Directed by Daniel Mann; Written by Wendell Mayes
When what you love most is taken away in brutal fashion by evil men, it’s easy to give into a vile and self-destructive desire like revenge, because, let’s be honest, you’re likely looking to self-destruct. When the people that held you to life and filled it with purpose are gone, what else is there to hold on to, but the hot and prickly, but ultimately hollow satisfaction of making someone hurt like you do?
It’s fertile dramatic ground that produced John Ford’s The Searchers 16 years prior to Daniel Mann’s The Revengers, a film whose unwieldy title betrays its similar lack of thought and guts in a tale of pursuit and comeuppance starring otherwise great William Holden as rancher John Benedict, whose family is murdered while he’s away from the homestead for a few fateful moments.
Blessed with a picture-perfect frontier life, Holden’s Benedict is a decorated Civil War hero, and an introductory scene sees him balk at the idea of his son attending West Point and likely head down a warpath that he himself grew weary of treading. He relents however, and with a handshake and a pat on the shoulder, the closest thing men came to embracing in those days, he lets him go only to lose him for good the next day.
It’s these stakes that are drawn early on in Mayes’ script, having this pacifist, but loving father lose everything, and watch him put to use the skills he’s sworn off, setting off after the murderous group and becoming steadily more like them as bloodlust mingles with dissolution at what’s become of his life.
The title isn’t The Revenger, however, and the title gets its plurality from the six convicts Benedict liberates from a Mexican labour camp, offering them their freedom in exchange for their services in hunting down those who are to blame.
It’s not the Magnificent Seven, but rather the emancipated six, and with the rag-tag team dynamic it introduces, The Revengers takes on a comedic sense of adventure, veering away from exploring the poisonous nature of violence that the beginning might suggest. Even during the character-defining tragedy, as Benedict races to his ranch gripped in fear of the worst, the music is upbeat, excited almost, in what feels like an act of becoming.
It sets the tone for a brawl-and-bullets bonanza that only sometimes pauses to consider its devastating origins and what the real human toll is on crusades such as these, optioning instead for solid action set pieces who are perhaps only marred by the all-too-easy casting of indigenous people as cannon fodder for Benedict and crew, and willing serfs of Tarp, the dead-eyed villain Benedict chases, a foe made real with cowardly creepiness by Warren Vanders.
As for the otherwise great action sequences, it must be said that while Holden has enough gravitas to command a room when guns are holstered, he’s no leader of men on the battlefield, in fact he’s barely a middle manager. He’s nervous in shootouts, runs like he has lumber for legs, and the gun in his hand is as foreign to him as Mexican city names are to his tongue.
In short, he’s no John Wayne, and The Revengers is a pale imitation of The Searchers, as far as thematic treatment is concerned, as the latter explores a man’s deteriorating soul as he roams the frontier, while Mann’s film settles for gunplay, roughhousing and group therapy among the cutthroats.
It certainly does have its moments both dramatic and comedic, in particular a confrontation between Benedict and a former ally when he’s at his most boozy, murderous and dishonorable, but Mann skips on from these encounters all too readily and merely pays lip service to the movie’s initial sacrifice. I don’t know about you, but I think Benedict’s family, however spotless, undefined and generic they may have been, deserve better, and not have their grizzly deaths simply be the reason for men to go shoot, spit in the dirt and slay foes with other men, like some Sam Peckinpah-inspired bachelor party.