A Flaming Drama of Dangerous Love!
1953’s Ride, Vaquero! is a rather overlooked and underrated western . On paper, it holds quite a bit of potential with a stellar cast. Ava Gardner and Robert Taylor both star above the title, mind you. They are supported by Howard Keel and Anthony Quinn.
Once you’ve taken a closer look at Ride, Vaquero! you hopefully will agree that it isn’t your typical western film, and perhaps it deserves its overall perception as an also ran when you limit it to the western genre. For it is not your typical western. There are not John Fordesque vistas or gunfights In the street. In fact, most of the movie is shot in a fairly up close fashion and action is somewhat limited.
Directed by John Farrow, Ride, Vaquero! is really the story of two men, and one woman. Robert Taylor and Anthony Quinn play bandits Rio and Esqueda, respectively. Rio and Esqueda aren’t brothers, though Esqueda’s mother raised them both, and the result has been a very close relationship. There is more than a single subtle hint that their relationship may be just a little bit more, given some of the on screen motions and related dialogue, but nothing as obvious as Brokeback Mountain. Plus, this is 1953.
That said, there is the perception that Rio’s overly obtrusive attire is a throwback to the ideal western hero, along the lines of the Singing Cowboy Gene Autry. The various studded leather clothing is a bit of a scene stealer at first, as Rio wears more studded leather than….well, more than most would deem fashionable.
The woman is of course Ava Gardner in the role of Delia Cameron. Her husband is King Cameron (Howard Keel) who has brought her out to Texas (the Brownsville area) to settle in the aftermath of the Civil War. On their arrival, the home he has built for them is smoldering in the aftermath of arson instigated by Esqueda’s gang of bandits.
King Cameron attempts to organize the citizenry to combat Esqueda and his general violent debauchery. Sadly, this comes to nought and Cameron is left fighting off Esqueda’s band yet again, when they attempt to burn down a second home he’s built. He manages to capture the somewhat foppish Rio. After a little cajoling, Rio is persuaded to help Cameron and ultimately turn his back on Esqueda. Unbeknownst to Cameron, it is the allure of Delia which causes Rio to turn traitor to Esqueda.
This odd King Cameron / Delia / Rio love triangle continues in fits and starts, with Rio helping King gather horses and other goods for his ranch. The tension between Rio and Delia reaches a breaking point and she forces a kiss upon him, but it is here that things stop cold. Rio knows that it would be wrong to act on his desires. Plus, he knows that Esqueda desires a reconciliation with him perhaps even more. And as Rio alludes to a few times during the picture, this reconciliation can only happen with one potential outcome. It wouldn’t be much of a spoiler to share.
As others have noted, one of the things which makes this such an engaging picture is that there is no hero, but rather just different varying shades of charcoal grayness. Perhaps it could be Rio, but he is simply to quiet, too sullen, and too introspective to be that. It certainly isn’t King Cameron, as even Keel’s rare straight performance takes a third fiddle behind most of the others. Delia can’t be the heroine given her wanton ways. Again, it is 1953. And as Orson Welles once said, you can always tell when a western was made by the hair and makeup of the female lead.
Could the hero perhaps be Anthony Quinn’s Esqueda? No, he too does not fit the mold. His criminal ways and possessive thrusts to regain Rio’s friendship with the takeover of Brownsville take him out of the running. That said, there is something about Esqueda which needs further discussion.
Even though he doesn’t get top billing, Anthony Quinn completely steals the picture from out beneath the rest of the cast. He sways in drunken stupors and pontificates as such on Cameron, Rio, and his self imposed fight against civilization. He knows that the time of the bandito king is passing but he ramps up the bravura and pomposity in a vain attempt to push it back for just another day. King Cameron isn’t just the latest in a new swath of new landowners. He is the future. The progress of civilization and the extermination of Esqueda and his ilk.
It all sounds really good, but still there are a few items of concern to the average viewer which simply don’t make sense. The seemingly pedestrian and quaint flip-flop of Rio’s allegiance to King Cameron seems too easy; but King’s ready trust in his newly converted lieutenant seems exponentially too rich to be true. Seemingly common sense would tell one to start things slow before entrusting all to your enemy of five minutes ago. Also Delia’s later request for Rio to take her to Esqueda to plead for his compassion seems rather pointless and serves little purpose but to give Ava Gardner and Anthony Quinn a scene together. Perhaps director John Farrow knew Quinn was stealing the picture even then and chose to play that angle up slightly.
Ride, Vaquero! isn’t a truly memorable film, but definitely worth your time if it hasn’t passed your way previously. Robert Taylor deemed it one of his lesser films (if not his self-deemed worst) but it has seen a bit if a revival of late and in any sense his self deprecating perception of the film is not merited. The best features of the film are a script which almost gets it done and the wonderful, if somewhat over the top, performance of Anthony Quinn.