A Swinging Fun-Romp that Fractures the Frontier!
One of the fun things about watching older films is seeing how society has changed and each generation puts their own particular stamp on their respective cultural output. In film this is most noticeable in a few areas, though never has every movie from a period been able to be pigeonholed into a few neat and tidy boxes.
Perhaps this is most evident in looking at pre-code films, noir, or even the lavish epics of the 1950s as reflective of their time and the responses society had to outside pressures of those times. Likewise later films of the 60s echoed a more freewheeling and laid back style. Few films- if any- have ever been considered perfect. In this light, 1969’s Texas Across the River has never been considered perfect, and rightfully so.
First, let’s be clear. We are Dean Martin fans, for good or bad. He is the star of this one and he is in all of his glory here. No, not the glory of The Young Lions or even Rio Bravo, but rather the glory that is the Matt Helm series. Think then of Matt Helm in a western. There you have it.
Texas Across the River isn’t a movie that has aged well, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t enjoyable- I myself dozed off during my first viewing. There is nothing deep about the film and the variety of off color and politically incorrect jokes work only because they are almost universal in targeting at various times almost everyone. The film, labeled as a spoof of western films, is really just an excuse for Dino and a few of his pals to have a laugh.
The plot is fluid and a mere framework on which to hang jokes. After a confrontation just prior to marrying Phoebe (Rosemary Forsyth), Spanish nobleman Don Andrea (Alain Delon) is forced to escape. He meets Sam Hollis (Dean Martin) and his Indian friend Kronk (Joey Bishop) and helps them transport guns to Moccasin Flats in the south of Texas and on the other side of Comanche territory.
Over the course of their journey, they pick up a young Indian girl named Lonetta (Tina Marquand), fight bulls and avoid chasing Comanches and the cavalry, led by Captain Stimpson (Peter Graves). Ultimately Sam ends up with Phoebe, Don Alain ends up with Lonetta and all ends well.
Everything in Texas Across the River is over the line. Rosemary Forsyth’s accent goes in and out but at its best warbles intentionally in the most stereotypical Southern dialect imaginable. Martin, though clearly too old to be a serious love interest to her, carries along with his usual sly wit, knowing that the audience is in on the joke.
Joey Bishop plays the foil toe Martin during most of the picture, babbling incoherently in his own mishmash language. Every so often he will lapse into broken English for a punch line. Though he uses the same gag consistently throughout the film, it strangely never grows tiresome. With lines like, “How come your Dad isn’t a Comanche?” how could it fail. The answer of course according to Kronk, is, “Mom run too fast.” High art it definitely isn’t.
While Sam steals the spotlight and spends most of the film trying to get cozy with Phoebe in increasingly flagrant ways, Andrea falls for Lonetta. By the end of the picture Andrea decides Sam can go with Phoebe and he and Lonetta leave them to it.
Though only in a few scenes, Peter Graves’ performance shows the comic chops he would later show off more fully later in his career. As the cavalry commander, his frequent commands of “A-roar haarrh!” become so unintelligible to his troops that at one point two troopers turn to each other saying, “What did he just say?”
Alain Delon, though French, is strangely cast as a Spaniard. He seems a bit out of place here, but makes good use of a running gag where he tries to kiss everyone as a means of thanks. Finally, Martin shuts him down, “I’m not sure where you hail from, but if you want to live here you may want to learn to shake hands.”
Even the marauding Comanche band gets into the fun, with a scout being knocked from his horse by a tree branch. There is also a running gag of the Chief’s dim-witted son, who invariably chokes while puffing a pipe and inadvertently set the Chief’s headdress afire with a flaming arrow. Like most of the film, here a single joke is run a few times over with slight variations. It is unoriginal but still somewhat effective.
But the heart of the movie is Dean Martin and it is clearly his vehicle. He somehow steals away Phoebe, a woman young enough to be his daughter. In spite of the at times unoriginal script, he demonstrates his unique flair for comedic timing. It’s hard not to enjoy even the worst of his films a little bit.
In spite of the obvious humor in the film, there are those who still take the film seriously and apply today’s political correctness to it. If the half-baked atmosphere of the film doesn’t clue you in not to read too much into it, the music surely should.
The opening theme song, played over animated stills, has perhaps some of the most inane lyrics ever committed to music. Further use of swanky 60s style guitar and surf rhythms tells anyone with have a mind that a John Ford film this isn’t.
It is hard to be overly critical of Texas Across the River as it is clear it was never intended to be a classic. Yes, by today’s standards much of the pandering and humor falls flat and is dated and inappropriate. But as a snapshot of an era it still holds some merit. It never would be made today when everything require heavy scrutiny and a guaranteed return.