (1969)--broke from the formulaic Elvis musical in various ways. His management team--including his manager, the notorious Colonel Tom Parker, and his agents at William Morris--signed him to these films because they were in keeping with the styles and trends of the late 1960s, and because the Travelogues were no longer bringing in the same level of profit. Released on March 13, 1969, Charro! was actually Presley's third western in his 13-year, 31-film acting career. However, unlike the sentiment of Love Me Tender (1956), and the social commentary of Flaming Star (1960), Charro! was a revisionist western featuring the typically congenial Elvis Presley as a brooding gunfighter.
In Charro!, Elvis plays reformed outlaw Jess Wade who finds himself pitted against the members of his former gang. The gang is now led by Vince Hackett (Victor French), who terrorizes Rio Seco, a small Mexican border town. The gang has stolen the village's gold-plated cannon--the legendary Victory Gun--which had fired the last shot against Emperor Maximilian in his unsuccessful fight against Benito Juarez. The gun helped Mexico win its independence and is worth more than the gold that adorns it. Wade becomes entangled with the gang once again when he returns to the border town to meet up with former flame Tracey Winters, played by Ina Balin. Upon arrival, Wade realizes that Tracey's urgent message is a ruse, and he has been set up by his former cohorts. Hackett forces him to ride along with the gang to their hideout in the mountains. The vicious outlaw plans to hold the cannon for ransom and spread the word that Wade had masterminded the theft. After Jess escapes, he rides to Rio Seco to prepare the villagers for an onslaught of violence.
With its unglamorous look, gritty protagonist, and cynical dialogue, Charro! was obviously influenced by Italian westerns, which had become popular during the 1960s when Clint Eastwood starred as the Man with No Name in A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Elvis is costumed similarly to Eastwood, wearing dusty, worn clothing and sporting facial hair. He also chomps on a cigar, making Charro! the only film in which Elvis's character smokes. The music in the film was scored by Hugo Montenegro, who had a huge top forty hit in 1968 with Ennio Morricone's memorable theme song for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Throughout his Hollywood career, Elvis had repeatedly expressed a desire to be taken seriously as an actor, which he equated with landing a role that did not require him to sing. With Charro!, he finally got his wish. Though he sang the film's title tune over the opening credits, Charro! is the only film that does not feature him singing onscreen. Much publicity was generated about Elvis's first non-singing role, with posters for the film declaring "a different kind of role . . . a different kind of man."
Presley, who had long since grown bored with the Elvis musicals, at first expressed enthusiasm for the project, originally titled Come Sundown, Come Hell, because the script included the explicit sex and graphic violence associated with the Italian western. The harsh content signified to him that the film was targeted at a mainstream adult audience rather than the typical Elvis fan who tended to be young and female. Likewise, costar Ina Balin, a dramatic actress best known for her role in The Comancheros (1961), was not associated with youth musicals as were the majority of Elvis's costars during the 1960s.
Unfortunately, by the time shooting began, the adult elements of the film, including violent gunfights and seedy brothel scenes, had been toned down considerably and replaced by conventional barroom brawls and unhappy saloon girls. And, unlike the hardened anti-heroes played by Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in Italian westerns, Jess Wade turned out to be a heroic protagonist by the end of the movie. Disillusioned with the final script, a weary Elvis showed up to the set each day going through the motions, anxious to finish the film.
In addition to the softened script, director Charles Marquis Warren lacked the experience and personal vision to handle the unique style of the Italian western. Never a director by trade, Warren began his career as a scriptwriter during the Golden Age when his godfather, F. Scott Fitzgerald, helped him land a position in the script department at MGM. By the 1950s he had become a producer and writer of entertaining if conventional westerns, including The Redhead and the Cowboy (1951), Pony Express (1953), and Arrowhead (1953). In 1955, he was hired to adapt the radio program Gunsmoke into a television series for CBS. He became the show's producer and directed most of the episodes in the first season. A few years later, he became the producer of another landmark western series, Rawhide (1959-1966), also serving as director and writer for several episodes. Entrenched in the characteristics of the traditional western, Warren seemed unable to completely subvert the heroic protagonist or create a dark interpretation of the Wild West that was essential to Italian westerns.
Warren's extensive television experience influenced his direction of Charro!, undermining the film's pacing and tension. He relied heavily on fades to black, which were typical for episodic television at the time, particularly before commercial breaks. For example, Warren tended to fade between key scenes that were supposed to occur in rapid succession instead of cutting between them, which destroyed the sense that one event followed immediately after the other. Sometimes, the actors paused between each other's lines of dialogue, which tended to disconnect the conversation. Reviews of the film were devastating, though it managed to make a modest profit at the box office--as did all of Presley's films. Profit or not, Charro! marked the last feature film for Warren and one of the last for Elvis.
Ultimately, Charro! made little difference to the career of Elvis Presley. The period between 1967 and 1969 represented a transition for the singer. Except for the brief few weeks when he was excited about Charro!, he was so disillusioned with Hollywood that he did not care that he had finally broken free of the Travelogue formula with his last four films, and he did not take advantage of these roles to turn around his career. From all accounts, he wanted to finish his existing film contracts and get them out of the way. By the time his last movie, Change of Habit, was in production, Elvis was experiencing a comeback in the music scene, and his talents and creative focus were directed toward honing a new musical style. Elvis never regretted leaving his acting career.
Producer: Harry Caplan, George Templeton, Charles Marquis Warren
Director: Charles Marquis Warren
Screenplay: Charles Marquis Warren, Frederick Louis Fox (story)
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredericks
Film Editing: Al Clark
Art Direction: James Sullivan
Music: Hugo Montenegro
Cast: Elvis Presley (Jess Wade), Ina Balin (Tracey Winters), Victor French (Vince Hackett), Barbara Werle (Mrs. Sara Ramsey), Solomon Sturges (Billy Roy Hackett), Lynn Kellogg (Marcie).
by Susan Doll