Even the Duke thought this one was a bit rough. Two years after it was released he admitted its theme was a nice one, but the production a tad…off. For old Jack here, it’s a companion piece to Big Jake (1971) and a film looking for a way for John Wayne to be magnificent yet tubby in the saddle. It avoids the full-on glories of Rooster Cogburn (True Grit was four years done, Rooster Cogburn (and The Lady) another two years away), makes him a family man with lessons to teach his boys whilst still being a man of the west.
Also, there is the single shittest puppet owl you will ever see. Really. It’s terrifically funny and even worse than the bat in Lugosi’s 1931 Dracula. In fact, hunt down the clip now. It’s for the best that you get it out of your system. Our heroes are sat in the dark, ambushing or waiting for ambush, when hoot-hoot and across the screen glides a stuffed… thing, wings out-stretched, credibility in a small pile of pooh it’s left on a tree. Old Jack and Mad Maud were in tears.
To the story: Duke is Cahill, and he starts the film sidling up to a group of bad-guys. Against all odds and the laws of physics, he defeats them, dodges their bullets, and begins the amble home through Mexican desert with them lashed to their horses. Meanwhile, back home, the sons he has been ignoring have been drawn to the mesmerizing qualities of a mid-nuts George Kennedy performance. The kids – part-bullied so we like them – and Kennedy’s gang of caricatures rob a bank, kill the sheriff, then make like they’re innocent in some gaol-cell business (the alibi is they never left…). In a smart move, the younger Cahill boy stashes the cash…
Back comes the Duke. He’s not wildly impressed to find his boys in a cell (for reasons I neither believed nor remember; Kennedy’s snarling is really quite distracting). And then…okay. It gets weird. The Duke, the boys and his native American buddy Lightfoot go tracking the bad guys – which is not unlike watching racism being redeemed through racism. Anyway, it’s a fun hunt.
One last blabbing of the plot before I leave you to the clumsy ending and the puppet owl. The wrong men get arrested…and soon will be hanged…
Yup – moral dilemma for the boys, much self-reflection from the Duke on not being there for them when they needed a firm hand to stop becoming unutterably stupid dickheads, and a march towards decency and rightness. The emotional core of the film is nearly about age and wisdom, recognising its own failings, fixing them through bloodshed and whole seconds of regret.
The owl is still the best bit.
As the Duke called it, Cahill U.S. Marshal is a clumsy mess. The writing is illogical and somewhat point-to-point-and-damn-the-logic. The performances of the boys are the usual for a teen and a 12-year-old so be prepared (Gary Grimes and Clay O’Brien are perfectly competent and yet thoroughly slappable). George Kennedy just does evil the George Kennedy way: suppressed and on-the-boil because his evil is pure. Neville Brand gives Lightfoot a smart-arsiness that dooms him whilst taking away some of Cahill’s stiffness. And the owl…well, the owl presumably had a happy life, ended it all on seeing the script, had a spike rammed up its rear end and flew on gossamer strings for a place in movie history. I’ve checked the 1974 Oscars and it ain’t there. A crime.
The Duke is grumpily glorious, as all old men should be who have a kid in their sixties. And the country they filmed in is beautiful. If you fancy a thought-free comfort afternoon with the Duke and his family issues, give Cahill a go. At the very least there’s music to love.
It’s on Amazon Prime.